Fim Festivals

Viola Davis Honored at Film at Lincoln Center’s Chaplin Awards

Viola Davis
The newly minted EGOT, Viola Davis, is having a moment. More than one speaker at this week’s Film at Lincoln Center’s gala noted what distinguishes Davis in the awards world. Now she can add the Chaplin Award, presented to a film artist for film career achievement. By all measure, Viola Davis has had an astonishing career. Clip after clip, in big and small movies, she melts into character, never looking the same, whether she’s the mother Mrs. Miller looking respectable in hat and gloves in Doubt, the housewife Rose giving Denzel Washington the what for, or festooned in war gear as in The Woman King, in housemaid apron as in The Help, or the grieving wife in Widows, or gaudily made-up and hefty as Ma Rainey. When words come, she delivers every speech as if it were Shakespearean, with Oscar worthy gravitas.

I said as much, reviewing her most recent movie, AIR. Playing Michael Jordan’s mother, a woman so fierce in her demands for her son, she elevates a business negotiation with Nike, making it a speech about knowing one’s worth. Scripted or not in Ben Affleck’s movie, this recognition of self-worth was precisely how the Chaplin Award tributes—from Jayme Lawson, Meryl Streep, Gina Prince-Bythewood, George C. Wolfe, and Jessica Chastain—might be summed up.

My favorite speech of the night came from Meryl Streep, not only because she’s naturally funny, but because she actually went through a scene from Doubt telling precisely how Davis works—not told in Davis’ memoir, Finding Me. Playwright/ director John Patrick Shanley was putting them through their paces on the scene when Streep as a nun confronts Davis as Mrs. Miller about the priest who is taking liberties with her son. As scenes go, this one is through the roof emotional as Davis tries to explain how her abused son needs male guidance, no matter what. Take after take, Davis was giving her all and Shanley wanted to keep going. Seeing Davis go to a heart wrenching place each time, Streep asked Shanley, what are you doing? He did not like the way a leaf in the background was blowing. Davis nailed it every time she was asked.

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