Viola Davis settles into leading-lady status

Posted by · 3:03 pm · March 13th, 2012

It’d be difficult to list every aspect of the recent McG atrocity “This Means War” that killed off a tiny inner part of me: between its creepily candid misogyny, casual xenophobia, apparent miscasting by Magic 8-Ball and every utterance by Chelsea Handler, we’re still only in the introductory stage. But few things about this veritable feast of failure dismayed me quite as much as the appearance (it’d be a stretch to call it a performance) of Angela Bassett as a CIA commander.

Stomping sporadically into the frame to bark orders at Tom Hardy and Chris Pine with her typically impeccable e-nun-ci-a-tion with not so much as an expression or character trait going spare, it’s the kind of thanklessly robotic grunt work any uninformed viewer would be astonished to discover is being delivered by an esteemed, Academy Award-nominated actor — and comes less than a year after she was last spotted in an identically sexless non-role as Stentorian Boss Type in “Green Lantern.” It’s dispiriting to see any decent actor in parts this perfunctory and ill-conceived; for one of the most gifted and beautiful actresses of her generation, it’s positively mortifying.

As I sank further back in my seat and pondered just how we travelled from her electric work in “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” to this, an unwelcome question crossed my mind: what if this is what awaits Viola Davis?

Admittedly, it was the day after the Academy Awards and I was still feeling unduly wounded about Davis’s Best Actress loss. And I’m fully aware of how questionable it is on multiple levels to align the career trajectories of two actresses who share little more than a skin color and an impressively granitic screen presence.

But Hollywood is in the habit of making such baseless pigeon-holing too — and if they never quite figured out how to cast an actress an intellectually and sensually alive as Bassett as a human being, outside the worthy but artistically wobbly urban drama bracket, it’s neither patronizing nor paranoid to worry about how it might take care of Davis in the wake of her mid-career breakthrough. (And lest we suggest this is purely a racial trouble, look what the woman who beat Bassett to the Oscar in 1994 — who happens to be the very same age — has been up to recently. Hollywood, it scarcely needs reiterating, is no country for older women.) 

Happily, Davis is smart and experienced enough to know that, even with all the industry goodwill she has accrued from two Oscar nominations (and presumed runner-up placings) in four years, she had best take care of herself. “The Help” may have been a $170 million smash, but its success was largely founded on it being an anomaly: studios aren’t exactly lining up dozens of racially diverse female ensemble pieces in the hope of lightning striking twice.

So last week’s news that Davis is using her immediate post-Oscar season clout to develop a biopic of pioneering congresswoman Barbara Jordan is pretty thrilling, whether or not the film turns out similarly commendable. Rather than waiting for potentially beefy roles to come to her, Davis is producing the film through her and her husband’s own production company, with Emmy-winning TV director Paris Barclay (also African-American, as it happens) attached to direct. Davis surely knows that the industry’s period of interest in her comes with a timer; she’s striking, with the most ambitious and uncommercial of dream projects, while the iron is hot.

She could scarcely have bitten off more for her first solo lead role: Barbara Jordan, a lawyer turned civil rights leader who became the first African American elected to the Texas Senate and the second black female elected to the US House of Representatives, was also a closeted lesbian whose battle with multiple sclerosis began in the prime of her career.

The cynical might say that, after narrowly losing to Meryl Streep in an Academy-pandering political biopic, Davis is rebounding with as box-ticking a bait vehicle as she could possibly have found. They may or may not be proven right; more important than idle Oscar projections is that a 46-year-old African-American actress is at the point in her career where she can build a project like this pretty much around her name alone, and not as a cable-TV venture either. One can only hope the film’s enough of a success to keep that door ajar.

Now would be a good time, too, for Scott Rudin to make good on his claim to the 2010 Broadway revival of August Wilson’s “Fences,” which won both Davis and Denzel Washington Tony Awards: the project’s never going to seem more cinematically viable. In the meantime, we have the noble if somewhat drippy-sounding “Won’t Back Down,” in which Davis stars opposite Maggie Gyllenhaal as a union-fighting teacher, to look forward to; whether it’s Lifetime fodder or a pop hit in the making, it’ll keep her profile steady. Against all Hollywood precedent, blooming in her late forties is perhaps the best pattern Davis’s career could have taken: an Oscar or two notwithstanding, she’s got nothing to lose.   

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter. 

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