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Category: Viola Davis

Meryl Streep upset Viola Davis: Exactly how did that happen?

February 27, 2012 |  6:48 am

Meryl Streep upset Viola Davis at Oscars 2012

This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

Theories were flying at the Oscar after-parties Sunday night about how Meryl Streep pulled off perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2012 Oscars. After all, with her turn as Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady," Streep had defeated Viola Davis as Aibilieen Clark even though the "Help" star last month won the Screen Actors Guild award. (In the first 11 years of this century, the SAG winner had foretold the Oscars a whopping nine times.)

Streep also overcame Davis' popularity, her candidacy forged by her running mate Octavia Spencer and a general feeling that Davis was an essential vehicle for honoring the race-themed drama, what with the movie overlooked in categories such as writing and directing.

So what happened? Among the explanations for the Streep win were Harvey Weinstein's dominance -- the awards kingpin saw his movies take home the top four awards at the Oscars -- and general goodwill for Streep.

PHOTOS: Red carpet arrivals | Quotes | Winners | Best & Worst

But there's another, possibly cleaner, explanation: Streep was playing a real person.

For those who keep an eye on the Oscars, there's sometimes a sense that anyone acting at a high level will have an advantage if they play an actual person, especially one the audience already knows.

The recent numbers, as it turns out, bear out that theory. In the last five actor races in which men playing real people competed against men playing fictitious ones, the actor playing the known personality won four times. (You can debate whether Billy Beane is sufficiently well known to qualify; we'd say that most voters couldn't pick him out of a lineup).

Strikingly, the same ratio holds on the female side -- the actress playing the real-life person has now won four of the last five times they've competed against one another.

This in itself calls for an explanation. The best theory may be that with a real-life person we (or at least a certain kind of voter) have a frame of reference by which to judge the actor's  performance. These actors must be good at their jobs because, well, I knew a little bit about Margaret Thatcher or Edith Piaf, and what they're doing reminds me of them. Of course, a bad performer playing a real person will find that this could highlight their weaknesses, but that won't apply to Oscar-caliber acting.

You might find this a little unfair; actors playing real people, after all, have a template to work off that their fiction-minded siblings don't. But maybe one should cut Streep some slack anyway. The lone exception among the past five cases of unknown-versus-known personalities? Streep was on the losing side, her rendition of Julia Child in "Julie and Julia" losing out to Sandra Bullock in "The Blind Side."

[For the record, 8:49 a.m.: An earlier version of this post misspelled the first name of Viola Davis' character in "The Help" as Abilieen.]

Oscars 2012: Full coverage

TIMELINE: Eight decades of Oscars history

'The Artist' is big winner at Academy Awards

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Meryl Streep in "The Iron Lady." Credit: The Weinstein Company

Oscar predictions: We call the four acting races

February 25, 2012 |  6:00 am

Jean Dujardin in The Artist

The Envelope's Gold Standard columnist Glenn Whipp is sweeping through all 24 Oscar categories this week, predicting the winners. Check previous posts for tips on marking your Oscar pool ballots for the music categories, short films, sound races, animation, documentary and foreign filmsvisual crafts and the screenplay and editing races.

Here, a look at the four acting categories.


The nominees:

Demian Bichir, “A Better Life”
George Clooney, “The Descendants”
Jean Dujardin, “The Artist”
Gary Oldman, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”
Brad Pitt, “Moneyball”

And the winner is … Dujardin. It’s not just because he won the SAG Award (and cried while accepting it!), though his victory there indicates the strength of his position. The actors branch makes up more than a fifth of the academy’s membership. The last seven SAG lead actor winners have gone on to win the Oscar. And beyond that, “The Artist” has found favor with other guilds, indicating a broad support for the film itself that gives Dujardin a leg up here.

As for Clooney, he delivered a moving, nuanced turn in “The Descendants” that may well rank as the best work of his career. The problem is, Brad Pitt did the same in “Moneyball.” Academy voters inclined to reward subtlety could go for Pitt, Clooney or even first-time nominee Gary Oldman. But Dujardin carries “The Artist” in a way that is unlike any of the other actors here. That distinctiveness, combined with the Academy’s nutty love for the movie, gives him the win.

Unless … Voters decide they’d rather hear Clooney’s self-deprecating humor than Dujardin’s thick accent from the podium, denying France its first-ever winner in this category.


The nominees:

Glenn Close, “Albert Nobbs”
Viola Davis, “The Help”
Rooney Mara, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”
Meryl Streep, “The Iron Lady”
Michelle Williams, “My Week With Marilyn”

And the winner is … Davis. God knows, Harvey Weinstein and his minions went into  full-court press mode to get Streep her third Oscar, not to mention her first victory since “Sophie’s Choice.” Streep’s image has been so inescapable that it wouldn’t have been  surprising to walk into an Outback Steakhouse and find a menu touting Cast "Iron (Lady)" Skillet specials.

Will it work? Academy members still go the career-achievement route when voting (see Bullock, Sandra), just not as often as they used to. (To which we say: Hoo-ah!) Davis won SAG, a Streep-friendly group that has gone with her (“Doubt”) when the academy didn’t. Davis also stands as the only nominee whose film received a best picture nomination. And every time she speaks from the podium, she gives us all the more reason to celebrate both her and her work in the movie.

Mara’s courage and ferocity in “Dragon Tattoo” struck a chord with many voters. Williams arguably does more bringing Marilyn Monroe to life than Streep did with Thatcher. But as we’ve been saying all along: It’s Davis’ year.

Unless … Outback’s Thatcher Tri-Tip tastes better than it looks on the menu.


The nominees:

Kenneth Branagh, “My Week With Marilyn”
Jonah Hill, “Moneyball”
Nick Nolte, “Warrior”
Christopher Plummer, “Beginners”
Max von Sydow, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”

And the winner is … Plummer. Much has been made of the fact that both Plummer and von Sydow were born in 1929, as if that’s somehow going to split the octogenarian vote. Look at the AARP-sanctioned slate here. Hill’s the only nominee under 50, and he’s not going to win for a role that had him (quite skillfully, mind you) reacting and observing (with impeccable timing) more than stirring the waters. (Huh … maybe he should siphon more votes.)

Plummer has never won, receiving his only other Oscar nomination two years ago for “The Last Station.” But those voting for him aren’t saluting his body of work. They’re lauding his beautiful turn in “Beginners,” an elegiac performance that particularly hits home with older academy members. After winning nearly every other trophy, Plummer will not be denied here.

Unless … That surprise best picture nomination for “Extremely Loud” portends another shocker with a win for Von Sydow.


The nominees:

Berenice Bejo, “The Artist”
Jessica Chastain, “The Help”
Melissa McCarthy, “Bridesmaids”
Janet McTeer, “Albert Nobbs”
Octavia Spencer, “The Help”

And the winner is … Spencer. Here again, there’s the presence of another common competitor that, in theory, could dilute the vote. But because Spencer and her “Help” costar Chastain deliver very different turns playing dissimilar characters, the much-cited Costar Competition Conundrum shouldn’t put much of a ding in the likelihood that Spencer wins.

Unless … It’s a really big night for “The Artist,” in which case, Bejo will have the last wink.


Octavia Spencer: 'I'm done with bad parts'

Viola Davis' 'miraculous and amazing' career path

Christopher Plummer on his 'explosion' of great roles

Oscars 2012: Cheat Sheet | Key Scenes | Pundit's picks | Ballot

-- Glenn Whipp

Photo: Jean Dujardin in "The Artist." Credit: The Weinstein Co.

Oscars 2012: Despite Halle and Denzel, gold mostly eludes nonwhites

February 24, 2012 |  5:01 pm

Hattie McDaniel

A decade ago, Halle Berry and Denzel Washington made history when they became the first African American performers to win the top acting Oscars in the same year, for "Monster's Ball" (Berry) and "Training Day" (Washington). A third black actor, Will Smith, also was nominated that year, and Sidney Poitier took home a lifetime achievement award. 

"This moment is so much bigger than me," Berry said at the time. "This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll.... This is for every faceless woman who now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened."

But in the decade since, Berry's prediction has been slow to materialize, and a new UCLA study explores some of the underlying reasons why.

Oscars 2012: Cheat Sheet | Key Scenes | Pundit's picks | Ballot

Titled "Not Quite a Breakthrough: The Oscars and Actors of Color, 2002-2012," the study was sponsored by the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy, UC Berkeley School of Law and the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.Oscar voters study

Drawing a parallel between 2002 and 2012, the report notes in its opening paragraph that this year's Oscar nominees include two black women, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, as well as the Mexican actor Demián Bichir. The authors go on to observe that from 2002 through 2012, "almost 20 percent of nominees were people of color," a "notable increase" over the 9% of Oscar nominees in the top categories who were people of color between 1990 and 2000.

That's the good news. However, the study further observes that:

• All lead actress winners since 2002 have been white.
• No winner in any acting category during the last 10 years has been Latino, Asian
American or Native American.
• Oscar winners and nominees of color make fewer movies per year after their
nominations than their white peers do.
• Oscar winners and nominees of color are more likely than their white peers to
work in television, which is considered lower-status work.
• Oscar winners and nominees of color are less likely than their white peers to
receive subsequent nominations.

It's questionable whether television still is regarded as "lower-status work" than film, given the critical praise that's been heaped on ambitious, high-quality TV series such as "The Wire," "Treme" and "The Sopranos."

More complex is the question of why Oscar distribution tends to favor white over nonwhite actors. As a recent L.A. Times story documented, the membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is indeed overwhelmingly white (94%) and male (77%). But the poor showing of nonwhite actors during Oscar season also simply reflects the under-representation of nonwhite actors in Hollywood films as a whole.

As L.A.Times reporter Lorenza Munoz wrote in a prescient March 2002 story about Washington and Berry's Oscar triumph, when individual nonwhite actors win Oscars they're unlikely to open doors for other nonwhites. That's because today's bottom-line-driven Hollywood studio industry is increasingly reliant on the international market, "where having minorities and women in starring roles is considered a detriment, particularly in action blockbusters," Munoz wrote.

Munoz's story went on to quote James Ulmer, author of "James Ulmer's Hollywood Hot List," which tracks actors' global marketability. "None of this is going to change the fact that you cannot package or sell [a movie] to the world market today with a black woman," Ulmer said of Berry and Washington's achievement. "I don't see [the Oscar win] as changing an industry where white male actors drive the train of the international marketplace." Those comments seem just as applicable, or more, today.

But, as the UCLA study's authors also observe, the issue isn't just the infrequency of nonwhite actors earning Oscar nominations and wins. It's also the limited types of roles for which nonwhite actors do  get nominated for Oscars. For example, they write, the Oscars still tend to reward black females not for playing women like Berry's tough, complex, erotically charged character in "Monster's Ball," but for roles that conform to old Hollywood racial stereotypes of black women "who are sassy, full-figured, maternal, or non-sexual."

"In short," the report asserts, "Hollywood has required black female Oscar nominees and winners to resemble Hattie McDaniel more than Halle Berry."


After the Big Night, is change realistic?

Oscar voters overwhelmingly white, male

Oscar voters aren't always who you might think

-- Reed Johnson

Photo: Hattie McDaniel became the first African American female to win the supporting actress Oscar, playing Scarlett O'Hara's Mammy in "Gone With the Wind." Credit: Marc Wanamaker / Bison Archives

'The Help,' Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer take NAACP Image honors

February 17, 2012 |  7:29 pm

The Help
The box-office hit "The Help" took top honors Friday at the 43rd NAACP Image Awards, winning best film, lead actress and supporting actress.

Viola Davis won lead actress and Octavia Spencer earned the supporting actress prize for the film, a look at domestic help and their employers in the South on the cusp of the civil rights movement. "The Help" is also nominated for the best film Oscar at next week's Academy Awards ceremony, and Davis and Spencer are also nominated.

The Image Awards were presented at the Shrine Auditorium and telecast on NBC. Actress Sanaa Lathan and actor Anthony Mackie hosted the event, which featured a tribute to the late Whitney Houston performed by gospel singer Yolanda Adams.

The romantic comedy-drama "Jumping the Broom" also scored well in the feature film categories with Laz Alonso earning the lead actor award, Mike Epps supporting actor and Salim Akil best director.

Other film awards handed out Friday evening included "Pariah" for outstanding independent motion picture, Angelina Jolie's "In the Land of Blood and Honey" won foreign film honors and Ann Peacock won for her screenplay of "The First Grader."

George Lucas received the NAACP Vanguard Award.

On the television front, "Tyler Perry's House of Payne" won best comedy series and Keshia Knight Pulliam won supporting actress for the sitcom. Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Tracee Ellis Ross won lead actor and actress in a comedy series for "Reed Between the Lines" and Nick Cannon earned supporting actor for "Up All NIght."

"Law & Order: Special Victim's Unit" took best drama series honors, while LL Cool J won best actor in a drama series for "NCIS: Los Angeles" and Regina King took home best actress for "Southland." James Pickens Jr. earned supporting actor for "Grey's Anatomy" and Archie Panjabi won supporting actress for "The Good Wife."

For a complete list of winners, which also include music and literature categories, go to http://www.naacpimageawards.net


Oscar-worthy scenes

Movie review: 'The Help'

SAG Awards: 'Help' wins big

--Susan King

Photo: Cicely Tyson, left, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, producers Michael Barnathan, Brunson Green, Chris Columbus and Tate Taylor accept the award for best film for "The Help" at the NAACP Image Awards. Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for NAACP Image Awards.

SAG Awards: Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer on acting, injustice and awards-season frenzy

January 29, 2012 |  9:09 pm

Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis

Why, yes, Viola Davis does find it strange and exciting that she beat out veteran actress Meryl Streep (the woman who gets nominated for just about everything) to take the SAG award for female actor in a leading role for her turn in "The Help." “I feel pretty overwhelmed with my name being called,” Davis said backstage Sunday night when the cast answered questions about the film's best ensemble win.

Earlier, of course, Davis had taken the stage to accept her award for her portrayal of Southern domestic Aibileen Clark in “The Help," the big-screen adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's bestselling novel. "I just don’t see the ‘best’ thing going on," Davis said. "It’s hard. Every time I start a new job, I feel like I start with a clean slate. … I feel like everyone is going to find out what a hack I am. And it’s strange to triumph over Meryl Streep."

But Cicely Tyson, Davis’ “Help” co-star, wasn’t the least surprised by her win or that of Octavia Spencer, who took the statuette in the supporting female actor category.

SAG Awards: Photos | 360° tour | Photo booth | Winners | Stage set-up time lapse | Video

“I’m not surprised that Viola and Octavia were awarded for the unbelievable work that was done in the film,” Tyson said. “I had a dream — and I told Viola about it — that she and Octavia did win. So it wasn’t a surprise to me. What surprised me is that the two of them were black. That’s unusual … what I saw tonight was extreme promise and hope.”

But for Davis, the role was accompanied not only by acclaim but also some criticism. “During the course of promoting the movie, I found myself having to defend my choice in playing a maid,” she said. “I’ve had to find my voice. I had to find my voice as a woman of color, as an artist. And I never thought I would be put in a position like that. I’m usually in the background of movies. All of a sudden, I was being put to the test, being pushed against the wall. It kind of made me feel what Aibileen felt.”

For her part, Spencer seemed to take pride in the characters and spirit of “The Help.” “I’m thrilled that [the film is] shining a light on women who haven’t been given a voice in our history,” Spencer said.

She also said the experience of playing Southern maid Minny Jackson was a profound one that made her realize “To be silent is to be passive.” While responding to questions backstage, Spencer both voiced her support for gay rights, comparing the issue to past civil rights struggles by women and African Americans, and took on societal standards of beauty.

“It’s our society that has told [women] and continues to tell them when you reach a certain age you’re no longer valuable, that when you reach a certain weight, you’re no longer valuable,” Spencer said. “We have to start standing up for ourselves and saying, 'This is who I am.' ”

The outspoken actress has been on a roll this season, having won awards for her performance at the Golden Globes, the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards and now the SAG Awards. Spencer was honored to be recognized by her fellow actors. “It’s beyond profound,” she said backstage, “because its your peers saying you are the best that you can be tonight.”

Asked by a reporter if she was excited by the chance to continue her success and win an Academy Award in a few weeks, Spencer demurred and praised her competition.

“I would be lying if I didn’t say to you I would love to win an Oscar,” Spencer said. “But we have a group of brilliantly talented actresses, and it’s not a foregone conclusion that because I’ve won these [awards] then I’ll win [the Oscar]. I would never be that presumptuous. I mean, Melissa McCarthy, Jessica Chastain, Janet McTeer are in that category. Pretty brilliant.”


PHOTOS: And the Actor goes to...

'The Help' actresses talk roles, race and Hollywood

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— Yvonne Villarreal and Oliver Gettell

Photo: Octavia Spencer, left, and Viola Davis backstage at the Screen Actors Guild. Credit: Frederic J. Brown / AFP / Getty Images.

Oscars 2012: Viola Davis' 'miraculous and amazing' career path

January 24, 2012 |  9:19 am

Oscars 2012: Viola Davis' 'miraculous and amazing' career path

For lead actress Oscar nominee Viola Davis, being awake for the early morning announcement was just a matter of routine. "Sleep is a novelty lately. I have an 18-month-old at home," says the weary but happy actress, who played a maid finding her voice amid the racial oppression of the 1960s South.

Was hearing your name being called surreal?

"It always is. When I see my face anywhere, when I see my name being mentioned, it’s always surreal. It’s unimaginable. When I see my path, in the constant retelling of my story, I realize how absolutely miraculous and amazing it is that I got to this point. I come from a town that’s a square mile with 18,000 people in it. I performed in basements, on basketball courts, for an audience of one, and I was just so happy and content doing that, never knowing that this was where the path was leading me."

What do the other nominations for "The Help" mean for you?

"I’m so proud of everybody. It truly was hard work, dedication, lack of ego. Knowing that the expectations walking in were so high. It’s such a beloved book and really kind of dense in terms of how do you pull it off. How do you strike that balance between pathos and humor, about a time in American history that was so violent? How do you pull it off? To me, this proves it was successful and that’s always good to know as an actor."

What are you going to do to celebrate?

"No. 1 on the list would be sleep. And maybe if I could get a really fabulous chocolate dessert and a Jacuzzi, that would be good."


And the nominees are ...

PHOTOS: 84th Academy Awards nominees

Pals Clooney, Pitt are rivals; ‘Artist,’ ‘Hugo’ dominate

-- Nicole Sperling

Photo: Viola Davis of "The Help." Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times 

African American critics name 'The Tree of Life' best film of 2011

December 12, 2011 | 11:10 am

Tree of Life was named the best film of the year by the African-American critics

"The Tree of Life," Terrence Malick's 1950s-set drama that ruminates on questions of family, faith and the universe, was named best picture of the year Monday by the African-American Film Critics Assn. The group also awarded two prizes to the stars of the civil-rights period piece "The Help," declaring Viola Davis best actress and Octavia Spencer best supporting actress.

Here's a full rundown of the group's awards, and some links to our recent coverage of these titles.

Best picture: "The Tree of Life." (Check out film critic Kenneth Turan's review of the film here.) The other films rounding out the top 10, following in order of distinction, are: "Drive," "Pariah," "Rampart," "Shame," "Moneyball," "The Descendants," "A Better Life," "My Week With Marilyn" and "The Help."

Best director: Steve McQueen, "Shame." (The director talks about his collaboration with star Michael Fassbender in this story.)

Lead actor: Woody Harrelson, "Rampart." (Here's a video in which the two-time Oscar nominee talks about approaching his character, an LAPD cop.)

Lead actress: Viola Davis, "The Help." (An interview with the actress, who recently graced the cover of The Envelope, can be found here.)

Best supporting actress: Octavia Spencer, "The Help." (She talks about adjusting to the frenzy of award season in this feature.)

Best supporting actor: Albert Brooks, "Drive." (The actor recalls how he prepared to play a mobster in this story.)

Breakout performance: Adepero Oduye, “Pariah." (Read about all the ingenues in this year's awards race here.)

Best Documentary: "The Black Power Mixtape." (Learn more about the film, set in the 1960s and 1970s, in this article.)

Best screenplay: Ava DuVernay, “I Will Follow." (DuVernay, who grew up in Compton, talks about how her upbringing with her aunt inspired her to write and direct her first feature film.)

Best foreign film: Alrick Brown, “Kinyarwanda." (A review of the film can be found here.)

Best song: Jason Reeves & Lenka Kripac, writers, “The Show” from “Moneyball."

Best independent film: "Pariah."

Special Achievement: George Lucas, (Cinema Vanguard); Richard Roundtree, (AAFCA Legacy); Hattie Winston (AAFCA Horizon) and Institution, Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Founded in 2003, the AAFCA tries to bring attention to films that appeal to black audiences, were created by or star African Americans or center on the black experience. Last year, the group named "The Social Network" best picture and gave its top acting honors to Halle Berry for "Frankie & Alice" and Mark Wahlberg for "The Fighter." None went on to win awards in those categories at the Oscars.


National Board of Review names 'Hugo' best picture

New York critics name 'The Artist' best film of the year

L.A. Critics name 'Descendants' best film, laud 'Tree of Life' too

-- Amy Kaufman


Photo: Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain star in "The Tree of Life." Credit: Fox Searchlight


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