On February 26, we are, I think, likely to see Viola Davis walk to the stage to accept a Best Actress Oscar for playing a maid. It will have been about 26,000 days — is that a lot or a little? — since Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for her role as Gone With the Wind’s house slave Mammy and tearfully expressed the hope that she would “always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.” How far we’ve come. How far we haven’t.
Historically, the Academy has awarded some Oscars as an expression of self-congratulation, some as an act of atonement, and some as a pure recognition of excellence. Davis’ win would represent all of the above and then some. She wouldn’t be the first African-American to take the Best Actress prize (that was Halle Berry a decade ago). But an award to Davis for making the absolute most of an imperfect part in an even more imperfect movie with a terribly imperfect grasp of history would be the truest definition of a milestone: A mark along a path by which progress can be assessed, and perhaps also found wanting. Finally, we have a category with the kind of churning emotion and uneasy subtext that too much of this steadily room-temperature Oscar season has been lacking.
Whenever one brings up race and the Academy Awards, outrage can flare. Some people may imagine I’m suggesting Davis will or should win because she’s black. That’s nonsense, but you’d have to be willfully blinkered to watch The Help, vote in the Oscars, and never even let the issue of Hollywood’s treatment of African-American women flit across your consciousness. Others argue that merely raising the topic is “playing the race card,” a phrase now used mostly by people who like to believe that the whole thing was settled long ago and don’t appreciate being reminded that the playing field remains so profoundly unlevel that you cannot even call it a playing field.
So to clarify: In a category boasting five fine performances, I’d say Davis takes it on merit. Rooney Mara is terrific in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but Lisbeth Salander would be a showcase for any young actress, and voters haven’t yet seen enough of Mara to assess what she gave the part that’s all her own. Glenn Close is constrained by a role that is entirely about being constrained; in Albert Nobbs, she creates a surface with impeccable precision, but the character’s interior is a mostly unfurnished room. And few other actresses could have combined technical brilliance (the voice, the walk, the breathing, the singing) with the intuitive empathy that Michelle Williams brought to My Week With Marilyn. But the movie’s version of Monroe is filtered through a protagonist so self-regarding that he can’t seem to decide whether his story is “The Week She Changed My Life” or “The Week I Changed Her Life.” That framework, a series of brief encounters with a smug, starstruck nit, rarely lets Williams go as deep as she clearly can.
That leaves Meryl Streep and Davis. And it’s close. Streep’s portrayal of the octogenarian Margaret Thatcher in dementia ranks with the greatest work she’s done. No actor alive better understands how to use elaborate makeup as a tool without being defined or buried by it; somehow, she becomes an imperious, frightened, and lost old woman struggling to remember her place in the world. Streep may be overstating matters to call the story “King Lear for girls,” but if she ever wants to play Lear, I’m there.
Unfortunately, that still leaves the other two-thirds of Iron Lady, which lets its subject down by insisting that the most — no, the only — interesting thing about Thatcher is that she was a woman in a world of male power. There’s a campy scene in Mommie Dearest (OK, many, but bear with me) when the widowed Joan Crawford tells off an all-male Mad Men-era boardroom by bellowing, “Don’t f--- with me, fellas! This ain’t my first time at the rodeo!” That’s a fun idea for a moment, but not for a whole movie. And for a subject as complex as Thatcher, it’s fatal.
Sometimes it seems Academy voters invent new excuses every year to make Streep their second choice, but this weekend’s last-ditch campaign from the Weinstein Company, built around a quote reminding everyone that she hasn’t won an Oscar for 29 years, feels unsubtle and, as a tactic, insulting. Streep — who has handled this awards season with typical grace — doesn’t need a sympathy Oscar in 2012 or any other year. If she doesn’t win for Iron Lady, it won’t be because voters failed her but because the movie did: How fully can you play a politician without politics? On the other hand, perhaps this is the version of Thatcher that Streep preferred to play. After all, she’s Meryl Streep; if she’d wanted a different script, she probably would have gotten one.
Davis doesn’t have that kind of clout. It means next to nothing in Hollywood that she won two Tonys for her performances in August Wilson plays. (One of them, the searing family drama Fences, in which she and Denzel Washington were husband and wife, has been in and out of film development for 25 years. Hollywood, if not now, and with that cast, then when?) Over the years, Davis did TV guest spots and occasional series work, as actresses who are not movie stars do. But well before breaking through with an Oscar-nominated role opposite Streep in Doubt, she routinely gave the kind of small supporting performances in movies for Oliver Stone, Stephen Gaghan, and (three times) Steven Soderbergh that made the most of her limited screen time.
With her deep voice, her gravity, and her gift for restrained sorrow and quiet moral authority, Davis often gets cast as responsible people — detectives, doctors, social workers, cops. Once she was a mayor; once she was the head of the CIA. Either she hasn’t been asked to play a maid very often, or she has declined those roles; before The Help, her one memorable stint as a housekeeper was in Todd Haynes’ brilliant Far From Heaven, in which she and Haynes seemed to collaborate on an onscreen deconstruction of the qualities of a 1950s film domestic. The Help was different: At 45, Davis was finally given the opportunity to play the lead in a studio movie. (Are we really still not going to talk about race, and how much sooner that opportunity might have come otherwise?) But it meant wearing that uniform and holding a little blonde white girl in her lap while saying, “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”
I don’t know what it cost Davis emotionally to go there for her first high-stakes starring role, or what argument, if any, she had with herself beforehand. I’ve talked to tough, smart black actresses who say that a great part is a great part, and other equally tough, smart black actresses who simply, categorically, do not want to play maids or slaves, just as I’ve met Arab-American actors who felt they had to turn down the golden opportunity to be killed by Kiefer Sutherland on 24. You don’t get to call them prima donnas unless you yourself have spent years facing the hard knowledge that regardless of your talent and training, a huge percentage of what you’re going to get offered is the chance to play an ethnic cliché. Yes, Hattie McDaniel elevated a caricature by dint of sheer talent. It was 72 years ago. In 2012, we should be further than we are past the sentimentality of Mammy’s “I done raise that chile from a baby.” The Help’s racial politics aren’t Gone With the Wind’s, but, as I wrote when the movie opened, it’s far too comfortable trafficking in clichés about super-maternal black women whose compassion and capacity to nurture always trumps their anger.
Faced with the peril of that archetype, Davis did the hardest job of anyone in the Best Actress category: She made the movie better — much better — without playing against it. Much of The Help is bright, candy-colored, and loud: It’s full of silly wigs and garish costumes, sitcom slapstick and shit pies, wicked old dears like Sissy Spacek, finger-snappin’ Designing Women tell-offs, and the kind of steroidal pivots from comedy to poignancy to melodrama that would shame an episode of Glee. What Davis gives the film is humanity. Aibileen is a gentle but wary woman — she’s lived long enough to know that in her world, you survive by bending, not breaking, by keeping your thoughts to yourself, by seeing and hearing everything while appearing to register very little, and by trying to apply your own sense of decency and kindness to a badly needed paying job in an often indecent and unkind world. When she’s on-screen, the hummingbird shrieks of the movie’s other characters are hushed; you’re reminded that the human toll of daily, casual racism doesn’t really get addressed by making Bryce Dallas Howard eat poo. Because Davis is a physically gifted actress who can incorporate the exhaustion and strain of being Aibileen into every motion and muscle, and also the rare performer — even in this year of The Artist and Max von Sydow — whose silences draw you even closer, she seems to correct The Help’s excesses without ever standing self-protectively outside it. At every turn, she un-simplifies the movie.
There are many ways Hollywood should respond to a performance that good. An Oscar would be a fine start. When she won the Screen Actors Guild award last month, Davis cited two actresses: Cicely Tyson, her inspiration in childhood, and Streep, her inspiration in college. Those names represent two different pasts and two possible futures. Tyson, whose early-‘70s performance in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman moved Pauline Kael to praise her “supreme integrity” and predict that she was “on her way” to becoming one of the all-time greats, never had the career she should have had. Streep, on the other hand, continues to fulfill and then redefine everything we imagine a great actress can do. And Davis? She’s got a movie called Won’t Back Down in the can and has just signed for a couple of supporting roles, but the big thing? The movie built around her? The amazing new part that her starring role in a smash hit should bring about? The passion project she now has the clout to make? That hasn’t happened yet. An Oscar would represent acknowledgment for a job extremely well done. But maybe it could also serve as a kind of promise from an industry that knows it’s got to start meeting talent like hers at least halfway.