Five reasons why Viola Davis can (and probably will) win Best Actress

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In response to Tariq Khan‘s article on “Five Reasons Why Meryl Streep Can (and Probably Will) Win Best Actress,” here’s a contrary view posing five reasons why Viola Davis will prevail instead.

1. Viola Davis won the SAG Award
Meryl Streep may have beaten Viola Davis for the Golden Globe, but the star-struck journalists who make up the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. (the ones who nominated “The Tourist” for Best Picture, lest we forget) have no say at the Oscars.

SAG, on the other hand, is decided by industry actors, many of whom are also Academy members, and their picks tend to be more reliable predictors of the Academy’s taste. In the Oscar race ten years ago, there was a similar result: veteran Sissy Spacek won the Golden Globe for “In the Bedroom,” but Halle Berry won SAG for “Monster’s Ball,” and it was Berry who ended up winning the Oscar.

2. Nobody really liked “The Iron Lady
The general consensus is that Streep is excellent, but “The Iron Lady” is far from it. In fact, it’s hard to make a case for Streep without the caveat that she greatly outclasses the film she’s in. You could say the same about Marion Cotillard a few years ago in ‘La Vie en Rose,’ but even that film’s somewhat mixed reviews were better than ‘The Iron Lady’s.’ To rally behind Streep, voters will have to selectively ignore the movie she’s in.

This is a problem that has plagued Streep for a number of years. She used to be nominated for films with broad support – including Best Picture winners “The Deer Hunter,” “Kramer vs. Kramer,” and “Out of Africa” – but now her films all seem to revolve around her performances in them, without much affection going to the films themselves.

Of her 10 most recent Oscar nominations, none of the films were nominated for Picture or Director, and only two were nominated for writing (“Adaptation” and “Doubt”). In four of those films, she was the only nomination (“A Cry in the Dark,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “One True Thing,” and “Julie & Julia”). The Academy clearly loves Meryl Streep, but they’re not particularly fond of Meryl Streep movies anymore.

It’s worth noting that, of the four actors who have won three or more Oscars (Katharine Hepburn, Jack Nicholson, Ingrid Bergman, and Walter Brennan), none of them won their third for a film without at least a writing nomination. Nicholson’s third win (“As Good as It Gets”) and Hepburn’s third and fourth wins (“The Lion in Winter” and “On Golden Pond”) were for Best Picture nominees.

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3. Even Meryl seems to be rooting for Viola Davis
The ever-gracious Streep, who appeared with Davis in “Doubt,” gave a Golden Globe acceptance speech in which she lauded the great performances by women from 2011, even those who were mostly ignored during the awards season, like Mia Wasikowska in “Jane Eyre” and Adepero Oduye in “Pariah.” But she made special mention of Davis, ending her speech by saying, “I love you Viola – you’re my girl.”

In Entertainment Weekly’s “Entertainers of the Year” issue, Streep went even further, saying, “It’s [Davis’s] seeming reluctance to draw attention to herself that draws us in and pulls us close. It’s her interest in the quiet, the patient ones; and it’s her respect, the great respect she pays to those who bear unbearable burdens without a sound, that makes us lean in and listen and unable to turn away. Her modesty is her majesty.”

Davis couldn’t ask for a better Oscar campaign manager than her Oscar rival.

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4. Meryl’s overdue status is overestimated
Streep, with the most acting nominations in Oscar history but not a single victory in almost 30 years, is considered overdue a third trophy, and that narrative – The “It’s about time” award – is a powerful one, helping Martin Scorsese (“The Departed”), Jeff Bridges (“Crazy Heart”), and Kate Winslet (“The Reader”) finally win Oscars. But none of them had won before, giving the Academy greater incentive to vote for them.

But even when the overdue nominee has never won, it’s not a foolproof path to Oscar. Consider: Lauren Bacall (“The Mirror Has Two Faces”) lost Best Supporting Actress to Juliette Binoche (“The English Patient”) in 1996, and just last year Annette Bening (“The Kids Are All Right”) lost Best Actress to Natalie Portman (“Black Swan”). Peter O’Toole has never won a competitive Oscar, and he lost his most recent nomination (his eighth, for “Venus”) to first-time nominee Forest Whitaker.

The overdue factor is also complicated by the presence of Glenn Close in the category this year. Close has now been nominated six times without winning, and she’s unlikely to prevail this year, so a voter looking at his ballot might wonder, “If Meryl’s due, what does that make Glenn?”

Most importantly, there’s one Oscar factor that trumps the “overdue” narrative …

5. Viola’s win would be historic
When Halle Berry won Best Actress for “Monster’s Ball,” she was the first – and to date only – black woman ever to do so. In her acceptance speech, she said tearfully, “This moment is so much bigger than me.” Oscar likes those kinds of moments. In 2009, against all odds, the grim, low-grossing indie war drama “The Hurt Locker” won Best Picture, due in no small part to the fact that it gave the Academy the opportunity to honor a woman (Kathryn Bigelow) as Best Director for the first time.

When Viola Davis won at the SAG Awards, a sense of impending history was in the air; she gave a stirring acceptance speech in which she thanked acting legend and “The Help” co-star Cicely Tyson for inspiring her. Davis is the second black actress ever to receive multiple Oscar nominations, and she would be only the second to win Best Actress. If she and Best Supporting Actress nominee Octavia Spencer both win, it’ll be the first time two black actors win for the same film and the first time two black women win acting prizes in the same year (giving voters the chance to check their racial and gender progressiveness boxes). It helps that their film is all about racial inequality, a Best Picture nominee, a box office hit, and a zeitgeist-tapping drama about the haves and have-nots.

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One thought on “Five reasons why Viola Davis can (and probably will) win Best Actress

  1. Author says that Streep’s nomination in “One True Thing” was the only nomination the film received. I thought Renee Zellweger, playing Streep’s daughter in the film, was nominated for Best Supporting that year…..no?

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