Viola Davis: From historic Emmy win for ‘How to Get Away with Murder’ to Oscar record with ‘Fences’

Last year when Viola Davis won the Emmy Award for Best Drama Actress for “How to Get Away with Murder” she became the first African American to ever win in that category. This year Davis defends her title at the Emmys and is also being heavily touted as an Oscar contender for her role in “Fences.” Should she win the Academy Award, she’d be the first woman to do so while headlining a dramatic TV series.

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Winning Oscars while starring on television was an almost unheard of situation for decades as there was a huge chasm between performers who worked on the small and big screens. TV stars just weren’t given the opportunity to appear in the other medium. In 1998 Helen Hunt made awards history when she won an Oscar for the film “As Good As It Gets” while still starring in the sitcom “Mad About You.” (Hunt also won four Emmys for that show from 1996-1999.)

Prior to Hunt, there had been only a few instances when a TV player would win an Oscar for a scene-stealing featured performance. Cloris Leachman won for her role in “The Last Picture Show” (1971) while recurring on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” And Goldie Hawn took home a supporting Oscar for “Cactus Flower” (1969) a few weeks after departing her series regular role on “Laugh-In.” However, headlining both a movie and a TV show, let alone winning an Oscar, just wasn’t done.

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Davis currently stands in first place in Gold Derby’s Oscar predictions for this year’s Best Actress race with 5/2 odds. She is likely receiving the support of early prognosticators based on the fact that “Fences” is a highly lauded Broadway play for which she won a Tony Award when she appeared in the 2010 revival with Denzel Washington (who is recreating his role in the film as well as directing).

Also putting Davis ahead in early Oscar predictions is her history with the academy. A nomination for “Fences” would be her third, which would be a record for an African American actress. She’s tied with Whoopi Goldberg after reaping a supporting bid for “Doubt” (2008) and a lead nomination for “The Help” (2011), which she lost in a close battle to her “Doubt” co-star Meryl Streep (who also may be nominated this year for her role in “Florence Foster Jenkins”).

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And Davis is currently in second place to Robin Wright (“House of Cards”) in our Emmy predictions for the sophomore season of “How to Get Away With Murder.” At last year’s Emmys, her acceptance speech received almost as much praise as her work. Should Gold Derby’s early predictions hold up, she may need to be planning  some more of her gracious acceptance speeches for which she is becoming known.

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