Viola Davis drums up early Oscar buzz for ‘Air’: Ben Affleck calls her ‘the best actor I’ve ever seen’

In 1984, a down-on-his-luck basketball scout working for a third-tier apparel company travels to Wilmington, North Carolina to go see about a rookie. The rest is history.

The Air Jordan not only represents a touchstone of American fashion, but also an assault on the corporate status quo. The monumental licensing deal Nike signed with Michael Jordan updated standard practices relating to the appraisal of an athlete’s worth and established precedent for the hard-won changes recently implemented across the NCAA. For Ben Affleck, this story is more than another filmography credit—it’s a mission statement. “Air,” a dramatization of this paradigm shift in professional sports, is the first title released under his and Matt Damon’s Artists Equity label, which aims to enfranchise overlooked crew members. The movie is scheduled for a wide theatrical release in the United States on April 5, 2023.

The most prominent figure in “Air” carrying the Jordan surname isn’t Michael, but his mother, Deloris. According to Affleck, one of MJ’s non-negotiable terms was that the part be given to Viola Davis, which shouldn’t come as too big a shock. After all, who else would the GOAT enlist to represent his legacy on screen but the Woman King herself? 

SEE Ben Affleck explains how Michael Jordan helped cast Viola Davis in ‘Air’

Seeming to know better than anyone that the recently minted EGOT is “Air’s” surest ticket to the Academy Awards, Affleck, who plays Nike co-founder and former CEO Phil Knight, has turned every media appearance into an opportunity to sing her praises. He called the film’s SXSW premiere on March 18 the most significant night of his career and said none of it would be possible without Davis. “[She’s] the best actor I’ve ever seen,” he declared in no uncertain terms. “Honest to God, I always felt that if I was a director one day, and Viola Davis in a movie, that would really be something. That would mean the world to me. And it does.” 

The actor-director has also been sharing an on-set anecdote that illustrates just how much of a collaborative effort “Air” really is. Describing a crucial scene between Damon’s tenacious Nike executive, Sonny Vaccaro, and Deloris that takes place over the phone, Affleck said, per The Hollywood Reporter, “I want to play the scene so they can get up, they can do whatever they want, they can move around…we did two takes and I said, ‘That’s the best thing I’ve ever seen. I’m done. If you want to go again, I’ll shoot all day.’ [Davis] went, she watched the playback. When she came out, it was the first time I saw her smile and I just felt like, ‘Oh my God.’ It was the most lovely, rewarding moment.” Damon has also complimented her on the press tour, saying on several occasions that signing an actor of Davis’ caliber “is kinda like having Michael Jordan on your basketball team.”

SEE Ben Affleck’s ‘Air’ with Matt Damon and Viola Davis gets high-flying first trailer [Watch]

Presenting Davis with the Board of Governors Award earlier this year at the American Society of Cinematographers’ annual ceremony, “The Woman King” director Gina Prince-Bythewood said, “To see Viola Davis in a close-up is to see the alchemy we infinitely chase as storytellers: Truth.” If you think that’s a glib abstraction, just wait until you watch this Oscar-clip-ready scene. She may not have as much screen-time as her co-stars, but the performance is unhampered by the fact. Besides, the four-time Academy Award nominee (she won Best Supporting Actress on her third for “Fences” in 2017) received her first notice for “Doubt,” in which, also playing a protective mother, she clocks no more than eight minutes. 

Affleck and writer Alex Convery were reportedly persuaded by advice from Jennifer Lopez—and, of course, Jordan’s stipulation—to revise an early draft and make Deloris a central presence. The rousing outcome of that creative choice lends itself to a myriad of basketball puns, but we’ll just say the decision paid off quite nicely.

The movie’s cast, which includes Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker, Marlon Wayans, and Chris Messina (and, after “The Last Duel,” gives us our second “Good Will Hunting” reunion in just two years!), has been cited as a key reason for its success, but nearly every review has singled out Davis. Nick De Semlyen (Empire) says she’s “superb,” adding, “In basketball parlance, her performance is all swish.” Rob Dean (The Wrap) credits her with counterbalancing the script’s levity, writing, “The tangible strength of Davis…lends a different type of energy to Deloris’ scenes, where it’s no longer the goofballs trying their best but a woman who refuses to let anyone decide the narrative of her son’s life.”

SEE SXSW Festival round-up: Highlights included ‘Air’ premiere and Audience Award winners ‘Flamin’ Hot,’ ‘Mustache’

Peter Debruge (Variety), echoing Damon, effuses, “Casting Davis was the smartest thing Affleck could have done, as the EGOT winner is to acting what Jordan is to sports: Her strength inspires, and she can move us to tears while making it look easy.” In her overall rave review, Marisa Mirabal (IndieWire) writes, “Davis brings such a large amount of warmth and strength…on several occasions, her presence on screen has the tendency to give audiences goosebumps because of just how perfectly she honors Mrs. Jordan,” concluding that “Air” is “a film about legends made by legends.”

Of the four films Affleck has previously directed, three have gotten supporting acting nominations—“Gone Baby Gone” (Amy Ryan), “The Town” (Jeremy Renner) and “Argo” (Alan Arkin). It was easy to suspect as soon as Amazon released the trailer for “Air” that Davis would revive the trend “Live by Night” had broken. Now, glowing write-ups for her performance from every corner of the internet all but confirm that the 2024 race for Best Supporting Actress is on. 

PREDICT the 2023 Emmy nominees through July 12

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