Happy birthday to the wonderful Viola Davis, who was born on August 11, 1965. She is one of those rare actresses who have triumphed in all three major media — on film (“Fences,” “The Help,” “Widows”), on stage in “King Hedley II” and “Fences” and on television with “How To Get Away With Murder.” Having been a struggling young actress for so long, usually being cast as authority figures thanks for her strong personality, when the time came for her big break, Davis was ready.
For her film work, Davis has won an Academy Award (“Fences”) from three nominations (“Doubt,” “The Help”). She has also earned three BAFTA and Golden Globe Award nominations, winning both awards for “Fences,” as well as winning three Screen Actors Guild Awards from six nominations. For her TV work, Davis has received five Emmy nominations and one win for her character in “How To Get Away With Murder,” a Golden Globe from three nominations for her performance on the ABC series, as well as two Screen Actors Guild Awards. In addition, she has won two Tony Awards from three nominations in August Wilson plays — a Featured Actress Tony for 2001’s “King Hedley II” and a Lead Actress Tony for her performance in the 2010 revival of “Fences,” a performance for which she won a Supporting Actress Oscar for the 2016 film version. Davis is the first African-American actor to capture the Triple Crown of Acting — the Emmy, the Oscar and the Tony.
Davis is taking a well-deserved rest (maybe a play?) but won’t be returning to the nation’s screens until the 2021 reunion of “Suicide Squad.” Until then, let’s raise a glass to the great lady and celebrate her birthday by ranking her 12 best screen performances from worst to best.
– Original text and gallery published in August 2019.
12. BLACKHAT (2015)
Director: Michael Mann. Writer: Morgan Davis Foehl. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tang Wei, Leehom Wang, Viola Davis.
Davis was Hollywood’s go-to actor throughout the decade of playing trusted characters in some official capacity. Here, in Michael Mann’s computer hacking thriller, she plays FBI Special Agent Carol Barrett who teams up with Capt. Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), an Army officer in China’s People’s Liberation Army, to investigate a mysterious computer hack that affected soybean prices on Chicago’s Mercantile Exchange. China is involved because Chen wrote the code that was hacked, along with his MIT college roommate Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth). There’s not a lot of room for Davis to delve into character — the important thing is chemistry with Wang, and that she easily establishes.
11. SUICIDE SQUAD (2016)
Writer/Director: David Ayer. Starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Viola Davis, Joel Kinnaman, Jay Courtney, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje.
Davis was unexpectedly welcomed into the DC Comics Universe with her villainous performance as Amanda Waller, the government intelligence official who assembles and rules the Suicide Squad. As powerful as Waller may be, she is ever ambitious to acquire even more. Davis has played so many authority figures in her film career that it’s kind of a hoot to see this one turn dark. “Suicide Squad” is not a good film by any stretch of the imagination, but watch Davis’ sly performance here — she knows where her character is headed but never lets on to us. In a gallery of characters that are deadly serious, it’s great to see her having a little fun.
10. LILA & EVE (2015)
Director: Charles Stone III. Writer: Patrick Gilfillan. Starring Viola Davis, Jennifer Lopez, Shea Whigham, Julius Tennon.
Davis and Jennifer Lopez (who last worked together with Davis’ small part in Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight”) reunite in this crime drama focusing on the film’s title characters — Lila (Davis) whose son has just been murdered and Eve (Lopez), another mother of a murdered child, who join forces to exact revenge. They learn the identity of the gunman who murdered Lila’s son, so they set out to find him, and when they do, they shoot him dead. Unfortunately, the dead man was tied up with the mob, which sets out to get some revenge as well. The film may be a bit forgettable, but it’s a joy to watch these two actresses team up.
9. WON’T BACK DOWN (2012)
Director: Daniel Barnz. Writers: Brin Hill, Daniel Barnz. Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Holly Hunter, Oscar Isaac, Rosie Perez, Bill Nunn, Ving Rhames.
Davis has been a part of several inspirational films over her career, and one of her best is this Daniel Barnz film focusing on two mothers, Nona Alberts (Davis) and Jaime Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who seek to correct the course of their children’s failing public school against the wishes of the corrupt head of the teachers’ union (Holly Hunter) and the school’s principal (Bill Nunn). Loosely based on a real California case, the film’s premise gives these actresses — Davis and Gyllenhaal in particular — a wide berth to plumb their characters, and both stars give it their all.
8. EAT PRAY LOVE (2010)
Director: Ryan Murphy. Writers: Ryan Murphy, Jennifer Salt. Starring Julia Roberts, Javier Bardem, James Franco, Richard Jenkins, Viola Davis, Billy Crudup.
Davis has had a number of “best friend” roles, but one of her best besties was in this Ryan Murphy film version of the best-selling Elizabeth Gilbert memoir. The film’s Elizabeth (Julia Roberts) had decided to divorce her husband (Billy Crudup) and take herself on a trip around the world. Step in bestie Delia Shiraz (Davis) who has some second-thought advice for Elizabeth that this disillusionment happens to everyone at one time and it’s okay if you feel it’s best to start over. Don’t, however, run away but stay to deal with your issues. If you can’t deal with them that’s what shrinks are for. Elizabeth ignores her, and that’s a good thing because if she didn’t, we wouldn’t have much of a movie.
7. ENDER’S GAME (2013)
Writer/Director: Gavin Hood, based on the novel by Orson Scott Card. Starring Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Hailee Steinfeld.
In Gavin Hood’s film, Davis is yet another military authority figure, this time in a sci-fi epic, a genre that gives her autocratic figurehead a bit of a twist. Paired with her boss Col. Hyram Graff (Harrison Ford), Major Gwen Anderson (Davis) is a psychologist at Battle School, and both take a particular interest in the future of young cadet Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) who shows particular promise. Maj. Anderson was originally written in the “Ender’s” books as a strong male character, but in Davis’ capable hands, the gender switch doesn’t matter because she certainly brings the necessary strength.
6. GET ON UP (2014)
Director: Tate Taylor. Writers: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth. Starring Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Viola Davis, Dan Aykroyd, Octavia Spencer.
Although most of Tate Taylor’s biopic of legendary soul singer James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) focuses on his adult career as an entertainer, early in the film Brown thinks back upon his childhood and his early experiences with his mother Susie (Davis) and his father Joe (Lennie James). Brown was raised by his parents in their home in the woods, and while the scenery was idyllic, his home life was anything but with his parents constantly arguing with each other resulting in several bouts of spousal abuse. It’s a small but tough dramatic role, but when her “Help” director, Tate Taylor comes calling, Davis is there to once again deliver the dramatic goods.
5. PRISONERS (2013)
Director: Denis Villeneuve. Writer: Aaron Guzikowski. Starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano.
In Denis Villeneuve’s emotional thriller, Davis plays Nancy Birch, a concerned wife to husband Franklin (Terrence Howard) and mother to young Joy (Kyla-Drew Simmons), who invites their friends Grace (Maria Bello) and Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), along with their daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) for Thanksgiving dinner. After the feast, Joy and Anna go for a walk and never return. Once it appears that their child has been abducted, Nancy and Franklin grieve together, and their joint sorrow draws them ever closer. Davis and Howard thoroughly convince us that they’ve been a married couple for years, one that leans on each other to get through times of crisis. This is an excellent example of real supporting performances delivered by a pair of great actors.
4. WIDOWS (2018)
Director: Steve McQueen. Writers: Gillian Flynn, Steve McQueen. Starring Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Colin Farrell.
Steve McQueen’s acclaimed heist film offers a potent twist on the usual gangster movie — all the thieves here are women, the widows left by their criminal husbands who died while trying to pull off a major heist. Veronica (Davis) becomes determined not to leave that money on the table and enlists the other widows (Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erico) to complete the job that their husbands could not. Just as Veronica is the undisputed boss of her gang, so too does Davis, despite the stellar supporting cast here, run this show here with powerfully effective work. For her performance as Veronica, Davis earned her third nomination for the BAFTA.
3. DOUBT (2008)
Writer/Director: John Patrick Shanley, based on his play. Starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis.
In what is essentially a four-character chamber piece that is based on the play by screenwriter/director John Patrick Shanley, Davis rose from the ranks of quiet supporting actors to full-fledged awards contender with this performance as Mrs. Miller, the mother of a young boy who is the only African-American student at a top Catholic school in 1964. When the school’s principal Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) suspects that the school’s Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) had molested her son, Mrs. Miller brushes off the accusation, saying that she doesn’t want to do anything to jeopardize her son staying in this school. It’s only one scene, but it’s a doozie. For her performance as Mrs. Miller, Davis received her first Academy Award nomination, was nominated for her first Golden Globe Award and earned her first two Screen Actors Guild nominations.
2. THE HELP (2011)
Writer/Director: Tate Taylor. Starring Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, Emma Stone.
Davis won her first two Screen Actors Guild Awards (for Best Actress and Best Ensemble Cast) for her powerhouse starring role in Tate Taylor’s adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel. As Aibileen Clark, a maid in Jackson, Mississippi in 1964, Davis once again embodies strength as a woman who knows just how far she can go or speak her mind and still keep her valued job, even when she sees her best friend Milly (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer) fired by her employer over a triviality. With her performance in “The Help,” Davis proved that she has become a full-fledged movie star and was rewarded for her efforts by her second Academy Award nomination, her first nomination for a BAFTA Award and her second nomination for a Golden Globe.
1. FENCES (2016)
Director: Denzel Washington. Writer: August Wilson. Starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson.
As Rose, the strong-willed wife of waste collector Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) in the film version of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Davis won her first Academy Award, her first Golden Globe Award, her first BAFTA Award and her third Screen Actors Guild Award. As Troy’s loyal wife in a role that won her a 2010 Tony Award onstage, Davis’ Rose can finally take no more of her husband’s infidelities, and when she looks into his eyes and tells him how she buried her dreams so that he could secure his, one’s heart is ripped out and you know you’re seeing a great actress at the height of her powers. As part of the film’s ensemble cast, Davis also earned her fourth nomination for a Screen Actors Guild Award.