Welcome to WeeklyWilson.com, where author/film critic Connie (Corcoran) Wilson avoids totally losing her marbles in semi-retirement by writing about film (see the Chicago Film Festival reviews and SXSW), politics and books----her own books and those of other people. You'll also find her diverging frequently to share humorous (or not-so-humorous) anecdotes and concerns. Try it! You'll like it!

Tag: viola davis

Viola Davis Receives Career Achievement Award at 48th Chicago Film Festival

Viola Davis in Chicago arriving to receive her Career Achievement Award on October 22nd, 2012.

Viola Davis (“The Help,” “Doubt”) was honored at the 28th Chicago Film Festival on Monday, October 22, 2012, with a Career Achievement Award during the Black Perspectives evening. She was introduced by television reporter Robin Roberts and interviewed by fellow actress Regina Taylor.

Here were some of her remarks:

Q: Tell us about background.

A: I was born in St. Matthews, South Carolina (on the former Singleton Plantation), delivered by my grandmother, but we moved to Central Falls, Rhode Island when I was 2 months old, in 1965. I have 4 sisters and a brother and I am the second from the youngest.

Q: Did any of your siblings want to act?

A: Oh, yes. My younger sister Diane went to Howard to study acting, but she eventually decided, “I need to have a steady job with insurance and that sort of thing, and gave it up.”

Q: By what route did you come to acting?

A: Well, when you grow up in abject poverty, the only black family in town, it allows you to express yourself.

Q: Who was influential in your becoming an actress?

A: Well, Cicely Tyson, when I saw her in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” Watching her entertain and create a fully rounded human being. At age 6 I said, “That’s what I want to do. Plus, there was my sister’s storytelling of living in the segregated South.

Q: Education?

A: I went to college at Central Falls College in Rhode Island and graduated in 1988, but then I gave myself a year off to “find myself” before I went to Julliard Drama School for 4 years.

Q: Did you have certain mentors?

A: Yeah. Sure. Sometimes, though, you find it in moments, not in people. I always looked for the ropes. Me trying to fit into the classical very white training that Julliard has (Chekhov, Ibsen, etc.) was difficult. Sometimes, they try to pretend that you’re not black or that you’re not yourself. You go out onstage to audition and you try not to have a broad nose. You try to be the cute one. It takes imagination.

Q: You did find your voice?

A: It took me some time and it behooves me to be an observer. We don’t recognize the truth any more, sometimes. I need the truth. I need the moment when Troy (Denzel Washington in the play “Fences”) tells Rose (Viola’s part opposite Denzel as his wife) that he’s been seeing another woman and is going to have a baby with her.”

Q: Let’s go back to the beginning.

Viola Davis and her husband of 9 years, Julius Tennon, in Chicago on October 22nd, 2012.

A: I was in “City of Angels” and I kept saying of a TV part, “I’m Nurse Lynette Peeler”…”OR1! OR!” Sometimes, as the old saying goes, you have to kiss some frogs to find your prince. (Viola shared that she met her husband, Julius Tennon,whom she has been married to since 2003, she met onset during her “OR1” days). Then, I did “Antwone Fisher” in 2002.

Q: Do you think silence is an important thing in your acting?

A: Silence is just as much a part of what we do (as actors). What is happening in silence is a part of the dialogue. Silence is interior dialogue, versus exterior dialogue.

Q: But you made the mother in “Antwone Fisher” very human.

A: Yes, absolutely.

Q: You play complex roles. Was there ever a time when you thought, “I can’t do this!”

A: Every time I say, “ I can’t do it. I just can’t do it.” I said that with “The Help.” I’m anal and neurotic about the narrative. I know that sometimes the political message is what comes through rather than the execution. For instance, me being caught in the role of being a black maid with a broken dialect in the 60s…I knew it would be controversial. Anthony Hopkins can play Hannibal Lector (in “Silence of the Lambs”) and just walk into a great narrative and humanize someone. So many of the roles where you have to create it internally (not externally) don’t get the glory. They just don’t. Without you saying a word, it is a dialogue when you’re acting. You have to problem solve. It’s not always on the page.

Q: But you did (problem solve the role of Aibileen) and brilliantly. How has that role changed things for you?

A: My whole life changed because “The Help” made money. What changed after that is that I have more power to walk into a room and possibly push some buttons to get a part. But everything is in the narrative. It’s gotta’ be on the page. If it’s not on the page, I can’t create it. It’s like having a great body but only $10 to go to the store to buy clothes. You cannot show who you are without a great narrative. That’s why I’m founding a production company (with her husband). We have optioned some material on Harriet Tubman and Sam Rockwell is attached. And we have an option on something dealing with Barbara Jordan.

[At this point, a clip from the film “Solaris” with George Clooney was shown. The 2002 film, directed by Steven Soderbergh, was a bit like Ray Bradbury’s “Mars Is Heaven.” It was written, says Viola by a Polish science fiction writer. I saw the film, and it was confusing, at best, with Natascha McElhone playing Clooney’s wife who is dead, but the bizarre planet the research station is orbiting makes him think she is still alive. The film was not a commercial or critical success.]

Following the clip, Viola said:

That role definitely fits under the category of not knowing what-the-hell I was doing! My character in the book was an old white Polish guy. The only thing it was about was this planet, which was a metaphor for science. We don’t know what-the-hell we’re talking about (in that scene).

Q: How is Steven Soderbergh as a director?

A: I love him. He gets me. He is very calm. That’s why people become your friends and walk into your life. He (Soderbergh) explains things in a very simple way. I think he’s a great director.

Q: We met when you were appearing in “7 Guitars” here in town, and I came backstage to meet you.

Actresses Viola Davis (L) and Regina Taylor (R) in Chicago on the Red Carpet on October 22nd, 2012.

A: Yes…people said to me: “You look like Regina Taylor.” I remember I was freezing to death, but I’m at the Goodman doing this play, and I was so happy.

Q: What is the biggest difference between working on the stage and working on film?

A: I was such a purist that I would never look in the mirror (when doing plays). I’m so aware of what I’m projecting onscreen. Onscreen, you have to be smaller (in your gestures and facial expressions.) I’m watching myself more (for film). I find myself more aware of containment. You have to be really honest. Every once in a while, if it’s there, I can explode.

A clip of Viola’s Oscar-nominated role opposite Meryl Streep (and Philip Seymour Hoffman) in “Doubt” is shown, and she responds to the question, “What were you doing in that scene with Meryl Streep?”

A: I was watching Meryl Streep! I had seen the play. It was a really hard audition. We went from Los Angeles to New York City and I thought I was one of only a couple actresses who were being put in costume and make-up for the audition, but, when I got to New York City, there were 4 or 5 others, all of us dressed as Mrs. Miller in hair and make-up. How nerve-racking to be on a stage with 5 other Mrs. Millers and to hear them audition and to listen while people applauded and said things like, “She really knocked it out of the park! The play (“Doubt”) is not just about the Catholic Church. It’s a litmus test about how we judge others. That is the Number One issue I have. I want to play a person—not political roles or symbols. I thought it was more interesting if I played Mrs. Miller as a person with a Sophie’s choice—the lesser of two evils. She is feeling, “I really believe my son is gay.” Some suggested I should play her as colder, but I know women who will literally give their kids money for heroin rather than watch them go through the hell of withdrawal.

Q: Where were you when you learned you had been Oscar nominated as Best Supporting Actress for your 11 minutes onscreen in “Doubt?”

A: I was at the Four Seasons with a bottle of champagne.

Q: What happens when you become an Oscar nominee?

A: Well, it starts with Broadcast Film Critics’ awards. It starts about the end of October and ends at the Academy Awards. By the time you get to the Oscars, you’ve probably already won a SAG award and then you do 12 hours of interviews.

(A clip is shown of Aibileen Clark in “The Help” facing down Hilly and being fired.)

“I tried to buy the rights to ‘The Help” when I heard about the book. I thought I could throw $500 at the writer/director, but I went from trying to buy the rights to begging to be in the movie.”

Q: What was the press circuit like?

A: The press circuit taught me to find my voice. I knew it was going to happen that this would be controversial. I was smart enough to figure that out ahead of time. I had never experienced having to defend any of my role choices. It’s like wigs. I like wigs, and I have a lot of them and will probably wear them again, but every time I put one on, I felt like I was doing “Jay Leno” again. I was forcing people to see me differently. There comes a time in your life when you can’t force people to see you. You have to be yourself and like yourself, and that’s when people like you.

Q: People don’t understand the fights that we have to have during the creative process.

A: True. It gave me power in knowing that. There are a lot of actors I admired in the past who had the narratives and made them work. I’m not gonna’ throw the baby out with the bathwater. I can’t do that. I’m here to humanize it, not to judge it. I had to constantly reiterate that throughout my journey with “The Help.”

Q: What was it like to be nominated alongside Meryl Streep?

A: Listen, I’ve been doing this for 25 years. I am humble, but at some time I have to step into the experienced artist that I am. I think that confidence and humility can exist alongside each other. But, after the Oscar nomination, the thing that came to my mind was, “Now what?” Is this a destination or is it a key to opening the door to great roles for women who look like me. I think it was Kathy Bates who called it “the Oscar curse.” She said that after she won for “Misery” her phone didn’t ring for 2 years. Does this mean more work? All of these things are up in the air. I want what Meryl Streep and Diane Lane and other actresses want. There’s room for all types of narratives. I stand in solidarity with them. I want expansive storylines for you, for me, for Gabourey Sidibe, for Monique.

Viola shared with Chicago “Tribune” critic Michael Phillips in an interview (October 19, 2012) that she and her husband are forming their own production company, as Tom Cruise and others have done.

(To Michael Phillips): “Onscreen, I have had so many great experiences, but, like a lot of people, I feel I haven’t yet had the role that reflects all I can do. I look at that young actress from ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ (Quvenzhasne Wallis) and I think to myself: Okay, let’s fantasize. Let’s say she gets an Academy Award nomination. Let’s imagine then that she wins the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. What’s next? What’s out there for her? What’s going to carry her throughout her career—through her teens and her 40’s and 60s?”

This is why Viola Davis and husband Julius Tennon have established their own production company. But it substantially represents a bigger issue.

It occurred to me at this point that Viola was articulating the age-old quest for roles for mature female actresses in Hollywood. The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be as wide an audience for mature films as once existed.

With the price of movie tickets skyrocketing and home theaters becoming more popular with video-on-demand and Netflix and streaming movies and the competition from HBO and Showtime and other diversions, only the young who are going out on a date flock to theaters. And even the young often have to be lured there by promises of 3D or some other gimmick.

This is apt to get worse, not better, as audiences age and stay at home more for their movie viewing experience. No longer is the shared audience experience desired, especially if the person next to you is texting or talking on his cell phone throughout the film.

At a recent commercial film I attended in a small town (the latest of the Bourne films), all 4 of the previews that preceded the showing were for horror films aimed at a young audience. Almost none of my friends in the older demographic are film buffs. The film that lures the middle-aged (or older) consumer who is not in the big city is rare. Add to the cost of a ticket the parking fee(s) incurred at places like the AMC parking lot ($36 if you go over 4 hours is the norm, although the festival has managed to negotiate a discount down to $18) and you have a ticket price (forget the overpriced snacks) that is high, a parking fee (in Chicago) that is astronomical, and a very expensive evening at a time when the economy—(in case the politicians haven’t mentioned it in the past 30 seconds)—is not going well.

Normally, I attend films in the Illinois/Iowa Quad Cities, where we park for free and have $3 Wednesday matinees, but the best films that Viola Davis may make would possibly never play there. So the cities like Chicago are where Viola’s movies will need to be seen, and, (although the Icon on Roosevelt hasn’t started charging for parking—yet) I wonder if audiences that genuinely want to see quality film performances will patronize the films that Viola Davis’ production company will make, overcoming all the obstacles in their way to do so.

I hope so, because Viola Davis is a genuine artist. Her performance onstage in “Fences” on Broadway opposite Denzel Washington as Rose (which I saw from the front row) was a true revelation.

Denzel Washington on Broadway in “Fences”

DenzelOne of the great joys of the BEA (BookExpo America) was getting a chance to see Denzel Washington in “Fences” at the Cort Theatre.

I bought my ticket online and  failed to run any documentation of my $338 ticket (face value: $125). I thought the ticket was being sent to my house in Illinois. It did not come. The very day I was to fly out, I was on the phone to the theater, trying to find out if there  was a ticket for me at Will Call.(A: Not at that time).

I  vacillated about leaving the floor of the Jacob Javits Center on Wednesday (May 26) and traveling to the Theater on 48th Street, but, ultimately decided that I should go and check it out. After all,  I could always eat somewhere in the neighborhood, which turned out to be quite close to Rockefeller Center and Simon & Schuster’s offices.

The Pulitzer-prize winning play, written by August Wilson, is one of the ten plays in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, which focus on the twentieth century African-American experience. It is set between 1957 and 1965,  in Pittsburgh, and follows Troy Maxson, a former baseball player in the Negro Leagues, now reduced to collecting other people’s rubbish for a living.

Troy is dealing with his football payer son Cory(Chris Chalk), who is coming of age at a time when sports could be his ticket out of the ghetto, except that Troy does not see it that way where his son’s opportunities in the sports world are concerned. Troy’s mind-set, colored by the years of his own youth and sports prowess, are that the black man will not get a fair deal, and he cannot accept or trust Cory’s increased opportunities.

The play won the 1985 Pulitzer for drama. It is directed here by Kenny Leon, who won the Drama League award as Best Director. In addition, the play, which has a limited run only through July 11th, has garnered 10 Tony nominations, more than any other play on Broadway. Said the New York Times, “You just do not see performances like this on Broadway.”

The cast is outstanding. The New Yorker called the production “Gorgeous, Thrilling. Unmissable.” Not only is two-time Academy Award-winner Denzel Washington (“Training Day” and “Glory”; 3 additional nominations) in the lead as Troy Maxson, Viola Davis plays his wife Rose. Ms. Davis has won multiple awards (Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle Award), and was also  nominated for an Academy Award for her turn in the film “Doubt,” where she played the African-American mother of the young boy who may (or may not) have been abused by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s priest. Additionally, she was nominated for a Golden Globe, the SAG and Critics Choice Award and the National Board of Review Award for Best Breakthrough Performance. (“Doubt’)

Also great in his role is Stephen McKinley Henderson as Jim Bono, Troy’s best friend. Henderson is the former Chair of the Department of Theater and Dance at SUNY. Troy’s brother Gabe, who suffered a head wound in WWII and is reduced to a role as the village idiot as a result, is portrayed by Mykelti Williamson, who is best known as the black friend of Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump.”(Also, recently, appeared on television’s “24”). Chris Chalk plays Cory, the youngest son, and Russell Hornsby plays Lyons.

Each act opens with the sweet sound of a solo saxophone that soon turns into original jazz, composed by Branford Marsalis. The set, too, is wonderful, with what looks like a giant oak tree on the left of the stage and the exterior of the house on the right, with the interior of the kitchen with its cabinets visible through the lighted windows.

When Denzel appeared onstage, clad in green coveralls, the crowd went wild.  He quickly threw around the “n” word, talking with his friend Jim Bono (Henderson) about a friend caught carrying a huge watermelon.  The two are talking about their jobs hauling trash, with comments about how all the drivers are white and all the trash handlers are black. Troy (Washington) is trying to get the union to open the drivers’ positions up to blacks and says, “All I want them to do is change the job description.”

There’s some concern that Troy’s making waves in this way might get him fired, but he dismisses these concerns as bogus and also dismisses his friend Jim Bono’s comments concerning how he (Troy) has been eyeing a pretty new woman in the neighborhood, Alberta, who has recently moved to Pittsburgh from Tallahassee.

In response to Bono’s (Henderson’s) joking around that he has been “eyeing” Alberta, Troy says, “I eye all the women.  I don’t miss nothin’.”  He goes on to talk in earthy fashion about his sincere love for his long-time (18 years) wife Rose (Viola Davis) and says of her womanly form, “Legs don’t mean nothin’…you just push them outta’ the way. And those hips, wider than the Mississippi. It’s like ridin’ on Good Year.”

A brief recap of Troy’s courtship of wife Rose is given, where Troy admits that he told her, “I don’t wanna’ marry. I just want to be your man.” Her response?  “If you’re not the marrying kind, move out of the way so the marrying kind can find me.”

Troy has been much celebrated as a home run hitter and baseball player extraordinaire, whose dreams of a career in baseball were dashed because he came along too early. Troy responds, “There ought never a been a time too early.” (The crowd applauded).  The fact that the times are changing for black athletes sets up  a conflict between Troy and his younger son, Cory, who is being recruited to play college football. Troy disapproves, because he feels that the boy is just being used, and that it will not lead to any kind of job in his future.  “Learn to take care of yourself,” he tells his older son Lyons, a musician.  “You still tryin’ to get somethin’ for nothin’.”  (His son replies, “You can’t change me, Pop. I’m 34 years old.”)

Gabe, his now half-witted brother (Mykelti Williamson) makes appearances chasing  “hell hounds” and spouting gibberish. There is some question as to whether Troy has “used” Gabe. A $3,000 settlement was paid to Gabe after his head injury in the war, and Troy used it to purchase the house they all live in, but Gabe has recently decided to move out and live at Miss Pearle’s, where he must pay rent.

Did Troy abuse his brother’s trust? Troy says, matter-of-factly, that he is 53 years old and, “I ain’t got a pot to piss in nor a window to throw it out.” Without the government’s payment to his brother for his war wounds, neither Troy nor Rose nor Gabe would ever have been able to save enough money to purchase the house. Troy notes repeatedly that he has taken care of his brother and watched over him and given him a place to stay, and Gabe’s decision to move to Miss Pearle’s seems to represent more a striving for independence on his part than a falling-out between the brothers.

In the course of the play, Troy reveals that, although he now preaches the value of hard work, he once was “a robber” and spent 15 years in prison, where he met his great and good friend Jim Bono and straightened himself out. His boyhood was tough, too, with an abusive father and a mother who ran off and left him when he was 8 years old. Of his father, he says, “The man would sit down, eat 2 chickens, and give you the wings.” One of 11 children of this farmer, Troy left home at 14. When asked about his father’s whereabouts now, Troy says, “I don’t know, but I hope he’s dead.” Troy says he walked 200 miles to Mobile in 1918 and has been working hard ever since, but notes of his father, “All his women run off and left him.”

The conflict between Troy and Cory, his youngest son with Rose, may or may not be what Cory thinks it is:  “You’re scared I’m gonna’ be better than you are.  That’s all.” Is this the truth, or is it that Troy is a product of his times, and, in his times, the black man could not catch a break and certainly could not play in the major leagues of any sport, pre Jackie Robinson’s day?

An ongoing motif is the building of a fence in the back yard, which his son, Cory, and his best friend Bono are assisting Troy to build.   Says the script, symbolically, “Some people build fences to keep people out, and some people build fences to keep people in.”

Troy’s friend, Bono, is concerned that Troy may be cheating on Rose with the new woman, Alberta. He inquires in a roundabout way, reminding Troy that Rose is a good woman. When the questioning becomes too strident, Troy tells Bono, “If you was messin’ around on Lucille (his wife), I’d be tellin’ you the same thing.”

The lure of the pretty young woman from Tallahassee is too strong. “I love Rose,” says Troy, but she (Alberta) gave me a different understanding about myself.  I can’t give that up.” He confesses his unfaithfulness to Rose in a climactic scene where he uses baseball metaphors to try to explain himself, saying, “I done tried all my life to live a clean, hard, useful life.  I wasn’t gonna’ get that last shot.  Maybe I could steal second?” Earlier in the play, Troy has said that he is just trying to keep his son, Cory, from getting hurt, that “nobody’s gonna’ hold his hand when he get out in the world.” He adds, of his life philosophy, I just come home, go upstairs, fall down on Rose and try to blast a hole into forever.” All the blasting a hole into forever (sex) comes to an end in his marriage to Rose with his confession of infidelity.

Rose does not react well upon hearing the news from Troy. Viola Davis’ virtuoso turn as the wronged wife hearing the news that her husband has been having an affair and his mistress is now pregnant drew sobs from the woman seated to my left.  Rose said, “You’re not the only one who has wants and needs.  It didn’t take me no 18 years to realize that, after 18 years, it wasn’t never gonna’ bloom.”

As this journey through the years (8, total) continues, Alberta dies in childbirth, and Troy appears with his infant daughter, Raynell, in his arms, asking his wife, Rose, to be a mother to his mistress’ child. Despite Troy’s defense of his actions that “It felt right in my heart. A man’s gotta’ do what’s right for him,” Rose is unforgiving regarding Troy’s straying, but agrees to mother Raynell, saying, “This child’s got a mother, but you a womanless man.”

The theme that Troy has blown it in his personal life is echoed by his subsequent loss of the companionship of his former best friend, Bono.  Cory drives home the changes that Troy’s reckless behavior has caused when he attempts to enter the house while his father is seated on the front porch stoop and says, “You in my way. I gotta’ get by.” Troy takes offense that his son has not been polite in saying, “Excuse me” and Cory responds, “You don’t count around here no more.”

There is much talk of doing battle with Death and many tall tales told. After losing both his wife’s love and his best friend to his own bad behavior, Troy pronounces himself ready to die (“I be ready for you (Death), but I ain’t gonna’ be easy.”). He says, “I can’t taste nothin’,” a crying out that his days of enjoying a good life with his wife and family have passed; he is now merely tolerated in his own home.
Eventually, he and son Cory face off and Troy kicks Cory out of the house for good when Cory is only 17 years old. Troy joins the Marines, and, in the last act, we see him in full military regalia, coming home to attend his father’s funeral, but telling his mother that he isn’t going to go to the funeral.

Cooler heads prevail, and Cory does attend, to honor his father, who once said, “I’m going to give her the best of what is in me.” Cory and his half-sister, Raynell, who is now a young girl, remember Troy’s singing about a dog named Blue and his oft-quoted saying, “You’ve gotta’ take the crookeds with the straights.”

Although the comments on race relations in a changing world and the inequities that existed throughout this period of time in our nation’s history are relevant to the older playgoers, the core emotions of the play deal with love for one’s family, doing your best, being straight and honest in the world, and paying the consequences if you’re not.

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