[EDITOR’S NOTE: Press Play presents “Should Win,” a series of video essays advocating winners in seven Academy Awards categories: supporting actor and actress, best actor and actress, best director and best picture. These are consensus choices hashed out by a pool of Press Play contributors. We’ll roll out the rest of the series between now and Friday. Follow along HERE as Press Play picks the rest of the categories including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Documentary. Important notice: Press Play is aware that our videos can not be played on Apple mobile devices. We are, therefore, making this and every video in this series available on Vimeo for these Press Play readers. If you own an Apple mobile device, click here.]
Four out the five performances nominated for Best Actress are in part based on fulfilling audiences’ preconceived notions of what they should be. Both Meryl Streep and Michelle Williams do impersonations on the level of genius. Streep dares to make Margaret Thatcher seem all too human; Williams lets us look beyond Marilyn Monroe’s wiggle and teasing smile and see the insecurity, sadness and natural born talent that is required to be a star. Rooney Mara becomes a star by bringing to life one of popular literature’s most revered heroines in recent history. She allows us to feel the heat of Lisbeth Salander’s rage and burgeoning soul. Glenn Close pulls off a stunt that some actors believe is the ultimate test of their talent, be it Dustin Hoffman, Linda Hunt or Hilary Swank.
But it’s Viola Davis as Aibileen Clark in The Help who creates a character from scratch. She makes us feel the anger and unbearable sadness that comes from raising and caring for 17 white kids over the years only to have some of them grow up and see their affection turn to indifference and casual cruelty, all the while enduring the pain of burying her only son.
The power of the performance is in Davis’ eyes. They take in everything – tossed-off racist remarks, a child’s need to be comforted. And her voice, which never rises above a formal submissiveness, quivers with a boiling anger that stands for generations of women whose hard work goes unnoticed. It’s a voice that needs to be heard.
The character could be seen as an example of Hollywood condescension: the quietly suffering noble black domestic. But Davis makes Aibileen unforgettable by cueing us into her quiet defiance. She knows a change is coming but worries if it’s too late. Aibileen may not possess the recklessness of youth, but in her own way she takes a stand. Davis may not raise her voice but we hear her loud and clear.
Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of Press Play. He is also a film critic and award-winning filmmaker. San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.