It took about an hour of speeches saluting Viola Davis during the Film at Lincoln Center’s 48th annual Chaplin Gala before someone addressed the elephant in the room.
“When I see a movie like ‘The Woman King,’ it has Viola’s fingerprints all over it,” said Davis’ “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” co-star Jessica Chastain. “A movie like that with a female director and a cast of powerful Black female leads can get made in Hollywood today because of Viola’s lifelong advocacy for women of color. Maybe one day a movie like that can get nominated for an Oscar.”
The statement was met with enthusiastic applause from an audience comprised of Lincoln Center donors, industry colleagues, and plenty of acting students from Davis’ alma mater, Juilliard. It was an explicit callout to the biggest Oscar snub to cast a shadow over last year’s awards season, and contextualized a celebration that made up for the missed opportunity.
Davis’ performance as an African war general seemed like a shoo-in for the Best Actress category after the Sony release grossed close to $100 million following its successful launch on the fall circuit, yet Davis was shut out of the category, while the movie itself garnered zero nominations — an outcome that led to questions about whether the Academy had truly addressed its diversity problems in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite.
At a dinner following the ceremony, where board members shelled out as much as $100,000 per table for the fundraising event, Chastain — who has two months left in the Broadway production of “A Doll’s House” — was still reeling about the exclusion. “Someone had to say it,” she told IndieWire. “I mean, come on. Not a single Oscar nomination for that movie? There had to be some Academy members in that room, right?”
Indeed there were. The crowd ranged from CAA heavyweight Kevin Huvane to prolific documentarian Roger Ross Williams, as well as several other notable actors and filmmakers who took the stage during the ceremony to praise Davis, only the third EGOT winner to receive the Chaplin tribute Mike Nichols and Audrey Hepburn. Notwithstanding Davis’ 2016 Oscar win for “Fences,” the event made the case that the 57-year-old actress’ talent has often been under-appreciated — and in some cases, the highlight of otherwise forgettable movies. For every “Widows” or “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” there are lesser-known gigs such as “Troop Zero” and “Lila & Eve” where she still manages to stand out.
“Widows” filmmaker Steven McQueen acknowledged as much in his speech. “Watching these clips on the screen is like watching Mike Tyson knockouts,” he said. “It’s Viola and someone else listening. You see someone who is truth. It’s scary and revealing.”
While “Woman King” director Gina Prince-Bythewood didn’t address the recent snub in the explicit terms of her editorial earlier this year, she spoke to the cultural impact of the performance. “The number of audiences who have shared that this film and her performance as Nanisca has literally changed their lives is stunning and inspiring,” Prince-Bythewood said. “It’s why we have fought so hard to allow Black female characters to show their mess.”
She also heralded Davis’ “insane work ethic,” a notion echoed by Meryl Streep, who recalled working with Davis on John Patrick Shanley’s 2008 “Doubt,” Davis’s onscreen breakout that resulted in her first Oscar nomination. Streep recalled her frustrations when Shanley kept asking for more takes of the scene in which Davis, as the mother of a child at a Catholic school who may have been abused by its priest, pushes back on allegations from Streep’s nun. “I said, ‘You’re killing this actor,’” Streep recalled. “I know an Oscar performance when I see one.”
Shanley insisted they come back the following week for additional shoots, which was when Davis delivered the devastating performance that wound up in the movie. “The greatest artists have a gift for conveying what it is to be human,” Streep said. “It’s just undeniable and it can’t be stopped by lack of opportunity.”
The event doubled as a soft launch for what could end up being Davis’ next Oscar campaign for her turn as Michael Jordan’s mother Deloris in “Air,” a movie that didn’t appear in any of the montages from Davis’ work but received a standalone clip towards the end of the show. The scene finds Deloris pressing for Matt Damon’s Nike executive to accept a deal that promises her son will receive indefinite revenues from Air Jordan sales, though it doubles as an argument for pay equity that Davis has pressed for across the industry.
Amazon expects big numbers for the movie when it lands on the streaming service in May following its wide theatrical release, as it inches toward $50 million box office in North America. However, “Air” director Ben Affleck and others associated with the performance did not attend the gala, as the studio is likely to wait until later this year to unleash more advocacy for that performance.
In her own speech concluding the ceremony, Davis hewed to the bigger picture of her career, striking the same rousing note of her memoir “Finding Me,” which came out last year. “The biggest regret of the dying is never becoming your ideal self,” she said. “I do believe that we’re thrust into a world where we don’t fit in. A lot of people sell a bill of goods along the way — that if you get some awards, you mean something. … You swim through all the bad, filthy swill until you come to the really, really stark conclusion that you want to leave this Earth becoming who you know deep within I’m supposed to be. That transcends status.”