Saturday, May 25, 2024

Viola Davis Gets the Chaplin Award, Meryl Streep and Jessica Chastain Toast Her, Denzel is MIA

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The newly minted EGOT, Viola Davis, is having a moment. More than one speaker at this week’s Film at Lincoln Center’s gala noted what distinguishes Davis in the awards world. Now she can add the Chaplin Award, presented to a film artist for film career achievement.

By all measure, Davis has had an astonishing career. Clip after clip, in big and small movies, she melts into character, never looking the same, whether she’s the mother Mrs. Miller looking respectable in hat and gloves in “Doubt,” the housewife Rose giving Denzel Washington the what for, in “Fences,” or festooned in war gear as in “The Woman King,” in housemaid apron as in “The Help,” or the grieving wife in “Widows,” or gaudily made-up and hefty as “Ma Rainey.” When words come, she delivers every speech as if it were Shakespearean, with Oscar worthy gravitas. I said as much, reviewing her most recent movie, “AIR.” Playing Michael Jordan’s mother, a woman so fierce in her demands for her son, she elevates a business negotiation with Nike, making it a speech about knowing one’s worth.

Scripted or not in Ben Affleck’s movie, this recognition of self-worth was precisely how the Chaplin Award tributes—from Jayme Lawson, Meryl Streep, Gina Prince-Bythewood, George C. Wolfe, and Jessica Chastain—might be summed up. My favorite speech of the night came from Meryl Streep, not only because she’s naturally funny, but because she actually went through a scene from “Doubt” telling precisely how Davis works—not told in Davis’ memoir, “Finding Me.” Playwright/ director John Patrick Shanley was putting them through their paces on the scene when Streep as a nun confronts Davis as Mrs. Miller about the priest who is taking liberties with her son. As scenes go, this one is through the roof emotional as Davis tries to explain how her abused son needs male guidance, no matter what. Take after take, Davis was giving her all and Shanley wanted to keep going. Seeing Davis go to a heart wrenching place each time, Streep asked Shanley, what are you doing? He did not like the way a leaf in the background was blowing. Davis nailed it every time she was asked.

While the speakers each added something to the program, you had to wonder, where were the others—such as Matt Damon (AIR) and Sandra Bullock (The Unforgivable)—all featured in the clips? They in fact were down Broadway at the opening of “Good Night, Oscar.” (Also conspicuously missing: Denzel Washington , her frequent collaborator.) Feted royally, Davis received her award from “Widows” director Steve McQueen, and made her speech a kind of confession: “I could be saying, ‘I am back to where I started, here at Julliard—ha, ha, Julliard kicked my ass. But I’ll say this, My art is my gift from my soul that I give to you’.”

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