Viola Davis may be the most impressive actress working today. She commands television including Emmies, Broadway including Tonies, and films including a recent Oscar for “Fences” and this year an Oscar for her title role in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
Davis struts her stuff as Ma Rainey, not the least of which is her willingness to look and sound like a “mother of the blues.” Davis’s rough and ready depiction comes off quite sympathetic. Rainey was a star in the 1920s, making the hard-fought most of her blackness.
Note: see reference to Viola Davis in a Meryl Streep context. in the Manufactured Mailbox (page 2).
Might the fact that Davis doesn’t do the singing ding her out of an Oscar. Her earthy manner acting the songs and throughout the film is plenty good for Gold. It ain’t just great acting; it’s an Oscar type role.
The problem for Davis is two other very different kinds of Oscar excellence in the Best Actress race. Frances McDormand gives a humbly radiant performance in “Nomadland.” Carey Mulligan seers a challenging twist on a movie heroine in “A Promising Young Woman.”
Compared with Best Actor there is a tendency for Best Actress to be awarded to younger performers. Carey Mulligan fills that bill. As for acting chops, Mulligan pulls off a nice-girl vulnerability that is keenly stoked by her character’s vengeful and calculating purpose. It is a tensely applaudable acting job. The ground Mulligan treads not only assures the acting triumph. It’s gonna scare away enough voters to keep her from winning. This time around the in-your-face Viola Davis performance is going to nose ahead of Carey’s more nuanced performance.
With Frances McDormand, though, the subtler intensity and vitality undercuts the advantages of Davis’s flamboyant excellence. It’s a performance that says, “I’m going to be on screen virtually the whole picture, with long looks at my face, and even though not too much really happens, what you get to see is Gold. I’d actually like for McDormand to take
home Oscar. Here’s the confessed predictive edge..The competitive edge goes to the winner of the Screen Actors Guild Best Actress – Viola Davis.
Despite the lauded attention on Davis, McDormand, and Mulligan, it’s important to lavish kudos on Andra Day in the title role of “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” It reminds that it may be time to watch Diana Ross again playing Holiday in “Lady Sings the Blues.” Regardless, Billie Holiday is a ripe centerpiece for a musical movie, a dramatic movie, an American movie. Andra Day immerses herself in these elements and Billie Holiday’s legacy. Her song, “Strange Fruit” (about lynched Blacks hanging from the trees), centers a story that’s bigger than a story.
Only Vanessa Kirby fades completely in the Oscar conversation, though she is very good as the mer of a baby that dies shortly after being born. After its incredible start, the substantive dynamics of “Pieces of a Woman” feel a bit herky jerky. While the film is recommendable, it only sorta works and definitely siphons some of the Oscar-contending steam out of Vanessa Kirby’s excellence.
Could recent Oscars for both Davis and McDormand leave room for the younger Carey Mulligan or Andra Day, who won the Golden Globe for Best Actress. Nah.