Viola Davis is fabulous. The panache! That raw emotional availability! She gives you so many things at the same time. Her mournful, spluttering mouth can recall Sandy Dennis, yet that upright black citizen righteousness is pure Sidney Poitier, with a muscular razor passion that brings the Brando. And have you seen her interview? Viola can be funny! I want her to get big, really big -- a combo Oprah and Meryl Streep. I understand any and all objections to The Help, but I loved Viola in it. For me, that Aibileen character totally embodies the struggle "to stand up straight in a crooked room," a brilliant concept of modern black womanhood described in chapter one of Melissa V. Harris-Perry's staggering book Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, (subtitled For Colored Girls Who've Considered Politics When Being Strong Isn't Enough). This may be me watching with rose-colored glasses, but I found Viola's presence in The Help so strong that it annihilates whatever trouble is in the text.
Aibileen is not Viola's first fabulously performed role as an emotionally roiled servant. She was Sybil, the black maid in Todd Haynes' deliriously purple Far from Heaven, a riff on 1950s Douglas Sirk melodramas. Julianne Moore plays a well-to-do suburban white lady so lonely and zonked out she's got no clue that her Larry-Craig-esque gay husband hates her, or that by choosing to get all interracially codependent on the hunky black gardener (Dennis Haysbert), she puts him, his family and herself in terrible physical risk. Nice lady, right? Laced throughout this pulp is Viola's woeful and agitated Sybil, who, in a very few scenes, makes beautifully clear that she's the only character who understands everything that's going on here and how life can really suck. Quietly kept, she's the heartbeat of the movie.
A couple of years later Viola played a politico "maid" of the Condoleezza sort in Stephen Gaghan's Syriana, in which she bluntly informs George Clooney's embittered CIA operative that he'd better deliver the war-monger party line of "undigested material" or face a desk job. He refuses, so she cleans his clock, bureaucratic dragon lady style. Her hard-nosed impatience is key to establishing the film's complex "anything goes" geopolitical malevolence. It's fabulous.
That's why I want Viola as a new level of Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave gay icon. She can play any kind of person you want, 'cause no matter what, she will make it real, but she also can't help but make it diva.
So I didn't mind The Help. I saw it like an old King Vidor movie, he of the over-the-top Ayn Rand Objectivism antics in The Fountainhead, or Hallelujah, a pioneering, anti-stereotype, "all-negro" musical. Vidor stuff is earthy yet excessive hot mess, in the sense of Steel Magnolias or Beaches, two weepies beloved by many of my gay friends who happen to be of Caucasian descent, but not me. I preferred Diana Ross in the intense (if faux) Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues. But I've got a thing for ahistorical potboilers. Gimme Frances with Jessica Lange as Frances Farmer and Kim Stanley as her vile mother (and a devastating score by John Barry) over any Fried Green Tomatoes. But I digress. There's a bigger picture at stake. A cool possible effect of Viola Davis as magnificent movie icon would be to counter a depressing article I read this summer. It says that "white audiences tend to stay away from movies featuring minorities due to the assumption they are not the films' intended audience," and blames this cultural shift on "the studios' all-too-effective marketing strategies." But, "white reluctance to see films with black actors can be overcome ... if more mainstream movies cast minorities ... If multiracial casts became the norm and movies were marketed to all demographics, the stigma could fade away."
Maybe with her androgynous elegance and powerful resolve, Viola could blaze such a cinematic trail, becoming an iconoclastic queer idol like Annie Lennox, as well as an African-American female legend in the Alice Walker mold -- but summer movie blockbuster style. Then in the wake of such success, a wealth of interesting new films and premium television could happen, authored by actors, writers, producers and directors of all backgrounds -- as to be somehow intrinsically "black" yet completely universal at the same time.
So yeah! Vote Viola for the next gay-icon-slash-mainstream-superstar. Consider this, even though it's not discussed much: Viola is also a stone-cold fox. Maybe not exactly Anna Magnani, but she could still work a pretty dress and sling some handsome bachelor around. I want to see Viola Davis and George Clooney reunited in a remake of the silly 1958 Cary Grant/Sophia Loren rom-com Houseboat. Why not? Let's do this, people! Anybody can be anything.