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The Help Davis

January 28, 2012 by staff 

The Help Davis, The second day of the 27th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival was highlighted by the presentation of the Outstanding Performer of the Year Award to the actress Viola Davis for her portrayal of a grieving maid in the summer blockbuster The Help.

The ceremony took place Friday evening at Santa Barbara’s historic Arlington Theatre. The honor — which has previously been presented to the likes of James Franco (2011), Colin Firth (2010), Penelope Cruz (2009), Angelina Jolie (2008), Dame Helen Mirren (2007), Heath Ledger (2006), Kate Winslet (2005) and Charlize Theron (2004) — makes Davis only the third two-time SBIFF honoree (she was one of the recipients of SBIFF’s Virtuoso Award three years ago), the others being Annette Bening and Winslet.

On Tuesday morning, the chameleonic character actress received her first best actress Oscar nomination for her work in The Help — her second overall, after the best supporting actress Oscar nom that she received three years ago for eight minutes of work opposite Meryl Streep in Doubt (2008). On Friday evening, following a brief introduction by Octavia Spencer, her co-star in and fellow Oscar nominee for The Help, Davis eloquently fielded questions for about two hours from SBIFF moderator/IndieWire blogger Anne Thompson, discussing at-length her difficult childhood, the ups-and-downs of her 30-year acting career, and what it’s like to be a black woman in Hollywood in the 21st century.

Unlike many previous SBIFF honorees, Davis’ ascent to this point in her career has been anything but smooth. Indeed, the actress said she has spent the majority of her career hoping just to remain gainfully employed, as opposed to artistically satisfied. She suggested that roles for women of color on the big screen — when they are written at all — tend to be underdeveloped, forcing her and others to try to “make filet mignon out of fried chicken.” (She has enjoyed far greater opportunities on the stage, and has two Tony Awards under her belt).

It is only in recent years, Davis says, that she has found film opportunities that left her creatively fulfilled. She described working with Streep on Doubt as “the highlight of my life,” noting that she followed the legendary actress around on set, badgered her with questions, sniffed her perfume, and was generally “obsessive,” while finding her to be a generous and “150% committed” scene partner. She also disclosed that, upon reading the novel The Help, she became so infatuated with its cinematic possibilities that she attempted to buy its rights, only to find that they were already owned by Tate Taylor, a young writer-director who wanted her to play its principal character anyway.

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