“You make me proud to be an artist,” Davis told Streep. “You make me feel that what I have in me — my body, my face, my age — is enough. You encapsulate that great Émile Zola quote that if you ask me as an artist what I came into this world to do, I as an artist would say, I came to live out loud.”
Streep’s reign as America’s most celebrated actress has been long, but it can’t last forever. What’s becoming clear is that, if there’s a succession plan, Davis is next in line. Not only is she a phenomenal actor, but she really makes a splash at awards shows.
It took long enough to come to this conclusion.
Davis had already been working as an actor for more than a decade when she finally got the role that would transform her career. She had been toiling in obscurity for the most part, other than bit roles in Steven Soderbergh’s movies “Out of Sight” and “Traffic” and a recurring guest spot on “Law & Order: SVU” (while getting accolades for her Off-Broadway work). But then “Doubt” happened.
In the 2008 movie, she starred opposite serious heavyweights, including Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, not to mention an up-and-coming ingenue by the name of Amy Adams. But Davis completely stole the show as the mother of an altar boy who may or may not be getting abused by a shifty priest. In a showdown scene between Davis and Streep, Streep faded into the background as Davis sobbed so hard her nose started to run. Viewers had to ask themselves: Did Meryl just get upstaged? And the answer was a definitive yes.
Davis got her first Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for the role, but she lost out, respectively, to Penélope Cruz doing relatively lightweight work in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and Kate Winslet in “The Reader.”
About the same time, Streep won an award from the Screen Actors Guild for “Doubt,” and during her acceptance speech, she made a point of calling out Davis’s work on the film. She deemed Davis “gigantically gifted” before throwing up her hands and screaming into the microphone, “My god, someone give her a movie!”
Someone did, with the 2011 drama “The Help,” which secured Davis a SAG award, plus Globe and Oscar nominations. She was considered a favorite for the Oscar, but wouldn’t you know it? Streep was up for the same award, for playing Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady,” and won.
Even so, Davis’s destiny was becoming increasingly clear. She may not have gotten a lot of great leading movie roles right away, but she pivoted to where some of the more interesting and inclusive stories are being told: television. She landed a great part in Shonda Rhimes’s “How to Get Away With Murder” and won her first Emmy for it in 2015. That also introduced the world to her knack for powerful, poetic acceptance speeches.
Davis was the first black woman to win an Emmy for lead actress in a drama, and she started her speech with the words of Harriet Tubman: “In my mind I see a line, and over that line I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line but I can’t seem to get there no how, I can’t seem to get over that line.” She also took Hollywood to task, saying that the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that simply are not there.”
In the meantime, Davis has remained a standout, even in some middling movies, such as “Suicide Squad” and “Lila & Eve.” And with the moving drama “Fences,” she is poised to win her first Oscar later this year.
Earlier this month, Davis received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and you can probably guess who presented it to her: Streep.
“Viola Davis is possessed,” Streep said during the ceremony. “She’s so alive, she glistens. She plants herself in a scene where she has no words, and she writes paragraphs with her eyes. She’s a force of nature … and she’s the most generous, present person I know. She has earned every step on the ladder to the leadership position she now enjoys in this business.”
And if anyone knows talent, it’s Streep.