SBIFF, Day 2: 'The Help' Star Viola Davis Honored as Year's Outstanding Performer

Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, presented the festival's statuette to the newly-minted best actress Oscar nominee.
"The Help"

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.

For Davis, the most daunting part of playing Aibileen Clark, a black maid for white families in the 1960s south, was the knowldge that Aibileen, like so many women of her race and generation, kept most of her thoughts and feelings to herself -- "98% of it was internalized," the actress estimated -- which posed a terrific and terrifying acting challenge, but one that she says she welcomed.

The ceremony came to a close in a poignant way: Myrlie Evers-Williams, the 68-year-old widow of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers (whose tragic death motivated the maids in The Help to agree to share their stories), took the stage on behalf of the festival to present Davis with her prize. After receiving a standing ovation, Evers-Williams offered a ringing endorsement of both Davis ("Aibilene and Viola live the truth") and The Help ("This year's most outstanding and socially-relevant motion picture"), she handed off the statuette to a very grateful Davis. "If anyone can speak to the authenticity of that time period," Davis stated, "it's her."

Davis' SBIFF acceptance speech struck me as a possible rough draft for a potential Oscar acceptance speech. She recalled being in third grade and challenging a bully to a race, only to realize that she would have to run it barefoot because her family couldn't afford to buy her shoes that actually fit her; she ran anyway, and she won. Davis said she sees it as "a metaphor for my life."

Hollywood, and especially the Academy, loves the story of an underdog like Davis, a likable person who has managed, against all odds, to triumph over adversity of just about every variety. The question that remains to be answered, however, is whether they love her more than Streep, with whom Davis is now sharing not eight minutes of screen time, but rather frontrunner status in the best actress Oscar race.