How (Not) to Compare Viola Davis to Meryl Streep

I wrote this as a comment on a Facebook post that, in discussing a tweet comparing Meryl Streep, Angela Basset, and Viola Davis, suggests that Viola Davis lacks range.

Can Meryl and Viola be compared? I think so—it’s okay to compare careers for positives. But in the way that said tweet did? I don’t think so because the tweet overlooks many things. They’re both Great Actresses. Meryl is regarded as the greatest actress in modern cinema alongside Katharine Hepburn (who disliked Meryl’s acting due to what she said was an overreliance on technique). In the generation after Meryl’s, Cate Blanchett is considered the greatest. Cate may be in Viola’s age bracket but their breakthroughs came at different times. I’m using Cate to illustrate the gap between the breakout of Meryl in the late 1970s and that of Viola in the late 2000s. Nearly 30 years between the two friends’ breakthroughs although they’re 16 years apart in age—Meryl is 69, Viola is 53.

Racism is real in Hollywood, so Meryl, a White woman, can lay claim to far, far, far more roles than Viola, a Black woman. More roles equals more showcases of range equals more recognition and awards. Still, for someone whose first Oscar nomination was in 2009, Viola already has the most nominations for a Black woman (three, now tied with Octavia Spencer) and is the only Black acting professional to win the Triple Crown of Acting: Tony for Theatre (twice), Emmy for TV, Oscar for film. Also the first Black winner of that Emmy for Best Drama Actress.

Where Meryl had precedents on her path to greatness, Viola is a precedent for non-White actresses. Meryl never carried a TV series and made it, at one time, the highest rated drama on TV. Viola did. While roles are always written for women of Meryl’s race, a woman like Viola, someone not only Black but a dark-skinned Black, has had to struggle for roles. So she takes the ones she gets. Note, though, that the lead roles for How to Get Away with Murder and Widows were both written for White women. Rewritten after Viola got them.

While I think Meryl has the greater technique, I think Viola is the more balanced between technique and emotion. Meryl is efficient but Viola transforms the tiniest of moments into lasting impressions.

Viola Davis receives her Hollywood Walk of Fame Star from Meryl Streep. Image from Vanity Fair.

They’ve been in a film together: Doubt (2008), in which Meryl is the lead and Viola has 12 minutes, all spent with Meryl in one scene regarded as a rare moment in which Meryl was outshone. Those 12 minutes alone got Viola her first Oscar nomination, for Supporting Actress.

They’ve contested an award: Best Actress recognition in 2012—Meryl in The Iron Lady, Viola in The Help—and Meryl’s win is regarded as an upset. Over the years, for her excellence and the extraordinary, really extraordinary love the industry has for her, Meryl has three Oscars from 21 nominations. Despite the barriers provided by racism, Viola has one from three. The ratio is (if I still recall my math) 1:7 vs 1:3. Viola’s is higher.

In a 2017 analysis, The Guardian UK‘s chief film critic, Peter Bradshaw, rated Viola in Fences as the greatest ever best supporting actress Oscar winning performance; Meryl in Sophie’s Choice was rated the greatest best actress winner.

Who do I think is a better actress? Give Viola 20 more years and varied leading roles and then we will have that conversation.

I must add, too, that people see Annalise Keating in every Viola role because that character is so iconic and recent. If you lived in the 1980s, you’d know that Meryl was associated with her character in Sophie’s Choice. Also, other modern greats are associated with specific roles: like Helen Mirren is for The Queen.

Game of Thrones Better End This Way

 

Discussing Game of Thrones is one of the few times random people are allowed to publicly wish death on other people and to invent ways for them to die. If you’ve been paying attention, really paying attention—and I don’t mean memorizing the names of dragons—you’d know now that ONLY  a woman will sit on that damn Iron Throne. One of the marvellous things about the show, which isn’t easy to spot beneath all the nudity and violence, is how it set itself up to be a feminist affair: how the focus gradually shifted from the men in the early seasons—Ned Stark, Robert Baratheon, Tyrion Lannister, Joffrey Baratheon, Robb Stark, Tywin Lannister—to the women now: Cersei Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, Sansa Stark, Arya Stark. Even if Jon Snow is still central.

So here’s how I want the series to end.

Something Happens to Jamie Lannister

I grew really fond of him and was upset that the Emmy for Supporting Actor in a Drama Series that should have been his went to Tyrion Lannister’s Peter Dinklage. Still.

Something Happens to Jon Snow

I’ve never understood how he became so popular. I mean, I understand, but he needs to go for the show to make sense. He already died once, then returned probably to appease fans (although I don’t know what happens in the books), and now he’s done his job. If they insist and keep him as the Ice in “Ice and Fire,” then that’d be rigging.

Cersei Lannister Disappears

The bad ones die eventually: seems to be a mantra of the show. But Cersei has been the person most deserving of the Iron Throne, the one with the right amount of wit and ruthlessness to keep it firmly. She did what she had to do to get here and she’s not going down that easily—for peeps hoping Arya or even Jamie kills her. I imagine Cersei realizing they can’t beat the Night King and cutting a deal with whoever captures or traps her and then escaping—to who knows where. That’d be too easy for her, yeah, but if Joffrey died merely from poisoning after all he did, then all’s fair. Also, she’s actually my favourite character since Season 6.

Something Happens to Daenerys Targaryen

When I started watching this series, I was interested the most in this woman’s story. Somewhere in Season 6, she lost me to Cersei. I like dragons, but she has so much going for her—not that she hasn’t endured her fair share of suffering. Her obsession with getting people to “bend the knee” is curious. Or not, actually. Just puts me off. Keeping her will be the most predictable—and ridiculous—move by the showrunners. I imagine her offering a deal to the Night King as well.

Something (Maybe) Happens to Arya Stark

Her transformation into arguably the greatest fighter in the Seven Kingdoms is one for the ages. While I suspect they’ll take her also, I’d rather she stayed alive as her sister’s bodyguard.

Sansa Stark wins the Iron Throne

She’s remembered more for her naivety than anything else, but nobody is better suited for that ugly sword-stacked seat than Sansa. Born and raised in the North, suffered and learned in the South, twice forced into marriage, abused, abused: I maintain that nobody has suffered more than the Lady of Winterfell, certainly emotionally. But nobody has grown as much, also, not Daenerys, not Cersei—both of whom have grown tremendously. Born with kindness, she learned ruthless calculation from Cersei, learned ruthless politics from Little Finger, and will be learning from Daenerys soon. The Northern elders trust her more than they do Jon Snow. After they are all gone, she will be the only royal blood capable of sitting on that chair. Aside Tyrion.

Tyrion Lannister becomes Hand or Husband to Queen Sansa

Tyrion will survive because George R.R. Martins likes him the most. In ways, the show is his, has always been his, but it’d be too easy to make him king, even with the Targeryean blood. He’ll do what he does best: advise. Maybe he’ll get lucky and marry the new Queen. He’d have made the best monarch in the series, though.

 

If this doesn’t happen.