Viola Davis won an Oscar for “Fences” on Sunday night at the Dolby Theatre, but does she really deserve it?
I’m not saying Davis isn’t awards-worthy — after all, she won the Tony Award for playing the same role of Rose, the long-suffering wife of embittered former Negro league ballplayer Troy Maxson, in the 2010 Broadway revival of August Wilson’s powerhouse play. Her performance is raw and fierce, standing toe-to-toe with Denzel Washington’s Troy and serving as the vibrant, beating heart of the film.
The problem isn’t with the performance. It’s with the category: Best Supporting Actress.
You could argue that Davis’ is a supporting performance for the first two-thirds of the film — but in the last act, Troy is no longer on screen, and Rose dominates the homestretch of the film. It’s no wonder that the Tony Award she won for “Fences” was for Best Actress in a Play, the category devoted to lead performances.
What’s more, an Oscar victory for Davis marks the third consecutive year that the Best Supporting Actress award has gone to an actress who is arguably deserving of Best Actress consideration.
Alicia Vikander won last year for “The Danish Girl,” in which she’s on screen every bit as much as her co-star Eddie Redmayne, who was nominated for Best Actor. The year before, Patricia Arquette won for “Boyhood,” which could easily have been retitled “Motherhood.”
Over those years, meanwhile, the supporting-actor Oscars went to Mark Rylance in “Bridge of Spies” and J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash,” both distinctly supporting performances that were secondary to those films’ stars, Tom Hanks and Miles Teller, respectively.
And this year’s likely winner, Mahershala Ali, delivers a textbook supporting performance and then disappears after the first third of “Moonlight.”
So why do so many lead performances seem to be competing in the Best Supporting Actress category?
Certainly, the decision to campaign for Davis in the supporting category — and before that, to campaign Vikander and Arquette the same way — was made by the studios and the actresses’ teams for practical and strategic reasons, mostly because they had a better chance of winning there.
But the fact is, studios can do it because voters will accept it. And voters will accept it because they’ve been conditioned to think that movies are almost always about the men, no matter how much screen time the women have.
Modern films, it seems, are so relentlessly from the viewpoint of the male characters that we accept women as being supporting, even when they do as much as their male co-stars.
Four of this year’s five Best Supporting Actress nominees — Davis, Naomie Harris from “Moonlight,” Nicole Kidman from “Lion” and Michelle Williams from “Manchester by the Sea” — have what is arguably the largest female role in their films. So did four out of five last year, and the year before.
Meanwhile, the only Best Supporting Actor nominee this year who’s the top-billed male in his cast is Dev Patel of “Lion,” but he’s only in half the movie because his part is played by Sunny Pawar for the first 53 minutes. None of the supporting actors nominated for the previous five years had the largest male role in their films.
The lead female character, it seems, is often considered a supporting part. The lead male character almost never is.
So if we need another symptom of how male-centric Hollywood is, it’s right in front of us on Sunday, walking the red carpet with Viola Davis.
And it was there on the stage of the Dolby Theatre, standing next to Alicia Vikander when she presented the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to a guy (Mahershala Ali of “Moonlight”) who won for a role that was much smaller than the one she won for a year ago.
It’s just another example of Hollywood gender bias, Oscar style.