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Will “Won’t Back Down” Win Viola Davis an Oscar?

September 24, 2012

When it hits theaters this Friday, Won’t Back Down is bound to stir a political debate. Some critics are already attacking the Fox drama, about two mothers who attempt to organize the takeover of a failing public school, as anti-union. Still, one point isn’t likely to be argued: Viola Davis is magnificent in the film. But come Oscar time, will the third time be the charm for the twice-nominated actress?

Davis gives an impressively nuanced performance as Nona Alberts, a burned-out teacher whose passion for education is reawakened by the campaign of an indefatigable single mom (the almost equally award-worthy Maggie Gyllenhaal) to get her dyslexic daughter the assistance she needs. Together they rally parents, students and educators to battle intransigent school-board bureaucrats—and yes, teachers’-union operatives—in their effort to remake their elementary school.

Written and directed by Daniel Barnz (the aptly named teen romance Beastly), Won’t Back Down bites off more than it can chew. Even at an overlong two hours, it doesn’t have enough time to give proper attention to Davis’ flailing marriage to an upwardly mobile architect (The Wire‘s Lance Reddick) or Gyllenhaal’s burgeoning romance with an idealistic teacher (W.E.‘s Oscar Isaac). Yet both actresses manage to find the emotional truth in their often-underwritten scenes. Davis even knocks it out of the park when a late-inning revelation about her character’s backstory comes out of left field. If she does win an Oscar for the fim, it’ll be for that scene—a confession to her son about an incident early in his life that has haunted her for years.

Won’t Back Down was originally scheduled for release in March, to cash in on Davis’ presumed Oscar win for her impassioned performance as a Civil Rights Era Southern maid who, yes, won’t back down in The Help. Then it became clear she was destined to lose to The Iron Lady‘s Meryl Streep—with whom she’d costarred in Doubt, which had earned Davis her first Oscar nod for a single, powerful scene as a Catholic-school student’s mother. So Fox and the film’s producers, Walden Media, delayed its release until this Fall, to make it a stronger contender for this year’s Oscars.

Davis’ chances of winning are unclear at this point; she may have to compete not just against Gyllenhaal but, once again, Streep, who’s earned raves as an overlooked wife in the late summer sleeper Hope Springs. Oscar hopes also spring for actresses ranging from Beasts of the Southern Wild‘s wunderkind Quvenzhané Wallis to Anna Karenina‘s perennially overrated Keira Knightley. And don’t count out onetime winner Helen Hunt, who’s rumored to be as good as it gets as a professional sex surrogate opposite likely Best Actor nominee John Hawkes in The Sessions.

But even if she doesn’t win this time, Davis will no doubt remain a contender for years to come. If only someone would’ve filmed her Tony-winning turn as Denzel Washington’s fed-up spouse in August Wilson’s Fences. I was lucky enough to see it live on Broadway, and I can testify: This woman is a national treasure.

Do you think Viola Davis will win an Oscar someday? Post a comment!

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