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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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If We Picked the Winners 2017: Best Supporting Actress

In anticipation of the Academy Awards, we polled our contributors to see what they thought should win the Oscar. Once we had our winners, we asked various writers to make the case for our selection in each category. Here, Christy Lemire makes the case for the Best Supporting Actress of 2016: Viola Davis in "Fences." Two winners will be announced Monday through Thursday, ending in our choices for Best Director and Best Picture on Friday.


By now, we all know what a formidable actress Viola Davis is. She is a powerhouse, with seemingly boundless versatility. And in “Fences,” she gives an emotional gut-punch of a performance as Rose Maxson, a wife and mother who’s tirelessly supported her family at the expense of her own personal happiness in 1950s, working-class Pittsburgh.

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Certainly, having the benefit of August Wilson’s vivid, robust dialogue doesn’t hurt, nor does co-starring opposite Denzel Washington, who also directed this lean, spirited film version of Wilson’s play. Davis and Washington also played these roles in a Broadway revival of “Fences” in 2010, and their comfort with each other and the rhythms of Wilson’s densely packed writing is evident. She has a couple of big monologues that will leave you in tears; the emotion that comes flowing like a torrent is so real, you can’t help but connect with it, even though you may have nothing in common with this very specific character in this very specific place and time.

But it’s the subtlety within the journey to those moments that gives them their resonance. Davis reveals Rose’s warmth and humor, her tenderness and vulnerability. Truly, it’s a leading role opposite Washington’s trash-talking Troy, not a supporting one. Similar to Jennifer Connelly’s performance opposite Russell Crowe in “A Beautiful Mind”—which earned her the supporting-actress Oscar in 2002—Davis is Washington’s equal here. She’s every bit as vital to this poignant story. But that also gives her plenty of room to swagger and shine—to make us laugh, and break our hearts.

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