The 50 Greatest Actors Alive: No. 44 Viola Davis

The 50 Greatest Actors Alive: No. 44 Viola Davis

Every week through the remainder of 2014, Yahoo Movies is counting down Hollywood's 50 very best working actors and actresses. Come back to Yahoo Movies every Thursday to see who makes the cut.

Greatest Actor Alive (No. 44): Viola Davis

Age: 48

Stating the Case: Viola Davis is awesome. Really, she should have her photograph next to the term "screen presence" in whatever books that term might be in. The Oscar-nominated star of "The Help" (2011) and "Doubt" (2008) can just stand (or sit) there and without saying a word will completely dominate the scene. The lady pulls no punches and delivers a powerful performance every time.

It's probably got something to do with the fact that she comes from the stage and knows how to woo, work, and command an audience. Davis was a theater major at Rhode Island College and trained for four years at Juilliard School, honing and perfecting her craft while treading the boards before landing her first screen role at the age of 30 in "The Substance of Fire" (1996), based on the play (natch) by Jon Robin Baitz. Today, she's a veteran of nearly 30 feature films, with several more on the way. We won't be missing any of them.

Breakthrough Role: It was full speed ahead on a Hollywood career once Davis snagged the role of Moselle Miller in "Out of Sight" (1998). She had very little screen time, but she got to play off both Jennifer Lopez and Isaiah Washington as a woman getting a little tired of being the wife of a live-wire criminal (Don Cheadle). "Out of Sight" was the first of several collaborations with director Steven Soderbergh, as they went on to work together on "Traffic" (2000) and "Solaris" (2002), which Soderbergh directed, and "Far From Heaven" (2002) and "Syriana" (2005), which Soderbergh produced.

The Best of the Best:

5. "Prisoners" (2013): Davis brought a sense of deep melancholy to her role as Nancy Birch, a suburban Pennsylvania mother whose young daughter Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) is kidnapped on a rainy Thanksgiving. Hugh Jackman stomps and seethes his way through this dark morality play while Davis maintains a quiet and somewhat sinister intensity.

4. "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (2011): Davis plays Abby Black, the first of 472 "Blacks" listed in the New York phone book and the first one visited by young Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) as he tries to solve a mystery left by his father (Tom Hanks), who died on 9/11. Davis inspires cheers as Abby eventually helps Oskar solve the puzzle by leading him to her ex-husband, William (Jeffrey Wright).

3. "Antwone Fisher" (2002): Davis first got on the radar of Hollywood awards-givers with her portrayal of Eva Mae Fisher, the estranged mother of troubled orphan turned U.S. Navy sailor Antwone Fisher (Derek Luke). The climactic (and cathartic) reunion between mother and son is perhaps the best of many terrific scenes in this biographical drama directed by Denzel Washington.

2. "Doubt" (2008): "I just wanna say, though, it's just till June." Davis gave a heartbreaking (and Oscar-nominated) performance as Mrs. Miller, the mother of Donald (Joseph Foster), a Catholic school student and altar boy who may have engaged in "inappropriate behavior" with Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Mrs. Miller is less concerned about the possible scandal and more about her son getting into a good high school — and staying away from his abusive father.

1. "The Help" (2011): Davis's most celebrated role to date is her excellent turn as Aibileen Clark, a long-suffering but unflinchingly proud housemaid who inspires a sense of confidence and compassion in her young charges with these resonant words of wisdom: "You is kind, you is smart, you is important."

"The Help" was a runaway smash, earning over $169 million at the domestic box office on a budget of $25 million. An extra $47 million-plus from overseas gave it a total worldwide gross of $216.6 million.

With Honors: Davis won the SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role for "The Help" (2011) and the BET Award for Best Actress for both "The Help" and "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close." She received both Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for her lead performance in "The Help" and her supporting performance in "Doubt," and also received an Indendent Spirit Award nomination for Best Supporting Female for "Antwone Fisher."

Really Fun Fact: Davis revealed to Entertainment Weekly in 2012 that she and her husband, Julius Tennon, stayed at George Clooney's 22-room Italian estate on Lake Como for their honeymoon. Davis and Clooney are longtime friends and appeared together in "Out of Sight," "Solaris," and "Syriana."

Trademark: Maintaining dignity and pride against all odds.

Best Fan Tribute: This "Saint Aibileen" candle lights the way to strength, wit, and wisdom.

Most Underappreciated Achievement
: Davis brought a powerful sense of authority to "Solaris," Soderbergh's woefully overlooked tone-poem adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's 1961 sci-fi novel. As Dr. Gordon, Davis tried to convince troubled psychiatrist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) that the woman who's visited him several times during his stay on a space station orbiting a mysterious planet isn't his dead wife but rather... something else. From the second you meet her, you know Gordon's in charge — at least from a logical and scientific point of view, if not an emotional one.


Nobody's Perfect: Davis has actually had a film career almost completely devoid of any considerable embarrassments. We suppose the hokey romance "Nights in Rodanthe" (2008) wasn't anything to write home about, but she held her head high while Richard Gere and Diane Lane made goo-goo eyes at each other. Even "Madea Goes to Jail" (2009) is considered one of the better Tyler Perry outings, and both "Eat Pray Love" (2010) and "Beautiful Creatures" (2013) at least had good intentions.

Moonlighting: Davis began her career on the stage, winning a Tony and a Drama Desk Award for her role in the Broadway production of August Wilson's "King Hedley II" (2001). She also won a second Drama Desk Award for Lynn Nottage's "Intimate Apparel" (2004) and a second Tony and a third Drama Desk Award for Wilson's "Fences" (2010).

And for Her Next Acts: Davis will play Susie Brown, the mother of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, in "Get On Up," opening Aug. 1. The biopic reunites her with her "The Help" director, Tate Taylor, and co-star, Octavia Spencer, who will play James' aunt, Anne Tunney. Davis will also appear opposite Chris Hemsworth in Michael Mann's action thriller, "Cyber," and with her "Out of Sight" co-star, Jennifer Lopez, in the support group drama, "Lila & Eve." Both films are scheduled to hit theaters in 2015.

[The 50 Greatest Actors Alive: No. 50 Brad Pitt]

[The 50 Greatest Actors Alive: No. 49 Sigourney Weaver]

[The 50 Greatest Actors Alive: No. 48 Joaquin Phoenix]

[The 50 Greatest Actors Alive: No. 47 Paul Giamatti]

[The 50 Greatest Actors Alive: No. 46 Forest Whitaker]

[The Greatest Actors Alive: No. 45 Matthew McConaughey]

What qualifies actors for a slot on Yahoo Movies' running list of the 50 Greatest Actors Alive? First, we limited the pool to actors who are still currently working. Other factors taken into consideration: Pure skill in the craft; their ability to disappear underneath the skin of the characters they portray; versatility and the range of their roles; ratio of strong performances to weak ones; quality of films acted in; quality of recent work; awards and accolades from peers.