Monday, Nov. 03, 2008

2. Viola Davis as Mrs. Muller in Doubt

There's plenty of Acting, heaven knows, in the John Patrick Shanley movie about a nun (Meryl Streep), the principal of a Catholic School in the Bronx in 1964, who suspects a popular priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of molesting a young black student. Most of the heavy emoting is done by Streep, whose meanness is pitched at the same near-hysterical level as her giddiness in Mamma Mia! But there's also genuine acting, the kind that opens a window onto a complex, troubled soul, and that's thanks to Davis, in a supporting role as the boy's mother. Drop by careful drop, she pours out her heart, revealing the aspirations and desperation of any parent who'll fight to insure her son has a better life than she has. Davis has said that Shanley impressed on her the deference a lower-middle-class black woman in 1964 was expected to show a nun. That's part of the contained power of this performance: no showboating here, just emotional precision and devastating honesty.