Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Viola Davis & Donna Murphy...

...two women who make thunder on stage and lightning on screen. Davis won raves for 2004's Intimate Apparel, and that same year I had the exuberant pleasure of seeing Murphy in the Broadway revival of Wonderful Town at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre -- it's the best live musical comedy performance I've ever seen. Both have small supporting roles in World Trade Center, which I finally saw on DVD two nights ago.

Murphy has a way of stealing a picture, even if she has only moments onscreen. I refer to The Door in the Floor, in which she plays a quietly curious frame shop owner. It's a cameo, but she stops the movie cold. I watched her scene four or five times to figure out what she's doing. I think she's just being herself. Davis played the dutiful maid in Far from Heaven and the paranoid crew member in Solaris. She was also in Antwone Fisher and is a frequent guest star on procedural TV dramas.

Like Murphy, Davis has a way of holding your attention, even when she's opposite a movie star. Both women have a strong field of gravity. Perhaps that's why they're so successful on stage (three Tonys between them) and so unclassifiable and surprising on screen. I would love them to have a starring role in a movie, but I'd also be concerned the sheer weight of their presence would tear the celluloid asunder.

That certainly happens in World Trade Center -- Murphy at the beginning, Davis at the end. Murphy plays one of Maria Bello's soccer-mom compatriots who anxiously awaits word about the husbands. She has a moment of despair and a moment of joy. She hits both out of the park, immediately grounding the movie's glossiness with some emotional truth. Davis plays a mother waiting in a Manhattan hospital as her son has emergency surgery. She mumbles about how her last interaction with her son before the attacks was a fight. She's crushed about that. And, through her, so are we. Nic Cage and Maria Bello are strong and sympathetic in the movie, but it's Davis and Murphy who plug us into the socket of the day's despair.

There's something about theatre actors that really pops on film. These women in particular know how to scale down a performance for a camera and still play it to the last row of the house.

Link buffet: Murphy doing "100 Easy Ways" and "Swing" from Wonderful Town.


Jamy said...

Hey, I saw Murphy in Wonderful Town too! She was great. Best thing about the show.

J.J. said...

It was really something. I remember the start of Brantley's review: On your knees, Broadway. A giant walks among you.

Beedow said...

it was the first broadway show i saw twice (and she didn't call out either time i was there! get hep!)

Anonymous said...

i think when she did the louis armstrong voice during "swing" was when i about died.

she was so gracious when i talked to her at the stage door. i told her i was an actor and she told me it was important to keep studying, no matter what. she asked me where i was taking classes and told me to make sure that i find a good coach to work with in the city.

best advice i've gotten to date.

me tarzan, you jane.