Why, yes. Actually, yes it is. About twenty years ago.
And the picture goes to...
These are "Before/After" photos of Viola Davis, who was nominated last week as Best Supporting Actress this year for her superb work in the movie Doubt . Twenty years ago, however, she was simply a student at Rhode Island College, and traveling with a small group of actors from Rhode Island to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I was part of that group, and shared a cramped flat with her for about three weeks.
The "before" photo was taken during one of the first days in the flat. Viola had a room right across from me, and was constantly borrowing my cassette tape of Elton John's Greatest Hits, Volume Three. For 48 hours straight, she played that tape on her walkman, over and over again, particularly "Sad Songs Say So Much." As I recall, she was missing a boyfriend. Eventually, the tape got snarled up and broke. She must have said she was sorry about a million times, and promised to buy me a new one when we returned to the States. That never happened...you think I can get it back, now?
Someday I'm going to go back and finish telling that story of my adventures in Scotland, because I kept a detailed hand-written journal at the time, and the memories still make me laugh. A few summers past, as my friend gwendraith will attest, I did start writing it down: you can find the stories within my tags, listed as "Tartan."
They're good reads; I was glancing through some segments last night. We were this tiny little group without a clue how to sell ourselves to the theater-goers in Edinburgh, and therefore attracted the smallest audiences known to man. And by that, of course, I mean, we only attracted dwarfs. Well, at least they found us attractive...
No, no, just kidding. But there's more to the story than just non-existent audiences. There was one character actress in the group who truly was a character, a mad cross between Gloria Swanson and Nanette Fabray, and some of the other actors were way out of control, and the whole event was orchestrated by one of my favorite people in the world. Plus, there's Scotland as a backdrop, and wall to wall theater...really, the whole thing would make for a damn good screenplay.
From the look on Viola's face, I don't think she was exactly thrilled that I was taking a picture of her, so early in the morning. I honestly can't remember why I took it. Maybe it had something to do with finishing up the roll of film in the camera. Or, maybe it had something to do with having a death wish.
Anyway, even then, she was simply a marvelous actress, and everyone knew that she would go far. She was preparing to attend Julliard, as I recall, after graduating from RIC.
I found her to be a quite easygoing, and save for the photo of her in her pajamas, I don't really have any embarrassing stories to tell about our short time living together. I do know that I did see her about five years ago, at some function, and went over to say hi. She said she didn't remember me. And of course, I was a little hurt, because I personally find myself so utterly fascinating, but honestly, it's completely understandable...after all, back when I knew her, I had a full head of hair...and also, I'm not sure if she'd consider the performances that we participated in among the finest of her career.
I do know that she helped me out, however, during one of my periodic creative stupors, after college. She had appeared in a play I wrote that was performed at the college black box, and while that experience was uplifting, certain events that took place after it were crushing, and left me with a desire not to pursue graduate school...or writing at all, really. Instead, I found and job and drifted for a bit...and really didn't return to the creative path until about a decade later.
One evening, after a dry run of the show we were performing in Edinburgh, Viola and I were alone in the dressing room, waiting for one of the other plays to end. "You're still writing, aren't you?" she asked.
I shrugged. "Off and on."
She hit me in the arm. "No, you can't do that! You're good, Ted. You've got to give yourself more of a chance. Julia always says that you have so much potential." Julia was one of our professors at college, someone who taught me a great deal about the mechanics of writing a play.
I kind of laughed at that...never one to take a compliment. "Thanks, but I honestly doubt Julia thinks that much of my writing."
"You'd be wrong about that," said Viola, looking me right in the eye. "She thinks a great deal of it. And so do I."
It was exactly what I needed to hear, and that personal vote of confidence...well, it was totally unnecessary for her to say, but meant an awful lot. She did it because she has such a big heart, and wanted to boost me up, for a few moments. That night, I went home, and took out some of my plays again, and thumbed through past dreams. I probably made a few plans to improve them, too.
Twenty years on, I still remember that kindness. I think it helped, in a small way, to keep me from losing hope that my dreams would come to pass.
So yes, on the night that this year's Academy Awards are on, I will be sitting there, watching the ceremony with the Corbster, and cheering Viola on. Regardless of the outcome, I'll drink a toast to her present, and also, to future days ahead...and I'll remember, quite fondly, those days when she wasn't quite as glamorous as she will be, walking down that red carpet.