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Detroit Free Press
Whether it's Sidney Poitier in "To Sir With Love," Richard Dreyfuss in "Mr. Holland's Opus," Michelle Pfeiffer in "Dangerous Minds" or Meryl Streep in "Music of the Heart," it's almost inevitable that great actors are eventually cast as great teachers.
But the notion is somewhat new to Viola Davis. "You're the second person who's said that to me, and I'd never thought about it," admits the 47-year-old star, who earned a best actress Oscar nomination for 2011's "The Help."
"I think the reason why actors are drawn to that is because teachers are heroic."
In "Won't Back Down," which opens today, Davis plays a discouraged teacher who rediscovers her spark for education by joining forces with a working-class mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal) fighting to take over a failing inner-city school.
The film, inspired by real events, is already stirring controversy and being slammed by teacher unions, which object to how they're portrayed in the film.
In this David and Goliath tale from director-co-writer Daniel Barnz, who is from a family of educators, David is represented by Davis and Gyllenhaal, while Goliath is the inflexible bureaucracy of government and unions.
Davis, however, isn't interested in playing heroes without flaws. This character is struggling with divorce, career burnout and a son with learning difficulties.
Although Davis didn't get the Oscar for "The Help," the Tony-winning stage actress who'd spent more than a decade as a character actress in movies and TV--and got a best supporting actress Oscar nod for 2008's "Doubt"--emerged as a movie star.
It wasn't all glamorous. While Davis received widespread praise for "The Help," the box-office hit was criticized by some for distorting the experience of maids in the 1960s segregated South.
Her journey with "The Help" led to deeper changes.
"For me, this last year, with kind of feeling like I had to defend my choice as an actor to do 'The Help' and then being blessed in the public eye so much, I felt like I had to find my voice. I've been side by side with timidity, shyness, reserve, lack of self-esteem. But I had to leave that behind."
She brings empathy and compassion to portrayals of private, often emotionally guarded women who reveal themselves to be anything but ordinary.
"I do believe many of us catapult ourselves to the grave never having tapped
WON'T BACK DOWN
CREDITS: Directed by Daniel Barnz. Running time: 2:01,
RATED: PG for thematic elements and language
THEATERS: Fredericksburg 14, Aquia 10, Marquee Cinemas