Viola Davis was at the top of many people’s list of biggest Oscar snubs this year, as most analysts had predicted a Best Actress nomination for her role as the leader of an all-female African warrior unit in The Woman King.
Although she was denied a fifth Academy Award nomination, an even more distinguished honor was right around the corner: The Grammy Award she won on Sunday made Davis only the 18th person in history to receive the coveted EGOT designation, which goes to artists who have won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards.
It’s just the latest milestone for the A-list actor who has conquered stage and screen alike. Below are ten of the most important moments on Davis’ incredible journey to the EGOT.
Following a six-week summer program at Circle in the Square Theatre in New York City, a young Davis sought advice on the best theater programs to pursue next. A colleague suggested The Juilliard School; Yale University; New York University; and Purchase College, part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system.
She wanted to apply for all four but only had enough money for one application fee, so she chose Juilliard, according to her memoir, Finding Me. She was accepted and spent four years at the renowned performing arts conservatory, graduating in 1993.
Davis made her Broadway debut in a 1996 production of Seven Guitars, August Wilson’s Pulitzer-nominated play about seven Black characters living in 1948. She received praise for the performance, as well as her first Tony nomination for Best Actress (Featured Role – Play).
In Finding Me, Davis wrote: “Seven Guitars was a huge part of my growth as an actor. It was the difference between making the decision to become an actor, then training to become the best actor I could be, and finally putting everything that I learned to task.”
First Tony Award
After several years of off-Broadway parts and small roles on television and movies, Davis returned to the Broadway stage in 2001 with King Hedley II, also penned by Wilson. She portrayed Tanya, the title character’s wife, who considers getting an abortion in one of the play’s most memorable monologues.
Davis received rave reviews; theater critic Christopher Rawson wrote that she “has a dead-on intensity which, when she launches into her great aria about parenthood and death, sweeps all before it.” Davis was again nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actress (Featured Role – Play), and this time she won it.
Film Breakthrough in Doubt
Several years later, Davis received her most widespread attention to date with her role in the 2008 film Doubt, adapted from Scott Rudin’s Tony-winning play. “I knew this was it,” Davis wrote in Finding Me. “This was the game-changing role.” She played the mother of the only Black student in a Catholic parish school, who may have been abused by one of the priests.
Davis appears in only one 10-minute scene, but as film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “it is the emotional heart and soul of Doubt, and if Viola Davis isn’t nominated by the Academy, an injustice will have been done.” She, indeed, did receive her first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Production Company Formed
In 2011, Davis and her husband, Julius Tennon, co-founded JuVee Productions, a production company that develops and produces independent films, television, theater, and digital projects. Their goal is to create a platform that provides opportunities for artists from underrepresented communities.
“I always say if you want to see where your career is going, see where the top people are in your category, and I didn’t see anything,” Davis said at a conference in 2022. “The talent is there, but the material was not. So, after a while you have to be the change you want to see.” The Woman King is one of the projects produced by the company.
Leading Actress Oscar Nomination
Davis received her second Oscar nomination, and first for best actress, for her role in The Help (2011), in which she played a maid during the Civil Rights Movement in Jackson, Mississippi. However, she later expressed regret for taking the role, saying she felt the voices of the maid characters were ultimately not being heard. “There’s a part of me that feels like I betrayed myself, and my people, because I was in a movie that wasn’t ready to [tell the whole truth],” she told Vanity Fair.
How to Get Away with Murder Success
Despite widespread acclaim and two Oscar nominations, Davis was “not getting the same roles as my white or even some of my Black counterparts,” she wrote in Finding Me. With no leading actress film offers coming to her, she turned to television, starring in Shonda Rhimes’ How to Get Away with Murder.
Davis played Annalise Keating, a high-profile defense attorney and law professor, in the ABC legal drama thriller, which ran for six seasons. In 2015, Davis became the first Black actress to receive an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.
First Oscar Win
Davis received her third Oscar nomination, and first win, for her role in Fences (2016). She portrayed Rose Lee Maxson, a long-suffering housewife in a 1950s Pittsburgh home, with Denzel Washington playing her husband, Troy. (Davis had previously won a second Tony, in 2010, for playing Rose in the Broadway revival of August Wilson’s original play.)
Davis considered Fences “perfect material for the screen,” she wrote in Finding Me. “These characters in Fences were real to me, they were my life. August’s material is great because he lets us bleed, and he lets us talk. Rose was a fully realized character. You don’t get characters like that as an actress of color.”
Most Nominated Black Actress
Davis once again appeared in a film adapted from a Wilson play when she played the title character in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020), alongside Chadwick Boseman. In the movie, inspired by a real trailblazing blues singer, Davis portrayed Rainey as a strong-willed, larger-than-life figure and insisted that her character’s signature look remained historically accurate.
Davis earned her fourth Oscar nomination for the role, making her the most Oscar-nominated Black actress in history and the only Black actress with two best actress nominations.
Grammy Win for Finding Me
Released in April 2022, Davis’ memoir, Finding Me, chronicles her life from growing up in a poor Rhode Island family to her remarkable career as an actress, producer, and philanthropist. The Grammy Award she received for her memoir’s audiobook narration made her the third Black actress to become an EGOT winner, alongside Whoopi Goldberg and Jennifer Hudson.
“I wrote this book to honor the six-year-old Viola,” Davis said during her Grammy acceptance speech. “To honor her life, her joy, her trauma, everything. And, it has just been such a journey. I just EGOT!”
Colin McEvoy joined the Biography.com staff in 2023, and before that had spent 16 years as a journalist, writer, and communications professional. He is the author of two true crime books: Love Me or Else and Fatal Jealousy. He is also an avid film buff, reader, and lover of great stories.