Last week, approximately one eon behind every other film writer on the beat, I finally saw “The Help.” As I’m sure many of you will agree, it’s not always easy seeing a film months after its supposed plus and minus points have long since been concretized by the critical majority, but I was pleased to find myself agreeing with everything that’s been said, even by the film’s detractors, about Viola Davis’s performance: graceful, intuitive, material-elevating, all that. If she has the Best Actress Oscar wrapped up (and even with the Streep Express still unseen, I’d wager that she has), I take no issue with that.
But over in the film’s Best Supporting Actress camp, things start coming a little unstuck. Octavia Spencer is a set-in-stone nominee—and in some pundits’ minds, the notional frontrunner—for her grandly sassy turn as the mouthy maid who redefines the term ‘just desserts.’ And to apply a favourite South Africanism: jawellnofine. Spencer’s a good time in the film, but she’s working several rungs below the astonishing Jessica Chastain, who may even outdo Davis in terms of enlivening and complicating a waxily written character: her guilelessly empathetic bubblehead is the film’s most interesting characterization, and the sharpest of Chastain’s 47-odd performances this year. She may well find her way to a nomination, particularly given the category’s predilection for dual nominees from a single film, but Spencer remains the sure thing – and there you have one of my first beefs of the awards season.
Chastain (who has enough conflict to deal with in her own campaign) isn’t the only worthy contender this year seeking to wrestle attention from a more heavily hyped co-star. Indeed, it’s an annual issue on the Oscar trail, as films with more than one commendable performance—particularly within a single category—are routinely forced into compromised (or even fraudulent) campaigns, tokenly supporting one actor while pinning all their hopes on another. (Even if they're both nominated, that hardly puts them on an equal footing: just ask Amy Adams.)
The distribution of weight can be arbitrary: in retrospect, it’s hard to ascertain how Annette Bening emerged from last year’s Sundance fest with so much more awards heat than her no-less-featured, no-less-deserving co-lead Julianne Moore, but the narrative was set for the year ahead. And while Focus gamely pushed for both actresses to the bitter end (laudably refusing to disingenuously demote Moore to a supporting campaign), there’s no doubt they knew which side their bread was buttered, even as more generous institutions like BAFTA and the Golden Globes gave the illusion of parity by nominating both. On Oscar nomination morning, one actress breezed in; the other was stopped by the bouncer.
Still, at least the studio made a show of sharing the love on that occasion. I was somewhat horrified to notice, earlier this week, that Universal has sent out its For Your Consideration materials for hit summer comedy “Bridesmaids”—the female ensemble phenomenon of the year—with only a single name listed for Best Supporting Actress. That’d be Melissa McCarthy, the bolshy character comedienne whose Oscar chances were briefly fancied by certain pundits after a surprise Emmy win raised her profile.
McCarthy may represent the film’s best shot at an acting bid, but for the studio to campaign her alone, however strategic, seems less than respectful to her co-stars – notably Rose Byrne, whose more sleekly hilarious supporting turn tickled me considerably more than McCarthy’s zappy schtick. (This is to say nothing of the fact that they aren’t even putting in a token Best Supporting Actor bid for Chris O’Dowd. I understand the urge to streamline the campaign, but why hide your light under a bushel?)
Speaking of Best Supporting Actor, there are split loyalties to be found in that field too. In May, I was one of the early critics calling for a nomination for Albert Brooks’s deliciously skeezy villain in “Drive.” The meme stuck—partly because of the performance’s relishable against-type qualities, partly because of Brooks’s own irresistible celebrity—but on rewatching the film last month, I found myself wishing more of us had saved some of the cheers for Bryan Cranston, whose coolly crumpled work is no less worthy of consideration in the category than Brooks. The media sometimes gets the lead the way in these matters, but they aren’t always any fairer than studio strategists.
Meanwhile, no productive campaign in that category even seems possible for “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” saddled with such an embarrassment of riches in the supporting actor stakes that even the critics can’t give the Academy coherent instructions: some single out Tom Hardy, others fancy Benedict Cumberbatch, still others are more on the side of Mark Strong and/or Colin Firth. Last week, the British Independent Film Awards hedged their bets by nominating both Hardy and Cumberbatch; still, the film seems headed towards an “LA Confidential”-style outcome where too many strong men wind up punching each other out in the Oscar race. (While we’re on the subject of Tom Hardy, only the box office failure of “Warrior” seems to have prevented an injustice in Best Actor, with the volatile Brit briefly surging ahead of the equally deserving Joel Edgerton in the buzz stakes.)
Even far away from the Academy Award race, these accidental politics are all too often felt. Tom Cullen and Chris New, the young, equally weighted British stars of breakout UK indie “Weekend,” should both by rights be competing for every Best Actor award going on either side of the Atlantic, yet even in the small pond of the local awards racket, Cullen’s the one creeping ahead: BIFA chose him and not New for their Best Newcomer shortlist, a small but pointed slight for a performance that works wholly in tandem with the other. “It’s like breaking up twins,” the nominated actor told me disappointedly at a reception for the film last week, which is true of so many of the co-star throwdowns thrown up by this irrational race: when it comes to the Oscars, every man is an island.
This week's updated Oscar predictions here.
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