When deserving acting contenders face formidable foes in their own co-stars
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.