Which performance will land Jessica Chastain her first Oscar nomination? Heading into awards season, that was the biggest question surrounding the Supporting Actress race, and with The Help having certainly surged ahead of films like The Tree of Life and Take Shelter, the question seems all but answered. Still, one could justifiably go to bat for each of the six supporting turns Chastain delivered last year. For instance, the otherwise mediocre spy thriller The Debt, an ensemble piece, unwittingly became a Chastain showcase, as the red-headed natural towered above everything around her while proving her wide range.
In a different year, Chastain may very well have been recognized alongside her Coriolanus co-star, Vanessa Redgrave; however, even with the mighty push from the Weinstein Company, the 74-year-old treasure seems bound for Snubville, her film either unseen or unliked by too many voters. There are two women vying for her slot, one of whom made the baity moves of bending gender and shockingly flashing her buttoned-up jugs. Janet McTeer so handily steals Albert Nobbs away from Glenn Close that you'd think she had the whole thing mapped out on the sly. Nevertheless, Close still, to her certain delight, seems like the only person set to benefit from her trying vanity project, so give Redgrave's nod to The Descendants's Shailene Woodley, a terrific young talent who'll also fill in for Elizabeth Olsen as the red-carpet-ready fresh face of nominated actors.
As The Artist's plucky talkie sensation Peppy Miller, French head-turner Bérénice Bejo will also be included, benefiting greatly not just from her film's momentum, but from the rising-star, who's-that-girl allure she shares with her character. Finally, then, it comes down to the maids of The Help, a movie that inevitably sent axe-grinders off to Twitter with an arsenal of racism charges. The Help is a harmless-enough lark that largely sidesteps the trap of becoming yet more Chicken Soup for the Guilty White Soul. The true offenses pertain to Hollywood and Oscar politics, which will force Viola Davis to eat Meryl Streep's dust in the lead category, leaving Octavia Spencer, the only other black nominee, to be the only black winner. Regardless of Spencer's talent for scene-stealing, her mammie is the oldest racial stereotype in the book, and that it's poised to be the only Oscar-anointed black performance in 2011 sends a pretty fucked-up message. In a year when people are rejoicing ad infinitum about women's clout at the box office, we're winding the clock all the way back for a Hattie McDaniel-repeat scenario. This is progress?
Will Be Nominated: Bérénice Bejo, The Artist; Jessica Chastain, The Help; Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids; Octavia Spencer, The Help; Shailene Woodley, The Descendants
Should Be Nominated: Sareh Bayat, A Separation; Jessica Chastain, The Debt; Viola Davis, The Help; Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melancholia; Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids