It's more than just a little politically chancy but still unavoidable to look at Octavia Spencer's sunny Oscar odds though the filter of co-star Viola Davis's ascendance in the Best Actress category. But if voters are capable of feeling all right with themselves for rewarding Jessica Chastain's miracle year with what most cognizant viewers recognize as one of the least distinguished of her six or seven roles last year, then we don't feel quite as bad regarding Spencer and Davis as a mutually beneficial tag team, a thematic (ahem) salt-and-pepper-shaker duo that makes audiences feel mighty proud about honoring both. If anything, it's Spencer's role as The Help's secret ingredient-wielding Minny Jackson (the maid who knows her value and thus must remind herself "no sass" even when walking up to Chastain's absurdly understanding heiress) that strikes the most direct hit upon the movie's target audience. Davis's Aibileen absorbs an unjust world's every last dribble of shit, but Minny literally excretes it and serves it up with a smirk. In the end, both women get to dress down Bryce Dallas Howard's microcosmic representation of Southern evil, but only one of them has the satisfaction of sending her gagging out of the room.
Both Davis and Spencer do much to expand their roles beyond author Kathryn Stockett and director Tate Taylor's sun-kissed, deluded brand of nostalgia. The same can't be said for what Bérénice Bejo does with the even more one-dimensional role of instant star Peppy Miller in The Artist. To the extent that the movie surrounding her asks for nothing more than pastiche, Bejo is one game lil' flapper, and knows just how far to tilt her head down so that her upward gaze suggests innocence and youthful vigor. At her best, she comes off as a tonal inversion of Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond—and, in her "out with the old, in with the new" speech to adoring press representatives, a functional inversion as well. But it's been a great many years since this category's long-derided babe factor ushered Jennifer Connelly, Mira Sorvino, and Marisa Tomei up to the podium, and they all had dialogue in their movies. And if recent years have seen voters opting for more singularly attention-hogging performances from established vets, Janet McTeer's breath of whiskey air into Albert Nobbs seems a far more likely prospect. Unfortunately, being the best thing about that movie is akin to being the whipped cream atop Minny's chocolate pie, so expect McTeer's big, best supporting boobies to remain holstered for now.
When Melissa McCarthy netted the Emmy last fall, awards junkies everywhere surmised it was given less in recognition of her work in Mike & Molly and more as a preliminary consolation prize for the Oscar nomination the uptight Academy was expected to deny her for ripping ass, lifting her leg, stealing puppies, and Hershey-squirting down a sink in Bridesmaids
. That people seriously promoted that read—and that Oscar defied expectation and gave McCarthy's shame-free game a nod after all—just goes to show how much affection there is out there for McCarthy daring to do the sort of thing Jonah Hill used to do before he got all Laurence Olivier on us.
Will Win: Octavia Spencer, The Help
Could Win: Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
Should Win: Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids