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High Oscar hopes for 'The Help'

August 9, 2011 |  9:10 am

Thehelp2story Will an all-star cast and rave reviews help the Southern ladies of "The Help" charm their way into the hearts of Oscar voters?

The 2009 surprise best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett tells the story of the civil rights movement through the eyes of two African American maids in early 1960s Mississippi who start spilling their secrets to a young white writer. Stockett's childhood friend Tate Taylor wrote and directed the film being released nationwide this week.

Early reviewers have been focusing most of their praise on the two maids, played by Viola Davis (Oscar nominee for "Doubt" and Tony winner for "Fences") and Octavia Spencer (another longtime friend of Stockett, who actually based much of the character's outspoken personality on Spencer). The film's awards campaigners will have a tough decision when determining whether the two ladies should compete against each other as supporting actresses or place the better-known Davis in lead.

Other members of the cast are also contenders, including Emma Stone ("Easy A"), Bryce Dallas Howard ("Spider-Man 3"), Oscar winner Sissy Spacek ("Coal Miner's Daughter"), four-time Emmy winner Allison Janney ("The West Wing"), three-time Emmy winner Cicely Tyson ("Roots"), and rising star Jessica Chastain ("The Tree of Life"). With good box office receipts and continued strong reviews, a Screen Actors Guild Awards nod for best film ensemble and Golden Globe bids in the comedy categories could put it on the awards map.

Reviews are so strong for "The Help" (scoring 73 at Metacritic) that it might even break into the races for best screenplay, director, even best picture.

Major awards success has found quite a few lighthearted Southern belle movies over the years. The best picture Oscar for 1989 went to "Driving Miss Daisy," which also won for its lead actress (Jessica Tandy) and screenplay (Alfred Uhry). Two years later, Tandy was nodded for supporting actress in "Fried Green Tomatoes," as was the screenplay (Fannie Flagg, Carol Sobieski). Julia Roberts was nominated as a supporting actress for the 1989 film "Steel Magnolias." Just last year, Sandra Bullock won as lead actress for her spirited role in "The Blind Side."

Films dealing with the civil rights era in the South have also done well at the Academy Awards. Gregory Peck won as lead actor for the 1962 film "To Kill a Mockingbird," which also won for adapted screenplay (Horton Foote) and was nominated for best picture. The 1967 winner for best picture was "In the Heat of the Night," which also won for its lead actor Rod Steiger. The film "Mississippi Burning" received major bids for best picture, director (Alan Parker), lead actor (Gene Hackman), and supporting actress (Frances McDormand).

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-- Tom O'Neil

Photo: Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in "The Help." Credit: Walt Disney Pictures

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