Responding to Manohla Dargis' mixed review of "The Help" in the New York Times, Jeff Wells (Hollywood-Elsewhere) bravely jumps into the discussion over who gives the standout performance between the film's two maids: Viola Davis or Octavia Spencer? Referring to Dargis, Wells writes, "She's pretty much dismissed every performance in the film except for Viola Davis', which means, I suspect, that unless the entire world disagrees, Davis has the heat and Octavia Spencer is out and that's it."
No doubt Wells is referring to their Oscar odds, but it's wrong to write off Spencer, considering category options. And that's a puzzle. "The Help" is such an ensemble work; do the actors -- including Emma Stone as the white woman writing up the maids' tales of struggle -- all belong in the supporting category? Or is Stone lead and Davis and Spencer supporting? Stone and Davis get the most screen time, so either can be considered for the lead race, but Spencer, no matter how you slice this film, is supporting.
My own view: Stone and Davis should campaign in lead and Spencer in supporting. I don't think Stone has a prayer to win. Davis definitely does. Her performance is the most deeply felt and raw as she emerges as the first maid with the guts to tattle on her white oppressors. Truly, she thus leads and therefore gives a lead performance. Davis has the most dramatically impactful scenes too, and she's the final face we see on screen. Yes, in all of those ways, she towers over Spencer.
But now, if Davis gets out of the way in the supporting category, Spencer is the front-runner to win -- yes, win -- at this early point in the derby. She not only gives a heart-lifting turn on film, she gets to wreak devilish revenge on her tormentor. Expressing bawdy defiance is often what fuels wins in this category, remember: Melissa Leo ("The Fighter"), Jennifer Hudson ("Dreamgirls"), Judi Dench ("Shakespeare in Love"), Beatrice Straight ("Network"), Dianne Wiest ("Bullets Over Broadway"), Marisa Tomei ("My Cousin Vinny") and so many, many more examples. Victory goes to the sassy scene-stealer.
If you think Viola Davis will agree to go supporting, you're crazy. She didn't at the 2010 Tony Awards bout for "Fences" even though her character competed in featured (or supporting) back in 1987 -- and won (Mary Alice). Davis' reps petitioned the Tony Awards Administration Committee to move her up to lead in the revival costarring Denzel Washington. They Tonys OK'd the switch and both stars won.
-- Tom O'Neil
Photo: Octavia Spencer in "The Help." Credit: Walt Disney Pictures