Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What I Saw: The Help (84th Oscar Race)

What I Saw: The Help

Suspension of disbelief is a regular requirement of science fiction and fantasy genres, and the same is true for historical fictions. While there were specific scenes in The Help that I enjoyed, and many moments when the actresses’ performances drew me in, the swings back and forth between racial injustice, caricature, sentimentality and toilet humor were too abrupt to keep me engaged inside the story for the full two and a half hours.

We all know that life was much worse for black maids than what is presented in this movie (see the statement from the Association of Black Women Historians here), but when you tell a story against the backdrop of a historical injustice, you usually take artistic license in order to make a point about the modern world. And sometimes you use humor to soften up the audience so that they are more inclined to learn a hard lesson. Unfortunately, The Help discourages the viewer from considering parallels to today. It relies almost entirely upon examples of racism that its target audience believes are both universally wrong and safely in the past.

Which, it turns out, may be a perfect strategy for selling tickets and getting Oscar’s attention:

The film may not teach us much about overcoming modern racism, but it has mastered the lessons of the modern Oscar campaign. The credits run alphabetically, a nod to the feminist collaborative process which also just happens to provide the necessary cover for Viola Davis and the studio to campaign her as either Lead or Supporting Actress, depending upon how the field looks at the end of the year. Mary J. Blige’s “The Living Proof” plays over the final--and purposefully extended--image of the film, encouraging audiences to stay and listen. Aibileen even goes so far as to declare “We’re not doing Civil Rights. We’re just telling stories,” thus providing a brilliant excuse for those who wish to reward the film for fulfilling one, both or neither of these functions. And in a strange way, even the weaknesses of the plot only serve to highlight that the acting is the strongest part of the movie, which could prove to be a selling point for seeing these actresses in more films.

I predict that The Help will win two Oscars, and secretly hope that the second acceptance speech calls out the Academy by saying: “I can’t believe you ate a second slice!”

Supporting Actress: Viola Davis (currently ranked 1) is the clear front-runner in the supporting actress race, but a win in that category does not necessarily lead to the career trajectory that she deserves. She could easily make the case that her role is really the lead of the film (because it is!) That tends to be a much more difficult category for both the win and the nomination, but both are still possible if the film continues to do well at the box office and her campaign takes off. Either way, it is my hope that we see a lot more films with her as the star.

Original Song: Mary J. Blige for “The Living Proof” (currently ranked 1). This song seems to me like the kind of thing that the Academy will love. You can watch and listen to the music video over at Julian Stark’s page.

Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer (currently ranked 2) also seems like a sure thing for a nomination at this point, and could quite possibly win if Viola Davis goes lead.

Costume Design: Sharen Davis (currently ranked 12, but will likely move up in my next set of predictions.) Sharen Davis has been nominated twice before in this category for Dreamgirls and Ray, and a third nod is quite possible here.

Adapted Screenplay: Tate Taylor (currently ranked 12)
Art Direction: Mark Ricker and Rena DeAngelo (currently ranked 14, and will possibly move up in my next set of predictions)
Lead Actress: Emma Stone (currently ranked 16)
Supporting Actress: Cicely Tyson (currently ranked 17)
Best Picture (currently ranked 21, and will surely move up in my next set of predictions)
Film Editing: Hughes Winborne (currently ranked 28)
Cinematography: Stephen Goldblatt (currently ranked 31)
Best Director: Tate Taylor (currently ranked 41)

Makeup and hair (currently unranked, but will be included next time)
Original Score: Thomas Newman (currently unranked, but will possibly be added next time)

Supporting Actresses who are currently unranked but may be considered in future predictions: Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Bryce Dallas Howard, Aunjanue Ellis.

My Lamb Score: 3 out of 5 Lambs
What is a lamb score? Click HERE to learn more.

Read more of my reviews HERE.


  1. Appalling, entertaining, touching and perhaps even a bit healing, The Help is an old-fashioned grand yarn of a film, the sort we rarely get these days. Good Review!

  2. I really liked this film. I get many of the complaints you and others bring up but this film just sucked me in and I couldn't help but ignore many of the film's errors.

    In terms of Oscars, I think Dave Karger and Kris Tapley have said that Disney is going to campaign Viola Davis lead unless they have a less second change of heart. She still is a lock in that category and if Glenn Close underwhelms I think she can win Lead Actress (I don't really see Meryl Streep winning for The Iron Lady).

    With The Ides of March getting underwhelming but good reviews, I think The Help really stands a good chance at getting a Best Picture nomination. I wouldn't say it is a near lock but it's odds are definitely higher than 50% at this point.

    Like you said Octavia Spencer is a sure thing, but I think Jessica Chastain can also get in as well. There are a lot of ifs with her: She will only get in if her team decides to campaign this film as her Oscar bid, She will only get in if the film becomes a frontrunner for a Best Picture nomination early etc, but if these things do fall into place she could definitely get in.

    I could also seeing this getting an Adapted Screenplay nomination. There is no way this is getting a Best Director nomination, but if this becomes a big player during the awards season it needs to get a major nomination besides acting and picture.

    In terms of technical categories, you are definitely right about its chances for Original Song. It will probably also get a nod for costumes.

    In total, it will get 5-6 nominations.

  3. Thanks guys!

    @Dan O. -- Your review actually helped me a lot, by noting the length of the movie. I managed to sit through the whole thing without any trips to the, um, facilities.

    @ Ryan, I do agree that Viola Davis could easily go lead, and will be adding her as a possibility in both rankings in my next update. We'll also see very soon as the other awards and critics lists start coming out.

    I agree that I had underestimated the film as a whole, and don't think the controversies will hurt its chances very much with the academy's demographics (as I said here, it might actually help).

    I'm most likely seeing another Chastain movie this weekend (The Debt). She didn't make much of an impression on me in Tree Of Life, but she did here. I'm just wondering with so many roles out this year whether any of them will rise above the rest to get a nomination. But if The Help does pick up big with voters then this could be the one.

    Although I'd really love to be able to say the words "Academy Award Nominee Allison Janney." I always loved her in the West Wing and think her role here had a great range of emotion. Not saying that I think it WILL happen, but I like the idea.

    And I completely agree that adapted screenplay is more likely than director.

    Thanks again for reading my blog!

  4. Remember me? I’m that Israeli Oscar predictor, and just as I promised, here are my current predictions to the 84th Academy Awards:
    The first part of the post is written in Hebrew, but below that you can see the English version. Sorry if misspelled some of the names...

  5. Great predictions! Thanks for translating them in English too.

    I used my computer's automatic translate function to check out some of your other reviews too, and it actually translated from Hebrew to English pretty well. I tried it first on the Planet of the Apes review since I'd seen that one, and I understood most of it in context.

    I added your blog to my list on the right so I can check out more of your reviews in the future. Let me know if I got the title correct.

    I'm really glad that I can read your stuff!

  6. Well, the name of the blog actually translates to "Movies, Music & Stuff", but you name is good as well.

    BTW, what do YOU think about Thomas Alfredson's chances of getting a best director nod for "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"? My regular readers found it surprising that i putted him there.

    BTW 2: Thanks for Liking my blog! because we are getting close to the "Best of the Year/Top 10 Lists" period, so in the next month I’m planning to review films that were shown in theaters before the blog was opened (in Israel, most films are arriving a month of two after their release in the U.S, so i will have to review films such as "True Grit", "Black Swan" and things like that), but in October you can expect new reviews of "The Ides of March" and "Contagion".

  7. Ah, that makes sense. My translation feature kept showing me "Movies Music and Something", so stuff fits. I've got it updated now.

    I've been slower than most to get on the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy train, I think partly because I never saw the tv show that it was based on, and thus have had a hard time figuring out what all the hype is about. But the more I hear about it the more I like it. Alfredson made my long list in June, would probably be in my top 20 right now, and may rise even higher by the next time I update those predictions. But I wasn't surprised to see him on your list as I've seen his name popping up more and more often as the movie gets closer and the buzz grows.

    I look forward to reading your reviews. I actually thought at one point that I should expand this blog to include reviews of other movies I've seen, but for the moment I'm sticking with just the new releases and the predictions, which is more than enough to keep me busy for now.