Academy Awards 2012: Handicapping 'Help' stars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer's Oscar chances

The 84th annual Academy Awards air this Sunday, and for African-American audiences, the most closely watched categories likely will be best actress and best supporting actress. That’s because for the first time in Oscar history, black actresses are the frontrunners in both contests. Accomplished character actress Viola Davis is vying to become only the second black best actress winner in history for The Help. Meanwhile, Octavia Spencer, that same film’s breakout star, is trying to take home the third best supporting actress trophy for a black performer this decade.

The Oscars are infamously political, and snubs are commonplace — so no nominee is guaranteed a win. Also, recent revelations about the racial make-up of the academy’s voting population suggest that an older, white and male voting bloc may be resistant to films outside of their comfort zone.

In this post, I’ll try to break down Spencer and Davis’ competition and determine what fans of The Help should expect on Sunday.

Actress In a Leading Role
Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis, The Help
Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn

In this category, Davis is competing with established veterans and rising stars. In my personal opinion, Rooney Mara gave the strongest, most exciting work of this slate of performers, but since she is such a newcomer and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is largely viewed as pop entertainment (compared to the more highbrow nominees), her nomination will likely be viewed as her reward.

Michelle Williams has definitely carved out an incredible post-Dawson’s Creek film career for herself, and she’s now scored a third Oscar nomination at only 31 years old. Still, My Week With Marilyn’s reviews aren’t strong enough to power her to a win. Expect Williams to win a best actress award eventually — she’s that good — but this is not her year.

The same can easily be said for the legendary Glenn Close. Despite unforgettable performances in films like Fatal Attraction, Dangerous Liaisons and The Big Chill, the 64-year-old actress has never won an Oscar. That may speak to the older Oscar voters’ sentimental streak. The Academy Awards have frequently awarded past-their-prime actors who have been unfairly overlooked in the past, even if it’s not for their greatest work. Yet in the case of Albert Nobbs, which has mostly received tepid reviews, that may be too high of a mountain to climb.

Which leaves the one-and-only Meryl Streep as Viola Davis’ closest competition for the win. Streep has scored more Oscar nominations than any actor or actress ever. To casual film fans, it may seem as though the most critically adored American actress of all time wins all the time, but in reality, she has just two Oscars under her belt and hasn’t actually won one since 1982. After falling short after a string of recent popular turns in films like Julia & Julia and The Devil Wears Prada, some Hollywood insiders feel that Streep is simply due for a victory. Yet, like the films of Close and Williams, Streep’s film The Iron Lady hasn’t exactly impressed audiences or critics.

On the other hand, Viola Davis’ turn as a dignified and dutiful maid in The Help has won nearly universal acclaim, and her film is by far the most popular one (from a financial standpoint) competing at this year’s awards. Right now, it appears best actress is Davis’ to lose.
Actress In a Supporting Role
Bérénice Bejo, The Artist
Jessica Chastain, The Help
Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer, The Help

Octavia Spencer has been the “inevitable” winner in this category all awards season, which is precisely why should be nervous on Oscar night. No category has been responsible for more surprise winners than best supporting actress (remember Marisa Tomei winning for My Cousin Vinny in 1992?).

There’s no great explanation for this phenomena, but Spencer has a few reasons to feel relaxed. The Best Supporting Actress winner is usually one of the first to be announced, so she’ll have her pain or joy quickly, and virtually every indicator suggests her victory is all but assured on Sunday.

Her Help co-star Jessica Chastain had a phenomenal year. She appeared in several critical favorites, such as The Tree of Life and Take Shelter, but it was her sweet-natured role as an ostracized blonde bombshell in The Help that got the most exposure. Still, her role was not as rich as Spencer’s, and it would be considered a major oversight to pass over Spencer for Chastain’s far-less pivotal performance.

Janet McTeer is a widely respected but largely unknown actress in a film that few people saw and that not enough people really liked. It’s hard to see how she could steal a win from stiff competition from more commercially viable movies.

Speaking of commercially viable, there’s Melissa McCarthy’s uproarious comedic role in Bridesmaids. While Oscar almost always overlooks comedy, McCarthy’s fun and feisty performance was by far the funniest of last year and helped make her a legitimate movie star. A win for McCarthy would certainly make the Oscars seem a lot hipper and would please fans of the film, which was the summer’s biggest sleeper hit. But the Oscars aren’t that eager to be cool. Hence, their decision to heap nominations (and likely awards) on the vastly overrated and little-seen The Artist.

While the academy will sometimes throw a bone to a truly audacious comic performance (Robert Downey Jr. scored this kind of nom for Tropic Thunder), it’s unlikely that an actress who pretending to have a bowel movement in a sink can be rewarded with an Oscar.

That leaves us with the actress who I believe is Spencer’s biggest competition: Bérénice Bejo. The French actress does give an irresistibly charming (and silent) performance in The Artist, and that film is such a critic’s darling that it could just sweep her up to the podium. Bejo has largely flown under the radar during the awards season as Spencer has racked up win after win. Yet, her film is capturing more attention at this moment, while Spencer’s film ran its course months ago.

Still, Spencer’s work has been so universally praised, and Oscar likes to reward black up-and-coming actresses in this category — think Whoopi Goldberg, who won for Ghost a little over 20 years ago.

So, despite the polarizing reception The Help has received, expect its stars to shine on Oscar night. For the first time in history, I predict we’ll see two African-American women win Academy Awards on the same night, perhaps a fitting end to this year’s Black History Month.

Follow Adam Howard on Twitter at @at_howard