When I first wrote about The Help, I, like many people, believed Viola Davis would get recognized by the Academy for an Oscar nomination, but in the Supporting Actress category. The confusion, I suppose, was understandable. The film is very much an ensemble, with a variety of top-notch actresses, young and old, in pivotal roles, and at first glance, Emma Stone's character would seem to be the focal point, since she's the one writing the book that sets the story in motion. In truth, however, The Help belongs more to Davis' character Aibileen. Hers is the first and last face we see on screen, and hers is the voice that narrates the film, and this is why Davis has been placed in the Best Actress category instead, and deservedly so.
I'm not interested in dredging up the politics of the film again; that's been done repeatedly over the last six months or so, by better writers than me. I wanna talk about Davis. Her biggest competitor for the little gold man is, and has been, long before her movie even came out, Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady, the Margaret Thatcher biopic. Everyone's so eager to see her win her third Oscar after a drought of over 25 years, and with uber-producer Harvey Weinstein in her corner this year, it's looking like a real possibility this time. Streep and Davis are both up for the SAG Award for Best Actress as well, and the winner of that will have a major advantage in the race for the Oscar.
At the moment (though this could change) I'm leaning towards Davis winning both SAG and the Oscar. Both SAG and the Academy have shown deeper support for Help than for Lady. The former has both a SAG Ensemble and a Best Picture Oscar nod, in addition to Supporting Actress nominations. Aibileen is a more sympathetic character than Margaret Thatcher, and that counts for something when you're talking about a voting body - the Academy - that put films like Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and War Horse in the Best Picture field ahead of more challenging films like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Drive.
Also, and this really can't be ignored when you're talking about the Academy, if Davis wins, she would become only the second black woman to ever win Best Actress. (The first one, of course, was Halle Berry.) The injustice of a record like this speaks for itself. For all of the Academy's attempts to appear progressive throughout their history, they don't grok race as well as they like to think.
Still, in the past decade, they've attempted to recognize more actors of color, as well as foreign-language performances, and while I obviously can't say for sure that this issue at the forefront of their minds, I suspect the Academy is at the very least aware of what's at stake. Plus, one look at the awards The Help has picked up should show you that Davis and the film in general have been legitimately recognized in many other venues.
Like I said, this weekend's SAG Awards will make a huge difference in who wins the Best Actress Oscar (some people think Michelle Williams could steal it from both Streep and Davis), but as of now, I'm convinced that Davis will come up the winner by a slim margin.
'The Help' and black literature