“The Help” opened to boffo box office and enough strong reviews to guarantee that it is part of any conversation about Oscar contenders. Kathryn Stockett penned this 2009 bestseller about a young white woman’s growing awareness of the civil rights struggle of the early 1960s. Through her burgeoning friendship with two African American maids, she learns of the injustices they suffered and tells their stories in a provocative tell-all book.
Stockett sold the film rights to her childhood friend Tate Taylor who adapted the book and helmed the project. The author had been inspired by her friend actress Octavia Spencer when she created the character of the tough-talking maid Minnie and Spencer was given the part to play. The actress could well be on her way to the Oscars for her scene-stealing performance.
The film scored only 68 among the top tier of reviewers surveyed by Rotten Tomatoes and 62 at MetaCritic. However, it has solid support from influential critics like Owen Glieberman (EW) and Claudia Puig (USA Today). The award-winning cast could be catnip to the nominating committee for the Screen Actors Guild kudos. And the HFPA which is always on the lookout for films like “The Help” which beef up the comedy/music categories at the Golden Globes.
Golden Globe contender Emma Stone (“Easy A“) stars as Skeeter, the wilful woman who defies her mother (four-time Emmy winner Allison Janney) and friends (Bryce Dallas Howard, Ahan O’Reilly) to pursue a friendship with the maid Aibileen (Tony champ Viola Davis). Oscar winner Sissy Spacek (“Coal Miner’s Daughter”) and three-time Emmy winner Cicely Tyson (“Roots”) are also featured as is newcomer Jessica Chastain who earned raves for “The Tree of Life” earlier this year.
With such strong roles for women, the film is reminiscent of “Steel Magnolias,” the 1989 comedy-drama that earned Julia Roberts her first Oscar nomination. That same year, another Southern story, “Driving Miss Daisy” won Best Picture as well as Best Actress (Jessica Tandy) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Alfred Uhry). Two years later, Tandy was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for playing another saucy Southerner in “Fried Green Tomatoes” which also reaped a screenplay bid for adapters Fannie Flagg and Carol Sobieski. In 2009, Sandra Bullock won Best Actress for her portrayal of a Mississippi matron in “The Blind Side.”
Setting a film in the South in the Sixties has proven to be Oscar-worthy on more than one occasion. Gregory Peck won Best Actor back in 1962 for playing a crusading attorney in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “In the Heat of the Night” won both Best Picture and Best Actor (Rod Steiger) in 1967. And “Mississippi Burning” contended for seven Oscars, including Best Picture in 1988.