“The Help” earned an impressive $25.5 million on its opening weekend, boosted by good reviews and great word-of-mouth. One of the performances that had people talking was Viola Davis as Aibileen, the first maid to tell her story to budding writer Skeeter (Emma Stone).
While Stone’s character carries one of the main plot points — a young white woman’s growing awareness of the civil rights struggle of the early 1960s — Davis’ character is the catalyst for this awakening. Aibileen agrees to share her thoughts and feelings with Skeeter and convinces her good friend, the tough but tender Minnie (Octavia Spencer) to do the same.
While writing the 2009 bestseller on which the film is based, Kathryn Stockett had been introduced to Spencer by her childhood friend Tate Taylor (he went on to adapt the book and direct the film). Inspired by Spencer, the author gave the character Minnie many of her traits. Spencer went on to read that role in the audiobook version.
Playing the part in the movie could earn Spencer her first Oscar bid. The supporting actress race has a history of rewarding defiant women who take a stand for good or bad. These roles often provide scene-stealing moments that win over Oscar voters. Think of Melissa Leo (“The Fighter,” 2010), Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls,” 2006), Judi Dench (“Shakespeare in Love,” 1998) and Marisa Tomei (“My Cousin Vinny,” 1992). Spencer certainly delivers such a moment as she serves up a slice of humble pie to her one-time employer Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard).
As Aibileen, Davis opens and closes the film. She utters the first words heard and is the last image seen on the screen. Davis could contend in supporting against Spence. She could even win as did other women who were a strong presence in their pictures like Rachel Weisz (“The Constant Gardener,” 2005) and Jennifer Connelly (“A Beautiful Mind,” 2001).
Likewise, Davis could submit herself as a leading lady. It is not unprecedented to have competing contenders from the same picture; the most recent of the five films to do so was “Thelma and Louise” in 1991 when Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon were both nominated; they lost to Jodie Foster for “The Silence of the Lambs.”
While Davis can campaign for one slot or the other, it will be up to the acting branch to decide where she belongs. Sarandon thought she was a supporting contender for “Atlantic City” in 1981 but ended up with a Best Actress bid; she lost to Katharine Hepburn (“On Golden Pond”). In 2006, Leonardo DiCaprio was positioned as lead for “The Departed” and supporting for “Blood Diamond” but got a Best Actor nod for the latter.