Spencer has given mostly comic performances during her career as a character actress, but in "The Help" she gives a scene-stealing turn as a maid fired by her racist employer. The performance is largely comic, but with the added gravitas of a subplot involving her abusive husband. This kind of broad, brassy performance has done well before in this category: Marisa Tomei in "My Cousin Vinny," Whoopi Goldberg in "Ghost," Jennifer Hudson in "Dreamgirls." She won the Critics' Choice Award and the Golden Globe for this performance.
McCarthy is one of the few broad comic performances to earn an Oscar nomination. She has had a breakthrough year thanks to her Emmy-winning star turn on the CBS sitcom "Mike & Molly" and her scene-stealing work in the film "Bridesmaids." The film was a smash hit at the box office and McCarthy's profile has risen to the point where the Academy might want to give her a proper coronation.
Chastain appeared in numerous films in 2011, including "Coriolanus," "Take Shelter," "The Tree of Life," and "The Help," for which she has been nominated for her role as a local outcast in a Southern community. More critical support has gone to her co-star Octavia Spencer, but voters interested in honoring her body of work might rally behind her.
British actress McTeer was previously nominated for Best Actress for the comedy "Tumbleweeds." In "Albert Nobbs" she plays a woman masquerading as a man opposite Glenn Close, who plays the cross-dressing title character. Gender-bending performances have historically done well at the Oscars. Linda Hunt won this category for playing a man in "The Year of Living Dangerously."
"The Artist" received glowing reviews, as did its stars Jean Dujardin, who plays a silent film star whose career is on the wane, and Bejo as his love interest, whose star is on the rise. Dujardin has received the lion's share of attention -- winning Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival and the Golden Globes -- but the Academy admires young women giving breakthrough performances. Another French actress upset to win this category for the eventual Best Picture winner: Juliette Binoche in "The English Patient."