Wednesday, Dec. 07, 2011

2. Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Jessica Chastain and Bryce Dallas Howard for The Help

Women aren't offered many strong movie roles — unless those roles are all in one movie. And the film doesn't have to be perfect: in an ensemble morality play like The Help, the characters can be drawn in broad, swift strokes, so that the heroines and harridans are instantly distinguishable. Tate Taylor's movie, from the best seller written by childhood pal Kathryn Stockett, posits that in 1960s Jackson, Miss., black is beautiful and white is either hateful or ignorant — unless the white person is the Stockett stand-in Skeeter (Emma Stone), a young writer who plans a book of testimony by the town's black maids. For our purposes, forget the bizarre equation of Skeeter's publishing problems with the virulent racism the maids endure and consider the varied tones the actresses achieve. Among those playing the maids: the ferocious moral power in Viola Davis' saintly stoicism, and the warmth incarnated by Octavia Spencer, for whom revenge is a dish best served as a chocolate pie. Among the white ladies of Jackson: Bryce Dallas Howard's pearly villainy (a spectacular reading of comic wickedness) as a Junior League Miss who could be a Klansman in a fluffy dress, and Jessica Chastain's blowsy young wife, unloved by the debs and blundering into a liberal take on the race issue. These fine, juicy performances have something for everyone — including the Oscar voters, if only they can decide which actresses to honor.