‘The Help’ and the year’s best ensemble performance…so far

Posted by · 2:49 pm · August 3rd, 2011

Now that I’m done crying my eyes out, a few words on Tate Taylor’s “The Help,” which I caught this afternoon.

It’s a beautiful film, safe, sure, but it knows where to lay the emotional hammer down and where to let the rock keep skipping on the surface. Most striking is the ensemble, as there isn’t a single bad performance in the film. In fact, I’d say all of the them are comfortably above average, the highlights coming from Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. But then Jessica Chastain was my personal favorite. Oh, and what about Sissy Spacek leaving you in the aisles?

You see? It takes a real special touch to get this kind of across-the-board perfection out of a cast. Bryce Dallas Howard has pinpoint devilish precision. Allison Janney wiggles her way into your heart even after you don’t want her there. Ahna O’Reilly captures that locked-in submissive state wonderfully. Cicely Tyson punches you in the gut with just a few minutes of screen time. On and on. Oh, and Emma Stone…duh.

Stone is great here, a solid anchor. She has a wallop of a line to her mother — four little words — that are delivered with such conviction that I thought I’d fall out of my chair weeping. (Okay, going overboard, but it was a hell of a line reading.) But she’s really just part of the vast assemblage here, and it’s really the best ensemble performance I’ve seen this year. Hands down.

Based on a best-selling novel that I wouldn’t know anything about (but certainly hit home with the “Eat Pray Love” crowd), the film tells the story of Skeeter, an upstart journalist dreaming of a chance to write something meaningful in early-60s Jackson, Mississippi. She finds that opportunity when she decides to write a book from the point of view of “the help,” African-American maids who keep the ship afloat and, most importantly, are as — and in most cases, more — responsible for raising white children as the parents. It’s dangerous to tell these stories in the Jim Crow south, but it’s a calling for Skeeter and a duty for the help.

And the story just sings. It sings because the character work is just so pointed and profound. I thought the film had a bit of a soft landing, as certain lessons you want to be learned just aren’t laearned, but then again, what would be more truthful than that? The whole thing ends up hinging on a (gross) gag that ever-so-slightly diminishes things, but it’s never not good for a laugh and it’s apparent everyone is well aware of the ridiculousness of that particular point, so it’s harmless. I was just caught up in how much I genuinely cared for the characters. And I think that’s always high praise.

Speaking of “Eat Pray Love,” which opened on August 13 last year, “The Help” is slated for an August 10 release date, going after that late-summer, best-seller adaptation money, I suppose. And that’s wise. So awards stuff is probably in mind but a secondary goal at the moment. Regardless, there would be a bevy of campaigns you could launch on this one. As I said, Jessica Chastain was best in show for me. She’s having a real coming-out this year. But Viola Davis would be the obvious choice to rally around, and assuming Disney wants it, it’s definitely in the cards. Octavia Spencer is hilarious and a natural fit, too, so maybe just flip a coin.

The point is, everyone on this cast deserves a piece of whatever awards attention may be coming the film’s way. Bravo to all involved.

[Photo: Walt Disney Pictures]




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73 responses so far

  • 1 8-04-2011 at 10:48 am

    matsunaga said...

    Haven’t seen it, I’m looking forward too…

    But aside from acting nominations, perhaps a costume design nod? Just to dilute the period monarchy tradition of the Oscars…

  • 2 8-04-2011 at 10:58 am

    JJ1 said...

    Good question, matsunaga. I second that.

    Kris, outside of some acting noms … do you see potential for any nods for picture, writing, costume, etc..?

  • 3 8-04-2011 at 11:17 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    JJ1: Definitely not a comedy. As for your other question, I think it could definitely be a best Picture nominee.

    Jane: It’s very brief. But nicely layered throughout. Not enough for a nomination, I think.

    matsunaga: Perhaps. Sharen Davis is a gem of the field. But I think that only happens if the film takes off in other areas.

  • 4 8-04-2011 at 11:23 am

    Brian Duffield said...

    Is Chastain even in the trailers?

  • 5 8-04-2011 at 11:40 am

    Speaking English said...

    ***While I agree with your general point, aren’t you forgetting that “A Single Man” and “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” are set in the 1960s and 1980s, respectively?***

    Actually, yes, I did forget! Thanks.

  • 6 8-04-2011 at 3:31 pm

    AdamA said...

    Eh, who can fault a writer or filmmaker or producer or actor for wanting to investigate the social wrongs of the past? Can we really say all of that is “solved” now anyhow?

    My issue (having only seen the trailer) is the way that nice white people who *aren’t* raging bigots get placed at center stage, surely to make a white audience feel better. Coughcoughblindsidecoughcough. Not saying this movie does that–but the trailer reminds of a slew of other movies that have. Will see it on DVD.

  • 7 8-04-2011 at 9:41 pm

    The Other James D. said...

    Considering last year’s lack of a black acting nominee, I wonder if Davis or Spencer (kinda hoping for the latter, personally) could sneak their way in this season, lest there be two consecutive years.

    Not that I’m saying there MUST be. There certainly weren’t many options last year to begin with. But with the exception of last year, since 2000, there’s been at least one per season.

    Speaks somewhat to the lack of meaty roles I guess, but again, I can see one of these ladies having the support. Davis has a lot of love/respect, especially after Doubt, while Spencer is a hard-working character actress with great comic timing, and might have momentum. Time will tell.

    The film should be embraced by the HFPA at least, with another, consecutive nod for Stone likely.

  • 8 8-04-2011 at 11:43 pm

    Ligaya said...

    Never heard of The Help until I heard Viola Davis was making a movie of it; then read it in one night. Will see movie 2x to make sure of my reaction to film.

    (@daveylow: what you said “Of course they ignored the wonderful ensemble of The Joy Luck Club but that’s because Asian American actors are invisible to Academy members.”

    @SJG: believe me, there’s a lot of people of color and women tired of white/male directors/writers making our stories when we can do it ourselves – see Bridesmaids and Something New, and plenty who are tired of movies that become about the white person than the real protagonist – see Blind Side, Biko).

    That being said, it’s possible for someone not of the same culture to genuinely give voice to that culture – William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner & Sophie’s Choice come to mind, as well as Ryan Fleck/Anna Boden’s co-written/directed Sugar and Half Nelson. And both “Confessions” and “Sophies Choice” were very controversial at the time of their release. BUT I think there’s nothing as good as people speaking for themselves.

    There’s not much biographical info either in IMDB or Wikipedia on either Fleck/Boden I think I can glean Fleck’s cred slightly from interviews. Fleck and Boden did a lot of research – spending talking with players and prospects for a long time in the Dominican Republic and the semi-pro leagues in New York. Fleck’s an avid Oakland Athletics’ fan so I think he’s noticed the infux of Dominican players. He was born in Berkeley and grew up in Oakland in the 1970s-80s – activist, radical strongholds and integrated urban areas with high immigrant population from all areas of the world, especially Latin America and China.

    He decided to become a director after watching Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and the audience response to it. Fleck/Boden talked about frustration with dealing G.W. Bush administration when making Half Nelson. All this leads me to believe they are factors in his point of view as a writer/director and his ability to relate to people who live on the margins.

  • 9 8-05-2011 at 12:24 am

    Ligaya said...

    The first thing I thought when I finished the book was that the movie better not be about the white girl being put to the forefront and the two black women pushed to the back in supporting roles.

    1. The chapters are headed titled by the 3 main characters Aibileen (first and last chapters), Minny and Skeeter. Aibileen and Minny are the strongest characters. Skeeter’s chapters are almost just the bridge between Aibileen’s and Minny’s – who have seen deep sorrow and trouble in their lives Skeeter can only t0uch on.

    2. I If remember correctly from the book, it was the New York magazine editor’s idea, not Skeeter’s to interview the domestic help. Small detail, but altruistic motivation is attributed to Skeeter from the first.

    3. One thing that didn’t sit well with me was that Skeeter seemed so cavalier and totally oblivious to the dangers to which she put Aibileen, then Minny, then the other black women at risk. I hope the movie addresses this. We’re talking real life and death here. Famous civil rights leaders were being shot, people were disappeared, it wasn’t safe for black people to be seen with white people except in their domestic capacity.

    4. The book was criticized for having the black women characters speak Southern vernacular while white characters spoke standard American English. I hope this is corrected in the movie.

    The Help had good things going for it: good characterization, women’s relationships and changing alliances, ways to be subversive.

  • 10 8-05-2011 at 1:48 am

    Josh said...

    So Tate Taylor, the unknown Director, buys a plantation home after directing a movie about injustice. Does that make any sense? To me, it is like rewarding all the bigotry the movie is about. He should be ashamed.

  • 11 8-05-2011 at 5:15 pm

    Ligaya said...

    The U.K. vs. U.S. trailer versions. U.K. vs. U.S. book covers.

    http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/06/09/clash-of-the-trailers/

    http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/archives/if_you_missed_it…listen_to_the_sa_live_podcast_season_2_ep_14_the_help_co/#comments

    Shadow and Act – On Cinema and the African Diaspora, is an indiewire blog; ignore the initial amateurishness(?) of the hosts. In this podcast, the 2nd caller, who’d seen The Help trailer attached to the Jump the Broom movie, reacted with, “Oh, no, not another Magical Negro movie.”

    The 3rd caller, a woman who’d read the book *and* saw the film at a screening in a predominantly black audience in North Philadelphia, was very incisive at great length in her criticism of both the book and the movie. One of her main criticisms was how the film removed the teeth/claws and nuances which were in the book.

    Notwithstanding the wonderful ensemble performance Kris saw, or how beautiful the production and music may be, the male co-host said blacks are facing The Help with trepidation. He’d read that the screenings were mostly to audiences of white women and that their response was overwhelmingly positive – a flag for him that the movie made them feel good by allowing them to detach themselves from the issue of racism today and the past.

  • 12 8-05-2011 at 6:23 pm

    Ligaya said...

    http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/07/31/come-awards-time-what-will-hollywood-do-with-the-help/

    Come awards time, what will Hollywood do with The Help?

    Great ensemble acting:

    http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/07/02/help-should-have-learned-from-glory/

    What The Help movie should have learned from Glory

  • 13 8-06-2011 at 7:59 am

    JJ1 said...

    My question is this (and I’ve heard other people ask the same): wouldn’t the black people of that era be afraid to talk to Skeeter and risk losing their jobs? The concept seems a bit implausible to me.

    I hope that doesn’t come across as an ignorant question. If so, I apologize.

  • 14 8-06-2011 at 10:16 am

    Ligaya said...

    Not an ignorant question at all. *Black* people of that era were afraid to associate with other *black* people known to be involed in the Civil Rights Movement in fear of losing their jobs, their houses being bombed/burned down, or even being lynched.

    Aibileen said “no” 3 times but Skeeter pressured her to say yes for the sake of advancing Skeeter’s career.

    In my post #59, “One thing that didn’t sit well with me was that Skeeter seemed so cavalier and totally oblivious to the dangers to which she put Aibileen, then Minny, then the other black women at risk. I hope the movie addresses this. We’re talking real life and death here. Famous civil rights leaders were being shot, people were disappeared, it wasn’t safe for black people to be seen with white people except in their domestic capacity.”

    Author Stockett is either naive (hard to believe since by all accounts she’s described as intelligent and talented) or willfully chose to ignore or revise the true history of the Civil Rights Movement and placed it in the background. The book The Help is a well-written, fast-paced story, but I was most interested in what happened with Aibileen and Minny.

    I hope the movie improves on the book’s flaws. I read that Viola Davis gave some suggestions and that the filmmakers even took some of them.

    In any case, I think we should see the movie.

  • 15 8-06-2011 at 10:43 am

    JJ1 said...

    Thank you Ligaya for your response. :)

  • 16 8-07-2011 at 11:33 am

    Tamila Smith said...

    Well, I’ve been following this film very closely. 1. Spencer was good friends with Taylor the director not Stockett.

    2. They’ve screened this film for black audiences (I was apart of that group) and we LOVED it. gave it a standing ovation.

    3. Davis and Spencer are the standouts. Chastain, Howard, Janney and Stone definitely give strong performances along with Aunjanue Ellis and Cicely Tyson.

    4. Ligaya: The notion that black people in this era would’ve been afraid to associate w/ those involved in civil rights is valid but, were it not for those who weren’t afraid, we would still be in Jim Crow Era and without civil rights. Obviously these people existed. Can you say black panthers, and all of the different student organizations through out the south during that period.

    5. I am glad that this isn’t just another civil rights movie. I’m glad that Stockett focused on the relationships between the women and not on the brutality of the region. We’ve seen far too much of the latter and not enough of the former.

  • 17 8-07-2011 at 11:35 am

    Tamila Smith said...

    Well, I’ve been following this film very closely. 1. Spencer was good friends with Taylor the director not Stockett.

    2. They’ve screened this film for black audiences (I was apart of that group) and we LOVED it. gave it a standing ovation.

    3. Davis and Spencer are the standouts. Chastain, Howard, Janney and Stone definitely give strong performances along with Aunjanue Ellis and Cicely Tyson.

    4. Ligaya: The notion that black people in this era would’ve been afraid to associate w/ those involved in civil rights is valid but, were it not for those who weren’t afraid, we would still be in the Jim Crow Era and without civil rights. Obviously these people existed. Can you say black panthers, and all of the different student organizations through out the south during that period.

    5. I am glad that this isn’t just another civil rights movie. I’m glad that Stockett focused on the relationships between the women and not on the brutality of the region. We’ve seen far too much of the latter and not enough of the former.

  • 18 8-08-2011 at 3:33 am

    the other mike said...

    civil rights movies are the new holocaust movies. Obama came through for his people.

  • 19 8-08-2011 at 9:58 am

    Ligaya said...

    @Tamila: Maybe you’ve attended more than one screening, I haven ‘t attended any and will reserve my response to the film until I’ve seen it. I’ll watch it twice on different days to see if I react emotionally and intellectually in the same way. I read the book only on reading that Viola Davis was starring in it. I know many of the actors on the ensemble and admire them greatly, and greatly support an all-woman ensemble. Notwithstanding their probable great performances, especially on Kris’ advance notice, the message that the movie puts across can be problematic at best .

    I agree there should be more nuanced portrayals of events and history – the messiness of real life – in movies, unlike the movies I saw when I was growing up when the Confederates, Germans, Japanese were always cardboard villains. I think Ken Burns’ Civil War series and Clint Eastwood’s 2-part series on Okinawa are examples.

    I agree no actor should be held responsible to representing their whole race/gender, nor represent solely a positive role model (although Sidney Poitier felt that responsibility since he was the first major black actor) but allowed to audition and play a whole range of roles (from saint/God to pimp, Malcolm X to druglord), ESPECIALLy *non-traditional,* noi-stereoptyped roles/tropes associated with women and people of color.

    This interview with Viola Davis and Denzel Washington just before they were to appear on Broadway in Fences is very revealing. In Part 1, Viola talks about how so many of her roles were as a “function” and not fully fleshed characters who had deep lives and developed as the play/movie proceeded. In Part 5, Viola talks about the first part she was offered after her nomination.

    http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/archives/great_conversation_w_denzel_washington_viola_davis_on_acting_the_industry_m/

    [After my doctors’ appointments, my response to your main point: EXACTLY – Who were the main agents the Civil Rights Era – White Saviors? The Help’s Message]

  • 20 8-08-2011 at 10:31 am

    Ligaya said...

    In the meantime, the current Entertainment Weekly (with Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Emma Stone cover) has an op-ed, “THE TRUTH ABOUT THE CIVIL RIGHTS ERA,” by author Martha Southgate on why she can’t get on board The Help’s train, bestseller that it is, popular among some blacks as it is. It’s not up on ew.com’s website yet.

    Excerpt:

    “This isn’t the 1st time the civil rights movement has been framed this way fictitiously, especially on film. Most Hollywood civil rights movies features white characters central, sometimes nearly solo, roles. My favorite (not!) is Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, whic gives us 2 white FBI agents as heroes of the movement. FBI agents! Given that J.Edgar Hoover did everything short of shooting Martin Luther King Jr. himself in order to damage or discredit the movement, that goes from troubling to appalling.”

  • 21 8-13-2011 at 6:00 am

    JJ1 said...

    Can we have a Tell Us What You Thought of “The Help” thread? :)

  • 22 8-13-2011 at 7:04 am

    Ligaya said...

    yes, please.