The Help, a book club favorite adapted to the screen not long after its reign on The New York Times bestseller list, has been widely lauded for the performances from a nearly all-female ensemble cast, led by Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Emma Stone.
But if The Help wins the Best Picture Oscar it will be producers Michael Baranthan and Chris Columbus who accept the award.
Columbus is a successful, veteran writer-director-producer who has consistently prevailed at the box office, but he's not so much on the critical radar: The first to usher Harry Potter into movie theatres, Columbus directed the first two installments of the series and stayed on as a producer for the third. Known for family-friendly films like Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire in his early career, he more recently directed and produced the much-maligned I Love You Beth Cooper in 2009.
The feel-good Civil Rights drama is director Tate Taylor's first major feature film: A childhood friend of Stockett's, he optioned the rights to the novel before it was released. Taylor previously directed the forgettable Pretty Ugly People; he has spent more time in front of the camera than behind it.
The Help is expected to pick up at least one acting award: While lead actress Viola Davis is in the unenviable position of challenging Meryl Streep for the honor, Octavia Spencer has been virtually unbeatable in the Best Supporting Actress race so far this award season. The Help cleaned up at the SAG Awards -- taking both female top prizes and the ensemble award -- and was notably named AFI's Film of the Year.
The Help scored 76% on Rotten Tomatoes, which ranks it second to last among the fellow nominees: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close didn't break the 50% mark, and War Horse just edged it out at 77%.
Among the aggregated review highlights:
As hard to dislike as it is to truly admire, this artfully manipulative issue movie knows where its strengths lie... and most of them lie in Viola Davis. -- Film 4
It tackles a challenging, inflammatory subject in the corniest, safest way possible. -- This is London
[The Help] strengthens stereotypes it purports to shatter -- Wall Street Journal
We can't argue with any of the above. However, if we could expect the Academy to reward challenging, unorthodox films, the nominee pool itself would look different (Tree of Life is the only outlier nominated this year -- that's one more than many other years).
Hollywood has a long history of congratulating itself for making movies that prominently feature ethnic minorities - regardless of whether said minority is drawn from the point of view of the white person (which they almost always are). It has a particular soft spot if the story involves a white person taking an ethnic minority (or several) under his or her wing - improving their lot while learning an important lesson along the way. Still, films like The Help have more often earned nominations than trophies.
Most recently, The Blind Side earned Sandra Bullock a Best Actress award, but lost the Best Picture Oscar to The Hurt Locker. Dances with Wolves swept the Oscars in 1991, with seven wins, including Best Picture. Mississipi Burning, which like The Help is directly concerned with the Civil Rights movement, was nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture, but took only the cinematography prize. Far From Heaven -- which is a bit like The Help if it were set in the Northeast and written from the POV of one of the milder racists -- earned four Oscar nominations but no wins, and was not nominated for Best Picture.
The Help, not unlike Moneyball, has some underdog street cred in its corner for having battled to get to the screen in the first place -- or, rather, the page. Stockett was rejected by 60 agents before signing with one who found her a publishing deal. And only when Tate convinced Columbus to spearhead the film project did it gain some traction -- and that introduction likely would not have happened if Columbus's children did not attend the same school as Tate's niece and nephew.
Sure, The Help has a lot working for it, but with the race really between The Artist and The Descendants we're hardly expecting it to walk away with the top prize. Right now The Help is ranked fourth behind Hugo and the two frontrunners in The Wrap's Best Picture prognosticator, which gives it ten-to-one odds of winning.
Not out of the question, of course, but The Help will need a lot of help between now and Feb. 26 to walk away with the Best Picture Oscar.
What do you think? Does The Help have a chance?
We'll publish the results of our Best Picture surveys the weekend of the Academy Awards.
&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;a href=http://polldaddy.com/poll/5954200/ mce_href=http://polldaddy.com/poll/5954200/&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;Do you think The Help will win the Best Picture Oscar?&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;/a&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;