Academy Awards 2012: Handicapping ‘Help’ stars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer’s Oscar chances

The 84th annual Academy Awards air this Sunday, and for African-American audiences, the most closely watched categories likely will be best actress and best supporting actress. That’s because for the first time in Oscar history, black actresses are the frontrunners in both contests. Accomplished character actress Viola Davis is vying to become only the second black best actress winner in history for The Help. Meanwhile, Octavia Spencer, that same film’s breakout star, is trying to take home the third best supporting actress trophy for a black performer this decade.
The Oscars are infamously political, and snubs are commonplace — so no nominee is guaranteed a win. Also, recent revelations about the racial make-up of the academy’s voting population suggest that an older, white and male voting bloc may be resistant to films outside of their comfort zone.
In this post, I’ll try to break down Spencer and Davis’ competition and determine what fans ofThe Help should expect on Sunday.
Actress In a Leading Role

Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs

Viola Davis, The Help

Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady

Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn

In this category, Davis is competing with established veterans and rising stars. In my personal opinion, Rooney Mara gave the strongest, most exciting work of this slate of performers, but since she is such a newcomer and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is largely viewed as pop entertainment (compared to the more highbrow nominees), her nomination will likely be viewed as her reward.
Michelle Williams has definitely carved out an incredible post-Dawson’s Creek film career for herself, and she’s now scored a third Oscar nomination at only 31 years old. Still, My Week With Marilyn’s reviews aren’t strong enough to power her to a win. Expect Williams to win a best actress award eventually — she’s that good — but this is not her year.
The same can easily be said for the legendary Glenn Close. Despite unforgettable performances in films like Fatal Attraction, Dangerous Liaisons and The Big Chill, the 64-year-old actress has never won an Oscar. That may speak to the older Oscar voters’ sentimental streak. The Academy Awards have frequently awarded past-their-prime actors who have been unfairly overlooked in the past, even if it’s not for their greatest work. Yet in the case of Albert Nobbs, which has mostly received tepid reviews, that may be too high of a mountain to climb.
Which leaves the one-and-only Meryl Streep as Viola Davis’ closest competition for the win. Streep has scored more Oscar nominations than any actor or actress ever. To casual film fans, it may seem as though the most critically adored American actress of all time wins all the time, but in reality, she has just two Oscars under her belt and hasn’t actually won one since 1982. After falling short after a string of recent popular turns in films like Julia & Julia and The Devil Wears Prada, some Hollywood insiders feel that Streep is simply due for a victory. Yet, like the films of Close and Williams, Streep’s film The Iron Lady hasn’t exactly impressed audiences or critics.
On the other hand, Viola Davis’ turn as a dignified and dutiful maid in The Help has won nearly universal acclaim, and her film is by far the most popular one (from a financial standpoint) competing at this year’s awards. Right now, it appears best actress is Davis’ to lose.
Follow Adam Howard on Twitter at @at_howard