Jessica Chastain, The Help
The list of potential Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nominees is nearly as long as the list of female cast members in Tate Taylor's socially conscious comedy-drama The Help. In fact, several The Help actresses are either likely or possible Oscar contenders.
Much like in the Best Supporting Actor category, in which only Christopher Plummer is a true shoo-in for his role in Mike Mills' Beginners, the only shoo-in in the Best Supporting Actress category is The Help's Octavia Spencer, winner of a Golden Globe, and a SAG Award and BAFTA nominee.
Now, how could North American critics' fave Jessica Chastain not be a shoo-in? Well, Chastain is a near shoo-in. Though not a strong probability, it's certainly possible that she won't get enough first/second place votes for either The Help or Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. And it could get even worse: Chastain fans could choose to vote for her performances in, say, Take Shelter or Coriolanus. In fact, that's the one instance — one actor with multiple well-received roles in a single year — when "splitting the votes" to the detriment of a potential front-runner is an actual possibility.
In 1946, for instance, Olivia de Havilland asked Universal to not push her for Robert Siodmak's thriller The Dark Mirror, as Paramount was already campaigning for her performance as a long-suffering single mother in Mitchell Leisen's melodrama To Each His Own. De Havilland not only got nominated for To Each His Own, she went on to win that year's Best Actress Oscar. Forty years later, Julie Andrews was in the running for two movies: Blake Edwards' dramatic comedy That's Life and Andrei Konchalovsky's drama Duet for One. Quite possibly due to vote-splitting (competition in the Best Actress category was hardly fierce that year), Andrews failed to be shortlisted.
Now, despite our misgivings, we believe that Chastain will be shortlisted for The Help because of both the film's popularity and Chastain's SAG Award nomination. In other words, most Chastain fans will likely vote for her performance in Taylor's sleeper hit — a much bigger box office success than Chastain's other 2011 releases, and quite possibly her only effort many (most?) Academy members will bother watching.
The Artist's Bérénice Bejo and Albert Nobbs' Janet McTeer are both up for SAG Awards. Bejo even managed to get shortlisted in the Best Actress category for the BAFTAs. Oscar nominations for both, though not guaranteed, are likely. Albert Nobbs hasn't exactly set the North American box office on fire, but then again neither did Tumbleweeds (1999), which earned McTeer a Best Actress Oscar nod.
For slot no. 5, if we pick Melissa McCarthy for Paul Feig's sleeper hit Bridesmaids, that'll mean an exact Academy-SAG match. That may well happen, but we'll opt instead for a possible upset: Vanessa Redgrave for Ralph Fiennes' Coriolanus. Redgrave was recently honored by the Academy at a London ceremony, and despite her controversial politics, she has loads of admirers and remains one of the most respected actresses anywhere in the world. A Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner for Fred Zinnemann's Julia (1977), Redgrave has been shortlisted for five other Academy Awards: as Best Actress for Karel Reisz's Morgan! (1966) and Isadora (1968), Charles Jarrott's Mary, Queen of Scots (1971), and James Ivory's The Bostonians (1984), and as Best Supporting Actress for Ivory's Howards End (1992).
Another strong contender, of course, is Golden Globe nominee Shailene Woodley for Alexander Payne's The Descendants, a shoo-in for a Best Picture nomination.
Other possibilities are Carey Mulligan for Steve McQueen's Shame (but, despite her BAFTA nomination, not for Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive),Sissy Spacek and Bryce Dallas Howard for The Help, Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster for Roman Polanski's Carnage, Marion Cotillard for Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, Judy Greer in The Descendants, Maya Rudolph for Bridesmaids, Sandra Bullock for Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Judi Dench for Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar (but, despite her BAFTA nomination, not for Simon Curtis' My Week with Marilyn).
Jessica Chastain/The Help photo: Dale Robinette / DreamWorks / Disney Enterprises