Oscar scouting report, best supporting actress: McCarthy, Bejo, Chastain, McTeer, Spencer

Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids. ()
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For Oscar season, Capital will evaluate the nominees in each category. This week: Best Supporting Actress.

Oscars do not necessarily mean "best," in any sense of the word. Cary Grant never won an Oscar competitively, for example, and Jeff Bridges wasn't even nominated for his performance in Door in the Floor, which was not only one of his best performances, but one of the best performances given by an actor, period. But the nominees in the Best Supporting Actress category this year are all strong ones.

Melissa McCarthy: "Megan" in Bridesmaids

Melissa McCarthy came up through the vibrant improv and standup scene in New York City. Until now, she was mainly known for her recurring role on "Gilmore Girls," but her performance as "Megan," the serious-eyed, unabashed tomboy among the bridesmaids, has taken her career to another level, garnering her her first Oscar nomination.

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Comedies often get short shrift during Oscar season, and usually it is in the Best Supporting categories that they receive recognition. It is one of the many annoying aspects of the Oscars, which tend to congratulate serious (and often self-serious) work over the more "popular" genre of comedy.

But Melissa McCarthy's creation of Megan is a true original. She is not a cliche. If you have seen McCarthy on talk shows and in personal appearances, then you have seen her effervescent, sweet personality, which is nothing at all like the swaggering, blunt Megan. I wasn't even aware it was the same actress who was in "Gilmore Girls."

A lot of the commentary upon Bridesmaids' release mentioned only the notorious "pooping" scene, and worried opinion writers asked whether we really needed to see a fat girl pooping in a sink, and what the world was coming to if we did. But focusing only on that show-stopper of a scene is to miss the subtlety of McCarthy's characterization, the specificity of it, and how deep that character goes in her.

Humphrey Bogart said that good acting should be "six feet back in the eyes," and McCarthy plays Megan like that. She's a comedienne on the level of Madeline Kahn and has undergone the deepest transformation of all of the nominees.

Bérénice Bejo: "Peppy Miller" in The Artist

Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist, an ode to the silent-film era, stars Best Actor nominee Jean Dujardin as George Valentin (a silent film star along the lines of Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert or Rudolph Valentino) and Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller, a rising star reminiscent of Clara Bow. Bejo is Hazanavicius' wife and regular collaborator. Peppy's journey from obscurity to stardom is given sentimental power through Bejo's eloquent face and mischievous smile.

The fact that The Artist is a silent film has been the subject of much commentary, not all of it positive, but one of the best things about it is that it is a reminder that the cinema is a visual medium and telling a story doesn't necessarily require language. You can do so much with behavior and pantomime. The Artist is a testament to acting itself. A good, expressive face is all you need.

As we saw in Singin' In the Rain, the introduction of sound was a giant leap forward in the new 20th century art form, and many actors found their careers derailed. George Valentin, a giant star in the silent era, is pushed aside for newer talent, fresher faces. Bejo's Miller idolizes Valentin, and early on she finds herself alone in his dressing room. Rapt, she looks around, examining his objects. She then notices his coat hanging on a rack. Slowly, she starts touching the coat, and then she slides one of her arms into a hanging sleeve. It becomes an illusion, a visual joke: her arm in the coat-sleeve looks like his arm, and, in a fantasy, she begins to hug herself with "his" arm. Out of all of the scenes, this one reminded me most of the power of silent film, and the power of pantomime (a lost art, in many ways). Bejo is lovely in The Artist and her watchful eyes help give Valentin's fall the tragic aspect it needs.

Jessica Chastain: "Celia Foote" in The Help

Jessica Chastain has had a huge year. In 2011 alone, she appeared in Take Shelter, Coriolanus, The Help and The Tree of Life, in a diverse array of characters. She was unforgettable as Mrs. O'Brien in Tree of Life in a nearly wordless role, bringing a primal, palpable cinematic presence to the screen. As Celia Foote, she is unrecognizable, with platinum hair, tight white pedal pushers and halter tops, and a nervous laugh hiding a world of pain. In my review of The Help, I wrote of Chastain: "Chastain brings a brittle fragile quality to Celia that makes you worry for her, and the scenes between Chastain and [fellow nominee Octavia] Spencer are the highlights of the film."  

I was not a fan of The Help, despite the fact that the acting is superb across the board. Chastain is heartbreaking as Celia, a lonely, misunderstood sexpot, who hides her misery from her husband and hires a black maid so that she can have some company, as well as learn how to cook. Celia is shunned by the "respectable" ladies in town, and this breaks her heart.

If you took one look at Celia, you would think she was a delicate flower, but seeing her decapitating a chicken in her backyard shows that she is really just a simple country girl who happens to reside in the body of Jayne Mansfield. It's a beautiful performance.

That having been said, any number of actresses could have played Celia Foote, who is a character we have all seen before. But it is difficult to imagine anybody else in her role in The Tree of Life. It wasn't a character so much as it was an examination of her own life force, the blades of grass stuck to her feet, the pulse in her throat, the expressions flitting across her face from moment to moment. Mrs. O'Brien didn't feel like "acting" at all. It was life, captured onscreen. Chastain has obviously arrived as a major player in the Hollywood scene and she is already booked through 2012.

Janet McTeer: "Hubert Page" in Albert Nobbs

Janet McTeer has had a magnificent career as a stage actress, and her "Nora" in Ibsen's A Doll's House was hailed as a groundbreaking reinterpretation of that famous role. She won the Tony Award for it, and people still talk about having seen her as Nora in a tone of awe and gratitude, glad that they were witnesses to a miracle. She's done a lot of television, and her nomination for an Academy Award in Albert Nobbs is her second (the first being a nomination for Best Actress in 2000's Tumbleweeds). Albert Nobbs is a muddle of a film, belabored and confused, but every time McTeer enters the screen the air sparks with excitement.

She plays Hubert Page, a woman who lives in disguise as a male (complete with happy wife), and makes her living as a house painter. Through this job, she comes into contact with Glenn Close's Albert Nobbs, another woman living as a man in Edwardian Dublin. Albert Nobbs is repressed and silent, while McTeer's Hubert has a swagger and confidence. Nobbs huddles to the side in silence, hoping to remain completely invisible. Page, on the other hand, strides into rooms, smoking a cigarette, comfortable in her own skin. She looks enormous, a towering presence.

Page glories in her visibility—her role as a male sets her free. The way she crosses her legs, the way she enters a door, all of these small elements are made exciting by McTeer's performance. It is through her that we can see the unquestioned freedom of men, their mobility, their unembarrassed way of taking up space. McTeer has a lot of fun with the role, but it is in the specificity of her listening that the performance can rightly be called great. Listening is the most important part of acting, and the most underrated. Watch how McTeer listens. Watch how her eyes flicker with unspoken thoughts, unspoken comments. She thinks a lot more than she says.

Nobbs is a cowering figure, unused to speaking at all. McTeer squints at him, seeing right through him. Her listening is a masterpiece. We are in the realm of the real, when someone is listening like that. McTeer is always in the realm of the real.

Octavia Spencer: Minny in The Help

Look at Spencer's resume on IMDB and it immediately becomes clear that not all that much has changed for African-American actresses, despite all of the great strides in Hollywood and Halle Berry's Best Actress Oscar. Spencer, as is totally apparent in The Help, is a magnificent actress and up until two years ago many of her characters don't have names, they are listed only by their professions: lots of "Nurse"s, a "Detention Teacher", a "Streetwalker." In that respect, Spencer's nomination for her performance as the hotheaded straight-talking Minny in The Help is a giant triumph, not just for Spencer professionally, but for African-American actresses who keep doing their thing, working, not complaining, doing roles that are categorically beneath them.

 Spencer's Minny provides a lot of the comic relief in The Help, but there is something about her ferocious face that clues us in to the pain of her situation. She treats her mistress, Celia Foote, with the impatient condescension of someone who knows she is better and smarter than anyone in the room, and the scenes between Chastain and Spencer are the highlights of the film. It's a crowd-pleasing role, and in a film like The Help, which is primarily about white guilt, Minny's rebellious maid provides catharsis.

Despite my reservations about the film, this is a well-deserved nomination. I missed Octavia Spencer every time she left the action. I couldn't wait for her to come back. The Best Supporting Actress category has often been, strangely enough, a death-knell for the actress who win the prize. My hope is that whatever happens on Oscar night is irrelevant and that Octavia Spencer continues to get good roles worthy of her gifts. She is a giant talent.