Liz Smith: “The Help” Needs Help — But Not On The Acting!

Oscar nominations loom for Viola Davis and the ensemble

“I HAVE a dream!” declared Martin Luther King in 1963, five years before his death

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I THINK that dream might well have anticipated a man of color as president of the United States in his lifetime. I wonder if that dream anticipated the fact that in 2011 feature films could still be produced about wise and sassy black maids in the repressed South of the 1960’s, women who overcame by being…wise and sassy.

“The Help” is one of the most wildly frustrating movies I have ever seen. For one thing, I’ve seen it before; the basic plot is almost as old as movies itself. The film is based on a beloved book that I could not finish because I dislike reading dialect. So, right away, I didn’t go into the movie with high hopes.

Spunky Southern girl Skeeter (Emma Stone) returns from school and is (rather naively) shocked to find vicious prejudice among her old school friends. She is especially distressed at the cruel, dismissive and condescending manner all her friends treat their maids; women who have raised them lovingly. Despite risking her reputation, Skeeter –who wants to be a writer — enlists the aid of soulful-eyed Aibileen (Viola Davis) and smart-talking Minny (Octavia Spencer) to tell what it is like to work for these ungrateful white ladies.

The most astonishing bitch of the bunch is Hilly Holbrook, who is so fantastically evil, she is like something out of a Disney movie — Cruella de Vil on meth. Actress Bryce Dallas Howard inhabits this role as if her very life depends on it. She has a ditzy, half-mad mother (Sissy Spacek) and, of course, there is the neighborhood outcast, played by Jessica Chastain, who, because of her low status, is much nicer to her “inferiors.”

I won’t give up more plot details, but literally nothing surprised me in “The Help.” All the big scenes one might expect are there.

I was torn. The movie is very prettified, and picture perfect in its period detail. Music from the era plays throughout. The serious issues of prejudice don’t seem nearly as important as the décor. And yet…I would be a big fat liar if I dismissed the brilliance of every actress onscreen here. Viola Davis can express a resigned lifetime in a glance…Octavia Spencer is like an I-V of Red Bull…Miss Howard’s whispered villainy is reminiscent of Sian Phillips’ Livia “I Claudius”…and Emma Stone, known for her blonde sexiness and a few comedy roles, here inhabits a complex and driven character so totally that, one searches in vain for the bikini-beauty of the cover of Vanity Fair. Sissy Spacek is a riot in her every appearance.

As entertained as I was by the individual performances, I simply could not get past the uncomfortable feeling that the time for a movie like this had passed; that it is too lightweight, glossy and obvious in many ways to teach the serious history lesson everybody involved was clearly attempting. (For heaven’s sake, at least they could have filmed it in grittier, less candy-colored tones.)

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I WAS pulled back and forth, because the charm and talent onscreen is so overwhelming. Viola Davis, who was Oscar-nominated for her five-minute face-down with Meryl Streep in “Doubt” has said she had no qualms about playing a maid. The role was great and how often does that happen for any actress, especially an African American who does not look like Halle Berry? Forgive me — I have qualms for her. (And Halle Berry’s career has been on a downward slide ever since her Oscar win for “Monster’s Ball,” a role that many felt was degrading in itself. Even her “acceptable” café au lait beauty has not been enough to sustain her career in any but a “commercial” manner.)

I’m on the ledge about recommending “The Help.” I am in a distinct minority. Almost all reviews have been slavering raves for every aspect of “The Help” — plot, script, acting. I couldn’t agree more about the latter. So I am going to urge all those who love to see actors at their best, invested to the hilt, and honest in every emotion, to go see this film. Odds are you’ll disagree with my squirming over the story.

I will predict Oscar nods for Emma Stone, Miss Davis, Miss Howard and if there is justice, Octavia Spencer.

Maybe I expect too much. Perhaps I have been too discouraged by the race hatred exhibited toward Barack Obama to ease into a movie like “The Help.”

Yes, yes — I know the criticism now is about Obama’s “weakness” and “lack of leadership” but I can’t help feeling he compromised and hoped (in vain) for some adult negotiating precisely because he knew the extent of the fear and hatred out there, based on the color of his skin, the insinuations about his religious beliefs and his legitimacy to even be president.

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P.S. “The Help” has pulled in a quite respectable $35 million its first weekend out. The industry buzz insists this is one of those movies that will grow by word of mouth, and fully recoup its cost. Certainly if Oscar is kind with its nominations, there will be new box-office life for “The Help” coming in the fall.

45 comments so far.

  1. avatar momis says:

    I liked the movie for the acting; I think there were great performances by quite a few of the actors in this movie. But I get the criticism the film is getting as well. I decided to see it because I wasn’t around during the Civil Rights movement and I wanted to see it to support a film with minorities casted as the main characters in it. However, I feel disappointed that minorities usually get strong roles when it involves stories about racism or stereotypes.  But maybe I’m just being bias because I’m Hispanic.

  2. avatar Linda Myers says:

    Living in a border city in the Rio Grande Valley in the 70′s, the help was comprised of white families hiring illegal immigrants to be maids and provide childcare and the hispanic families who were able, hiring whites to be maids and provide child care. It was not a black/white issue. A black person at that time, was still limited in having two lanes accessible in the bowling alley regardless if the bowling center was empty or full. Now, it seems status is seen in having a maid and a nanny.

    The Help, was on my grandsons reading list for AP English this summer. He was born 30 years beyond this time in history and I think better able to feel the book, rather than be judgmental in the reading. Movies along this line are not new, I still enjoy watching Whoopie in Corrina, Corrina as her character tried to make a living, adjust and feel for those she cared for, while at the same time being very aware of how her own family and community viewed the job and propective diffulculities she had chosen.