Picking the winners in Oscar categories reminds me a lot of the arguments about the MVP in baseball, and how we should define "valuable" -- is it the guy with the best stats? is it the guy who made the biggest difference to an otherwise mediocre team? a combination?
I'll compare almost anything to baseball, given a chance, but the MVP-argument parallel is apt in many of Oscar's acting categories this year, where several of the nominees represent not just a notable achievement in acting, but also the only thing worth a damn in the film in which it appeared.
Bérénice Bejo (The Artist): I liked her well enough, but I wouldn't say she put a stamp on the role, more than anyone else would have.
Jessica Chastain (The Help): Adorable in this part. Absolutely sold me on a movie I expected to loathe with her sheer delight in shaking the chicken.
Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids): I like McCarthy, I like the idea of that character, but the writing of it seemed like a man's notes on a woman's guess at what a real person like that character would act like, if that makes any sense at all. Points for the effort, but it's too broad, and the nom reads like the Academy trying to show that it doesn't discriminate against comedies.
Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs): Here's where the MVP conversation comes into play. McTeer keeps an inconsistent and overworked script on the right side of twee whenever she's onscreen. It's a steady and inviting performance, not too studied, and it would get my vote.
Octavia Spencer (The Help): The oddsmaker's pick, as of this writing. Another nomination for an above-average rendering of too-broad writing.
Who shouldn't be here: Bejo probably got filed in Best Supporting so she wouldn't run into the twin buzzsaws of Viola Davis and Meryl Streep in Best Actress, but I think her role's too big for this category.
Who should be here, but isn't: I wouldn't have minded seeing Robin Wright get a nod here for Rampart; she really raised her game in 2011. Ditto Amy Ryan in Win Win, which also threw a shutout at the Oscars. Hat tip to members of the Bridesmaids and The Help casts (Rose Byrne; Sissy Spacek) who could just as easily have slotted in here.
Who should win: McTeer.
Who will win: It's not impossible that voters give Davis Best Actress, then decide to share some wealth to Bejo in Best Supporting. (You could argue that two actresses from The Help might split the vote; I don't see Chastain figuring in this one, though.) But Spencer is the safe pick.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She's the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.com. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here.