But much as I predicted, the movie did prove to be a mainstream crowd-pleaser--outperforming expectations by a good margin by playing nationally to both white and black women. This weekend's Academy screening was packed and members gave rousing applause to multiple actors at the end, most especially Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain. (DreamWorks should put proven and nominated veteran Davis in lead and the other two in supporting. Ingenue Emma Stone hasn't a prayer in either category.)
I maintain that at year's end The Help (73% on Rotten Tomatoes) will NOT be on most critics' ten-best lists; it might wind up with acting nominations. Director Tate Taylor is a gifted actors' director and I look forward to what he does next. But the directors, cinematographers, writers, editors, art directors, costume designers, composers, and makeup artists will not be nominating this film at awards time. If the film winds up in the best picture category, it will be voted in by mainstream branches of the Academy--which outside the actors branch skews more male than female--such as publicists, executives and producers.
Another weekend Academy screening was the much better-reviewed movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which is damned on several counts as an Oscar contender. Even with its stellar reviews (82% on Rotten Tomatoes) and male target demo, the screening was sparsely attended (many members might have already seen the movie, which was in its second weekend in theaters). But truth is, Academy members are snobs. Even though Rise of the Planet of the Apes will wind up on many ten-bests, Oscar voters tend to take genre films--and sequels--less seriously. Director Rupert Wyatt is a relative newcomer. Much-beloved actor John Lithgow has the best shot at supporting consideration, more than James Franco or the film's true lead, Andy Serkis. He told EW: "There were actually several screenings of the film with me up on the screen before the visual-effects shots had come in, to test the story. People either respond to the performance at that level or they don't, there's no way you can make that better with digital effects."
Serkis's Oscar bid is doomed. That's because the actors' branch that dominates Oscar voting (by far) is made up of people who work in live action movies, most of whom don't recognize performance capture as acting. They tend to be threatened by the rise of the digital universe. Most actors don't take animation seriously either. So Serkis's extraordinary achievement in humanizing sentient chimp Caesar will yield a deserved VFX nomination. It will take years for the rest of the older Academy to catch up with digital reality.