The large cast works well together, but The Help owes its entire success to Viola Davis' vivid, authentic performance as tired, burdened, compassionate Aibileen, followed closely by Octavia Spencer's fiery Minny. Both actresses should have no trouble making their way onto Oscar ballots. Although Emma Stone's Skeeter is the ostensible lead, the film starts and ends with Aibileen's voice over, every other actress is at her best when they share a scene with her and she is the heart, soul & spine of the film. It feels very justified that she is being campaigned as Lead Actress. Octavia Spencer, meanwhile, is far more than the supporting comic relief as fiesty, "sassmouthing" Minny. She is a real, strong-willed woman with an unpredictable, unstoppable fire in her belly and an unwillingness to suffer fools gladly. But she does have all the funniest bits.
On the white side of things, Emma Stone is naturally charming as the independent, "different" girl - the hair and make up department do a very good job of playing down her looks- but Alison Janney and, particularly, Jessica Chastain are the highlights among the white "madams", as morally compromised cancer patient / concerned grandchildren-less mother and tippling, floozy farmgirl, respectively. Bryce Dallas Howard, however, struggles to bring life to her callous, shallow villain, settling too often for cartoonish mean girl antics. It is as much a fault of the writing than the performance that Hilly is a shrill, relentless ubher bitch who is easy to hate, but very difficult to take seriously, but if Howard could have surrendered herself to Hilly's misguided convictions, she could have been a formidable force to be reckoned with. As it is, Howard herself can't seem to take her quite seriously, and drops the ball on the films funniest sequence - the pie. There is a line that divides an over-the-top character from an over-the-top performance and, unfortunately, Howard lands on the wrong side of that line. But Viola Davis more than makes up for it.