BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Berenice Bejo, The Artist
You could really argue that Bejo's nomination is a case of category fraud: she is given nearly equal screentime as co-star Jean Dujardin, and she is technically a co-lead or, perhaps, even the lead herself. But no matter how you label it, there's no denying that Bejo's performance is remarkable. The Argentinian actress - who frequently appears in Michel Hazanavicius' films - plays Peppy Miller, who through Dujardin's George Valentin becomes a movie star herself, flourishing by embracing the sound age that Valentin so fatefully rejects. She brings charisma and energy to the screen, and she never lets George go, eventually returning the favor that he had done for her. And she, too, is a terrific dancer. Should The Artist go for the sweep, then Bejo will likely win this prize, but she's got tough competition.
Jessica Chastain, The Help
What a year Chastain had, huh? She appeared in no less than six different movies, two of them Best Picture nominees (The Help and The Tree of Life). When you survey the roles, it seems obvious that she would be nominated for The Help (rather than The Tree of Life, in which I thought she gave a better performance): her Celia Foote is the film's comic relief, and yet she still manages to imbue this character with soul and pathos. I've had my complaints about The Help, but Celia is an example of one of the film's stronger aspects: she, too, is an outcast from Jackson society, a poor girl who married into money but still can never "belong." Chastain plays this notion perfectly in the scene where Celia tries to join the Bridge Club; the look of rejection in her eyes as they ignore her stings. Perhaps its because I come from a small town where if you weren't born there, you'll never belong, but this resonated with me. Her co-star Octavia Spencer is more likely to win, but I'm sure we'll see Chastain back here soon enough: she's got nearly a dozen projects in the works now.
Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
The last outright comedic performance to be nominated for an Oscar (and please, feel free to argue this) was Robert Downey, Jr.'s surprising Supporting Actor nod for 2008's Tropic Thunder. Its a shame the Oscars don't recognize more great comedic performances, but when they do, they usually pick something truly special. And McCarthy is nothing short of fantastic as Megan, an unhinged, in-your-face woman who may just be socially anxious, but provides the film with heart and a voice of reason for Kristen Wiig's Annie. McCarthy has always been a gifted performer, and here she sells it all, often improvising her lines and creating a full, multi-dimensional character we can actually like (she's like a more realistic and human version of Zach Galifinakis' character from The Hangover, minus the roofies). Its unlikely that she'll win, but its fantastic to see her nominated.
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
If you want to see an example of how to complete steal a movie, just watch McTeer in Albert Nobbs. Her Hubert Page, a woman who dresses as a man to maintain work as a painter in 19th century Dublin, is a fierce, self-assured character, sympathize with Glenn Close's Albert Nobbs and her (his?) plight. Page is confident where Nobbs is passive, and McTeer - the only actress in this category with a previous nomination - takes on the role with a vivacious and bold gusto that leads to her stealing every scene she's in. She plays Page as a woman who has accepted who she is, and though knowing that its against the social norms of the times, does whatever it takes to maintain her lifestyle. With any justice, it will be her taking to the podium Sunday night, but given the film's weak reception, it's not likely to happen.
Octavia Spencer, The Help
Among the maids in The Help, where Viola Davis' Aibileen is the dramatic heart and soul of the film, Spencer's Minnie is both the comic relief and the defensive, wounded soul. Minnie is faced with abuse both at work and at home, and Spencer plays her marvolously as a woman who is scared but defensive, having given up on fair treatment but always hoping that it will one day come. She also brings a significant dose of comedy to the film, such as her interactions with flighty Celia or, in the film's most memorable moment, her "special" pie for queen-bee Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard). Spencer, who works as both an actress and as a casting director in Hollywood, gives a phenomenal performance, one that she's already won an ton of raves for. Come Oscar night, I imagine she'll win one more.
My personal ballot:
1. Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
2. Octavia Spencer, The Help
3. Berenice Bejo, The Artist
4. Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
5. Jessica Chastain, The Help
Predicted winner: Octavia Spencer
Spoiler: Berenice Bejo
Dark Horse: Melissa McCarthy