The performances we tend to remember and celebrate are always about recognizable feelings shaped by people who know from timing, emphasis, discipline…the art of emotional channeling. But different folks come at this in different ways. Among the current Best Supporting Actress nominees, four are similar and one is slightly different.
Fences‘ Viola Davis, Moonlight‘s Naomie Harris, Lion‘s Nicole Kidman and Manchester By The Sea‘s Michelle Williams are skilled actresses channelling the emotions of four exceptionally well-written characters. Hidden Figures Octavia Spencer, on the other hand, is a shrewd, spunky, spiritually attuned woman who knows how to shade or accentuate her natural manner and personality just so to bring out the contours of a fresh character.
In other words Davis, Harris, Kidman and Williams “act” to achieve a certain carefully refined end while Spencer is more of a natural presence who’s gifted and skillful enough to have made the right adjustments. The other four are like instruments — Spencer is more of a river or a force.
Popular actors and actresses are bringers of dependable vibes. The transition from popularity to stardom is basically about those vibes becoming well known, trusted and embraced en masse. I don’t know exactly when this started to happen with Octavia Spencer, but I know it’s happening right now. She’s become our best friend, our neighbor, a lady with heartstrings, someone you want along for the ride but at the same time a tough cookie. Plus she has the kindest eyes my own have ever beheld.
Just don’t forget the tough cookie part. Something about Spencer says “Sure, I’ll listen and probably hear what you’re saying ’cause I’m a generous empathy type plus you look like a nice fella, but don’t pull any fast ones when my head is turned or I’ll come down on your ass.”
Most of us decided we not only liked the water in Octavia’s well but wanted to keep a few bottles in the fridge after seeing her in Tate Taylor‘s The Help. Spencer won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Manny Jackson, the too-long-taken-for-granted maid. I’ve long presumed that Spencer won because of the shit-pie sequence, but more precisely because she allowed us to fully feel what Minny had gone through with her employer, played by Bryce Dallas Howard.
Five years later Spencer’s stand-out performance in Ryan Coogler‘s Fruitvale Station deepened the trust vibes, and then came the fearless Tanya in Snowpiercer, Aunt Honey Washington (manager of a Georgia brothel who takes care of young James Brown) in Get On Up, the flinty but fair-minded Rowena Jeffers in Black and White and, late last year, real-life NASA math whiz Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden Figures, a performance for which she won her second Best Supporting Actress nomination.
“I felt it was important to really capture Dorothy’s personal integrity,” Spencer recently told The Guardian‘s Karen Krizanovich. “I wanted her to be remembered for her own actions, so I [figured] I’m just the vessel through which the world will be able to see all that Dorothy contributed. Dorothy was also very selfless and, I think, because of that extreme selflessness, it was hard for her to gain her place as quickly as Katherine and Mary did.
“At the same time, she really believed in women and she made sure that every step forward for her was a step forward for all of them. It’s so wonderful to get to play a strong woman, but…these women are also allowed to have their vulnerabilities.”
Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures isn’t just Vaughn’s saga but that of the real-life Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). They all faced tough racial hurdles NASA during the early ’60s space race.
If Johnson is portrayed as the brainiest and Jackson the proudest and most assertive, Vaughn is the most quietly persistent and politically well-phrased of the trio. She always knows how to phrase her questions and responses in just the right way.
When a Virginia highway patrolman expresses surprise that Vaughn, Jackson and Johnson are NASA mathematicians, Dorothy quickly smiles and says that “many women” are working for the agency. When Kirsten Dunst‘s Vivian Mitchell tells Vaughn that “despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all,” Dorothy replies, “I know you probably believe that.”
From 2.7.17 HE piece titled “If I Was An Academy Member, I’d Vote For Octavia Spencer On Affection Alone“:
“Spencer always hits that emotive sweet spot, never too showy or quiet, and her channeling of the late mathematician Dorothy Vaughn fit right into the humanistic scheme of Theodore Melfi‘s historical drama.
“Spencer has two other 2017 performances in the pipeline — a supporting performance in Marc Webb‘s Gifted (Fox Searchlight, 4.12) and also in Guillermo del Toro‘s The Shape of Water, another FS project that will probably debut in the fall.
“All hail Octavia, Hidden Figures, her costars (Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner), the NASA space program of the ’60s and every other factor in between.”