Monday, August 29, 2011

(The) Help! That dastardly Howard!

The Wicked Witch of the West. Darth Vader. Nurse Ratched. Hannibal Lecter. And now, joining their ranks, Hilly Holbrook from The Help!

(Trumpet flourishes, followed by crickets)

Wait, sweet little Bryce Dallas Howard played one of the most dastardly villains of all time?

Well, yes, I would argue she has. No, she's not quite up there with Margaret Hamilton just yet, but as millions of people who have seen The Help know, Howard filled her villainous heels quite well. Maybe a little TOO well.

I seriously cannot remember the last time I felt that much seething hatred for a female character. Hell, the last time I hate a male character that much, it was Will Ferrell in Bewitched - and he wasn't trying to be hateful, which only made me want to snap his neck that much harder.

And yet, now that I think about it, that's really the secret to what makes Hildy so awful. There's no doubt that this relentless social climber does some extraordinarily mean and spiteful things. But what makes them mean and spiteful is the fact that she's actually not always trying to be mean and spiteful. In a way, she can't help it.

Part of the problem is that Hildy's a product of her times. She's one of the worst kind of racists - one who doesn't think she is. She feels that because she gives them a good job in a nice house that's help enough to them. Doesn't matter that she treats them like dirt most of the time, she's doing them a FAVOR! She's like one of those hypocrites who goes to church week in and week out, acts all pious that day, and then acts like an ass the other six days of the week.

So yes, when Hildy gets her "just desserts" (you know exactly what I mean if you know the story) there's a certain gleeful satisfaction in her comeuppance. But what sells Howard's performance isn't outright villainy. It's the fact that Howard lets us see the cracks beneath the surface. She makes it readily apparent that Hilly is so hateful because she hates herself above everyone else. And that, in the end, is her tragedy.

When I came out of the film, I feared for Howard's safety. So palpable was her hatefulness that I was afraid irate women might try to whomp her over the head with their purses - or maybe with their cell phones. At first, Howard seemed destined to be typecast as the ethereal waif in the likes of The Village, or Clint Eastwood's Hereafter. Now she might be in danger of getting typecast as the bitch.

And you know what? That's still an upgrade for Howard. Even before she became an actress, she was cursed with the middle name of the city in which Opie conceived her. Now, she has something to sink her teeth into and is less likely to get lost as "the girl" in Spider-Man 3 or Terminator Salvation.

You've come a long way, Bryce - you're one of the best assets of this movie that fully deserves its status as a sleeper hit. Glad to see people are waking up to you.

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