This year I've had the pleasure of attending a few celebratory events for movies. At these luncheons or cocktail parties the filmmakers mingle with media types and Academy members. The most recent was a lunch for The Help held at Desmond's which is quite rectangular like a railroad apartment albeit one with very high ceilings. This gave the event a distinct bottleneck frenzy feel once Oscar buzzing actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer were making the rounds... or in this case walking the aisle. Conversation became next to impossible. After a quick exchange with Octavia (in very high spirits) we both did a double take of mutual fandom; the hilarious Anna Deavere Smith (Nurse Jackie, Rachel Getting Married) was squeezing past us saying a string of goodbyes. By the time I was face to face with Viola Davis, utterly gorgeous and much younger looking in person, she was ending a conversation with a time-hogging reporter in which she was trying to work her way around and straight out of a Meryl Streep as Competition' question. (Viola's take: It belittles the work to view it like that.) I was flustered and not uttering coherent sentences when it was my turn for "hello".
The highlight of the event found Viola and Octavia and the art direction team addressing the crowd (which included André Leon Talley of Vogue fame - a fan of the movie. who knew?!). There was an awkward moment of silence as they lined up as if on stage. Octavia Spencer broke the tension quipping "We've prepared a song for you" and started humming to tune them which sent Viola into peals of laughter. Then they were off, talking about the expectations placed on them, their nerves about the movie -- you never know if people will end up appreciating your work -- and their eventual joy at being a part of the phenomenon, which one executive called "the gift that keeps on giving". (The Help is still in theaters after 17 weeks and the 11th highest grossing film of the year).
Viola: What we ultimately saw was something that made us so proud. It's something unlike anything else that's out there. [Pause] Just in the hues of the people! [Crowd laughter]
Octavia: [Posing] And the size!
There were two other very funny bits.
First, a guest asked them how they stopped themselves from killing Bryce Dallas Howard on set. "Well, we did beat the crap out of her one night," Viola said, with mock seriousness to more big laughs. But they quickly launched into a heartfelt discussion of how sweet she is in real life and they thought it would be hard to hate her onscreen. Second, another guest dared asked about the negative response from some pockets of the African American community. There was a beat of silence before Viola stepped to the side with a deadpan "Octavia..." handing her the hot potato question. The two actresses are born entertainers off screen as well. Ultimately they said they were proud that the movie had sparked so much discussion and that discussion was important.
As it turns out the Production Designer Mark Ricker and Set Decorator Rena DeAngelo of The Help were seated directly opposite me at lunch and fun to chat with. Rena had done the pilot for Mad Men (I restrained from freaking out about this reveal but damn). To my amusement, they revealed that they knew their way around online Oscar charts (hey, they brought it up, not me!). As a moviegoer you don't often think about the experience of movie crews leaving one set for another but it was interesting to hear their relief at how much period fun and color they could bring to The Help after all the time spent with grey sterile interiors for You Don't Know Jack. I told them my favorite set was Celia Foote's (Jessica Chastain) house. They stripped that house bare to decorate it for Celia's tastes and said that Jessica was constantly downing soy milkshakes (she's a vegan) to gain curves for the role.
Ms. Chastain was not in attendance but when the waiters came round to ask if we had any dietary restrictions, I spared a thought for Jessica's soy milk and Celia's limited oeuvre in the kitchen.