'The Help' could be first Oscar contender of the season

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PHOENIX – Now that the summer movie season is winding down, the action-adventure movies are slowly giving way to romantic comedies and dramedies, as well as Oscar contenders.

This week, the first potential Oscar contender hits theaters. “The Help” is based on the best-selling book of the same name and it’s art imitating life.

“The Help” is about a young white woman, a recent college graduate who is determined to be a writer, and her decision to write about the Southern maids of the 1960s – quite a scandalous topic for the time and place, Jackson, Miss.

Actress Viola Davis was determined to option “The Help” as soon as she read it.

“I said, ‘I’m going to option this, buy the rights. I’m going to produce it, star in it and just be the savior and hero of all black actresses in Hollywood and make a ton of money,’” she told “Good Morning! Arizona” producer Lisa Fuller-Magee. “And then somebody told me Tate Taylor had the rights and I was like, ‘Oh, crap! But maybe he’ll hire me.’”

Hire her he did, and she could be looking at an Oscar nomination for her performance.

Taylor, the director, did beat Davis to the punch when it came to movie rights for “The Help.” Of course, he had an in with author Kathryn Stockett. The two grew up together and have been extremely close friends for years. She had a big part in shepherding the book, which came out in 2009, to the big screen, which isn’t all that common for authors.

Stockett said it’s been a whirlwind experience.

“The book came out in 2009, and here we are in 2011, and the movie’s already coming out,” she said in soft Southern drawl. “The paperback just came out in April!”

Stockett wrote the character of Minny with a specific actress in mind – Octavia Spencer. She and Taylor were friends with her. He actually made a point of telling the studio there would be no film without Spencer.

Spencer said she and co-star Jessica Chastain, who plays Celia Foote, Minny’s employer, learned quite a bit as they researched their roles.

“I didn’t realize there were white students who came down as Freedom Riders,” Spencer said. “The civil rights movement was successful because people came together to make things happens, to change the social mores.”

Emma Stone, who is from right here in the Valley, plays Skeeter, the young writer who convinces the maids to tell their stories. While Stone loved the role, she said her mother, a fan of Stockett’s book, couldn’t see her in the part.

“My mom is a huge fan of the book so I felt like I had a lot to live up to,” Stone said. “In my mother’s perspective, she did not see me as Skeeter when she read the book, which she was kind enough to immediately tell me.”

“The Help” is rated PG-13. It opens Friday.