Great teeth, great hair, and, well, you know the rest

"The Help' and "The Debt': Jessica Chastain's moment

5 minute read
Chastain in 'The Help': The critics drooled.
Chastain in 'The Help': The critics drooled.
Hard to miss Jessica Chastain these days, starring in three films right now. In The Tree of Life she's the wife, in The Help a good old Southern girl, and in The Debt, with Helen Mirren, she's a Nazi hunter.

"Cheekbones from Aphrodite's own chisel," gushed San Francisco Chronicle critic Michael OrdoÓ±a in an article about Chastain. (That Aphrodite— handy with a chisel, was she?)

I love OrdoÓ±a's Sunday columns. Yet no matter how he drooled, I didn't give a hoot about that redheaded upstart. Just another pretty girl. Hollywood's full of them. But three big movies?

"Maybe people won't know the same actor is in (them all)," Chastain told OrdoÓ±a. "That's really exciting to me."

She that good, I wondered? What am I missing? I was going to watch Helen Mirren in The Debt anyway, so I might as well see The Help, too. Both movies playing in the same theater. I could see for myself. Keep the recognition thing fresh in my mind. Can she fool me?

Southern stereotypes

Now, months earlier I had read The Help and found Kathryn Stockett's story a little too sweet for my high literary tastes. Mean white girls— oversimplified stereotypes of Southern womanhood— treat their black maids, who are definitely not girls, like their slaves.

Couldn't expect much of a movie from that story. Plus the fact that The Help is a madly popular chick flick sends my snob-o-meter right into the red zone.

Just this once I suspended my high standards to see if my recognition system was operating properly. Thursday: There was clueless Chastain in Jackson, Mississippi, under a pile of blond hair, showing off her gorgeous Hollywood teeth between luscious red Dolly Parton lips. We're talking serious dental improvements.

I do watch people's eyes and mouths and teeth because an actor's face is an important part of her business. Great teeth are a tremendous asset, along with hair and, well, you know the rest. Chastain has it all.

Maids' revolt

The snob-o-meter turned itself off when the black maids, Viola Davis (she of Traffic and Doubt) and Octavia Spenser (Ugly Betty), took the screen. I found myself totally engaged in the unlikely back story of One Virtuous White Gal sparking a maids' revolt. Not because clueless Jessica Chastain learns to cook, but because the maids work up their gumption to claim their civil rights as Medgar Evers is murdered right in their hometown. Their victory, set to Mary Blige's music, made me weep and cheer.

The saturated colors of the lavish plantation lawns and the white girls' pale privileged dresses contrast with the robust, colorful scenes in the servants' cabins, where the maids gather to encourage each other. You can't have too many stories of bravery and purpose. Make this film mandatory for all civics classes, because if you didn't live through the '60s civil rights protests, you don't know the long, hard march your black mothers and fathers endured.

From bimbo to Nazi hunter

Thursday Chastain's a good ole Southern gal. Friday, in The Debt, she's a tough 1960s Nazi hunter motivated by her mother's death. I was on the edge of my seat, covering my eyes at all the blood in this thriller about Holocaust revenge, truth and redemption. And mercy. How much torture can Chastain inflict on the captive in the name of justice?

Did I recognize Thursday's bimbo Chastain as the body-throwing, shoot-to-kill Mossad agent? Yes, I'm afraid I found her too delicate to play the younger version of Helen Mirren. (Although she does a fine job on the gynecologist's table.)

The dazzling smile Chastain gives her new Mossad partner is too flirtatious for a Nazi hunter. She's too perfectly groomed even under appallingly filthy conditions.

The contrast between Chastain and Mirren strains the connection of the two actors into one character. For example, when Mirren, the tough, mature agent, finally confronts her quarry, she doesn't smile at anyone.

Tender jaw vs. aging neck

Her mouth is a grim, tight line in a face that maps a topography of a long, serious life. Where Chastain's tender jaw rises out of a neck like an ivory pillar, the tendons on Mirren's aging neck are drawn tight with anger and purpose.

Chastain receives more screen time than Mirren in The Debt, but she's got miles to go to match the force of Mirren's mature persona. If Chastain had played both roles, we'd get to see if she really has the chops.

We shall watch her. Meanwhile, here's an actress beginning to stretch herself in two good movies for very different audiences.

Jessica Chastain appears next in Al Pacino's film, Salome. Helen Mirren's film career is wide and deep, from Calendar Girls to The Queen. I fell in love with her as Detective Jane Tennison in the BBC's Prime Suspect TV series.

To read another review of The Help by Alaina Mabaso, click here.
To read another review of The Debt by Robert Zaller, click here.

What, When, Where

The Debt. A film directed by John Madden. For Philadelphia area showtimes, click here.

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