Hollywood - Octavia Spencer crowned her Cinderella story year with a best supporting actress Oscar on Sunday for playing a mouthy housemaid who reluctantly tells her story in the US civil-rights era film The Help.
In line with many experts' bets, she edged out Berenice Bejo from The Artist, Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids, Janet McTeer for Albert Nobbs and castmate Jessica Chastain, who played an unhappy, ostracised housewife.
A tearful Spencer, stunning in a glittering Tadashi Shoji gown, received a standing ovation, and thanked the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which organises the Oscars.
"Thank you, Academy, for putting me with the hottest guy in the room," she said, clutching her coveted golden statuette.
A raft of awards
The Help - an adaptation of a best-selling book by Kathryn Stockett book - details the private lives and personal ups and downs of a group of maids in Mississippi in the 1960s, an era of simmering racial tensions when Martin Luther King was becoming a civil rights icon for African Americans.
Spencer plays Minny Jackson, a black maid who tells her life story to a young white woman writer, despite fear of possible reprisals, at a time when blacks and whites were not allowed to drink from the same fountain.
"I hope I can be a symbol of hope for all the other actors who've been doing it as long as I have. It says something about perseverance and staying in the game," Spencer said at a recent lunch for Academy Award nominees.
In the film, Spencer manages to make Minny a woman who is both unhappy and fun-loving at the same time. She already had taken home a raft of awards for the same role including Golden Globe, BAFTA and Screen Actors Guild honours.
A new course
Speaking about how films are chosen to be made, she said recently that "people have to rethink the business model and realise that these stories are valid, and need to be told and I don't think it needs to be just about race".
The 39-year-old Spencer was born in Montgomery, Alabama, the sixth of seven children of a housemaid. She graduated from Auburn University with a liberal arts degree.
Although she had an itch to act, Spencer never thought she would be in front of the cameras and had gone to work on casting.
Then director Joel Schumacher gave her a small part in the Sandra Bullock fill A Time To Kill (1996), setting her career on a new course.
Until recently, Spencer was best known for her recurring role on US television comedy Ugly Betty.
But she also made a smashing debut on the stage in Los Angeles in the prize-winning The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife by playwright Del Shores.
She worked for years in series television, appearing on shows such as ER, Chicago Hope, Dharma and Greg and CSI, as well as in smaller movie roles in films such as Spider-Man and S.W.A.T.
Role of Minny
Spencer won raves for a brief but memorable role in the 2008 Will Smith drama Seven Pounds, and Entertainment Weekly named her one of the 25 funniest actresses in Hollywood.
It seems that the shining connection between Spencer and The Help was meant to be.
Spencer told a recent film forum that director Tate Taylor asked her to read Stockett's draft of The Help before it was published in 2009.
Since Spencer had not replied, the writer went out to see her personally to discuss the role of Minny.
"Because I thought (Stockett) wasn't really writing a book, she would never finish it and I would never have to read it," Spencer said.
"But then she came to Montana: 'My book is going to be published!', and I was like 'Oh', and she said 'I really hope you get to read it', and I said 'Oooh', and she said: 'One of the characters is based on you a little bit', and I said: 'Ooooooh!," Spencer recalled with a smile.
"So I had to read that book, and I'm really glad that I did."
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