Octavia Spencer received her third Oscar nomination for her performance as Zelda Delilah Fuller in The Shape of Water.
The three roles that garnered Octavia Spencer three Oscar nominations are actually quite similar to each other. It would be unfair to say, as some do, that she got three nominations for playing the same character - her character as Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden Figures is far subtler than the other two while her Oscar-winning role as Minnie Jackson in The Help has a richer, more layered characterization and a larger screen-time - but there is no denying that the three roles have a lot in common, from the setting of the three movies (all set in the 1950s/the beginning of the 1960s) to the nature of the role. Yet, there isn't a single performance that feels like a lesser reprisal of a previous one: Spencer brings energy, life and commitment to all of her performances, subtly and intelligently finding the small nuances that allow all three characters to trascend the stereotype of the sassy black friend. With her impeccable comedic timing, an incredibly expressive face and a scene-stealing screen-presence, Spencer manages to elevate characters that on paper could have been stereotypes. This is especially true for Zelda who, like many of the supporting characters of The Shape of Water, could have been a mere stereotype writing-wise - the reason she does not is Guillermo Del Toro's expert, empathetic direction and Spencer's committed performance.
To be perfectly honest, Zelda is probably the most limited out of the main characters of the film: Michael Shannon, as the movie's villain, has quite a few scene devoted to him to add some depth and dimension to Strickland, while Richard Jenkins, whose character has a similar function to Spencer's, gets his own sidestory and gets a huge amount of screen-time. Zelda does not have a lot of scenes of her own and for most of the movie she serves as a comic relief and supporting friend to Elisa (Sally Hawkins): Spencer though does not just do both things perfectly, she also breathes life and feeling to the part. Even though her role never amounts to anything particularly complex on a psychological level, Spencer brings heart and believability to her. Regarding the comedic side of her performance, Spencer is, as usual, hilarious: she has an absolutely brilliant comedic timing and an even more brilliant delivery, turning every line into absolute gold. The sassy, sarcastic friend is a character that can lead to annoying overacting, but that's never the case for Spencer - she's scene-stealing without being overbearing, loud without being grating. Actually, the ease with which she delivers her lines with what makes them so funny. Not to mention that she nails every single reaction, turning a single look into a comedic gem - I've seen the movie more than the once, and the moment in which she is holding in the smoke from a cigarette in front of her boss only to exhale and keep on smoking as soon as he leaves the room never fails to crack me up. The other main aspect of her performance is Zelda's friendship with Elisa and the two actresses couldn't be more wonderful in their scenes together: the two of them convey exceptionally the history between the two - something especially impressive considering that Hawkins' performnce is silent - and on her part Spencer is fantastic at conveying Zelda' protectiveness towards her friend. Once Zelda becomes involved in the plan of freeing the creature, Spencer effectively shows her character's reservations and uncertainties (her "We should burn in hell" is hilariously perfect) but also her loyalty towards her friend and, as the story progresses, a growing understanding of the latter's feeling towards the so-called asset.
Though Spencer's performance is largely comical, she also has a few more serious moments. One of the main themes of the movie is social oppression and Spencer powerfully conveys tet feeling of being constantly looked down at both for being a janitor and especially for being a black woman. There's a terrific moment at the beginning in which Strickland makes some casually racist comments regarding black people and Spencer is fantastic at showing Zelda's inner rage but also her awareness that she can't afford to express her thoughts. But her best dramatic moments come towards the end with the highlight being the scene in which Strickland goes to her house and threatens her in an attempt to find out where the creature is: Spencer's work in the scene is largely reactionary but she does an absolutely excellent job at portraying Zelda's terrified state, her eyes wide open with tears rolling down her face, as she witnesses Strickland's unhinged outburst but also her unwillingness to betray her friend. And her subsequent lashing out at her husband is another nicely delivered moment, bringing a little more insight into Zelda's troubled domestic life that was previously only hinted at.
Zenda Fuller isn't an especially complex character but Octavia Spencer still manages to give a wonderful performance within the limitations of the role. She delivers a funny, scene-stealing turn that brightens up the film whenever she appears, but also breathes life into a potentially stock part and carries a surprisingly strong emotional weight. It's a strong performance from an excellent actress, and one of the elements that make The Shape of Water such an enchanting, remarkable experience.