'Precious" is hardly the feel-good movie of 2009, but the people around it should be feeling pretty good. It had a double win at Sundance, ringing endorsements from Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, Oscar buzz swarming around Mo'Nique and, now, Friday's release (it opens in Manhattan first and on Long Island later). If it all feels like the other shoe's about to drop, you won't get an argument from Lee Daniels.
"It's like I'm on a cloud, waiting for someone to pop it," said the 49-year-old director ("Shadowboxer") and producer ("Monster's Ball"), who acknowledges that his movie - whose full title is "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" - is concerned with the same feelings he's currently having: Of not being worthy, of not loving yourself enough, of not being confident about your accomplishments.
"The key to Precious," he said of the character, "is that she learns to love herself. And it's a hard thing to do. You're conditioned to not love yourself, to think yourself unworthy. I'm conditioned right now to think the cloud is going to pop. 'Precious' makes you look at that in a hard way."
He laughed. "In a really hard way."
No kidding. The 300-plus-pound heroine of Sapphire's novel and Geoffrey Fletcher's riveting script is illiterate, abused, pregnant for the second time by her father and in a duel to the death with her mother - a matriarchal monster named Mary (Mo'Nique). The only relief Precious enjoys from her harrowing existence is in her fantasies - heartbreakingly rendered by Daniels, all pastel-wonderland, music-video confections - until she meets a special teacher, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) and a social worker played by Mariah Carey. Lenny Kravitz plays a nurse. "All my friends are in the movie," Daniels laughed.
If there is a backlash, it may likely come from members of the black community."Most black people I know who have seen the film prefer 'Akeelah and the Bee' to 'Precious,' just as many preferred 'Waiting to Exhale' to 'Monsters Ball,' " said NY Press critic Armond White, who is African-American. "The black degradation on view in 'Precious' seems to be what Hollywood and the media prefer. It's difficult to square the hype for 'Precious' with Obama's election. Maybe nothing's really changed."
Naturally, there's disagreement. "This movie has a black cast and a black director, but a universal story," said Gabourey Sidibe, the Brooklyn-born, Harlem-raised, 26-year-old who plays Precious. "Being illiterate and abused by your parents is not a black trait. Where the film premiered, in Utah, it's pretty much all white people, and after every single screening, people would come up and say, 'This is my story; this girl is me.' And it wasn't all white women - it was white men, too. There was no rhyme or reason to the age either; it was all over the place."
Sidibe is not Precious: Although size, weight and skin tone are all elements in the story, Sidibe says she didn't need to absorb any lessons in self-worth.
"I do have pride and I do love myself," she said, "but I don't love myself because I'm a big woman. If I were to change, I'd continue to love myself. I think it's harder when you look differently, and not just being big: If you're darker, or your hair's different, there are so many ways the outside world pushes you to not love yourself."
She said some of the feedback she's been getting - during her rather abrupt introduction to media insanity - has been revealing. "People say, 'Oh, you're so confident, people love your confidence,' and my feeling is, 'You wouldn't say I'm so confident if you thought I was beautiful.' Just because I don't fit that image, I'm supposed to have so much confidence. Just because I'm not slitting my wrists because I don't look a certain way?"
She admits she had no real dramatic training pre-"Precious" (playing a pirate in "Peter Pan" at Lehman College in the Bronx was her biggest credit), so she feels an indebtedness to Mo'Nique. "I learned from her how to act with someone else."
Fighting and hugging
They also found a way to get past the horror. "Mary and Precious are in a constant fight and during those scenes, Mo'Nique and I just loved each other more. We'd hug and dance and sing and laugh, because once the director said 'Action,' she'd be throwing a skillet at me."
Mo'Nique's MIA status aboard the "Precious" juggernaut has raised eyebrows - she didn't attend the Cannes, Toronto or New York film festivals; she's been largely unavailable for interviews, and in a "CBS Sunday Morning" segment on Mo'Nique last week, "Precious" was scarcely mentioned (granted, the theme of the entire program was obesity, so Mo'Nique's physique dominated the story). Last week, Indiewire's Hollywood columnist Anne Thompson - citing the need for Oscar contenders to wage actual campaigns - wrote, "According to various people who have worked with her, with Mo'Nique, it's all about the money. When she does PR appearances, she likes to get paid."
The suggestion irritates Daniels. "She would do anything for me," he said. "When Toronto happened, she was committed to her cousin's shower; she was going to make it to the New York festival but it was her kid's birthday - we've had some bad luck," he laughed. "She said, 'Well, if they fly me out . . . ' and it was expensive and that's when the money thing came in. And then Mo'Nique - I don't know whether she said it or not, but there was something about her saying 'You can't eat an Oscar' and that's typical Mo'Nique. I feel bad for her - no I don't. I don't feel bad for her. She's at peace with who she is."
So is Precious, when all is said and done. But she's in the process of disturbing a lot of other people's peace.
"Though the characters and setting seem very specific in 'Precious,' I saw their struggles as universal," said screenwriter Fletcher. "I always believed this was a special story but I never dreamed it would become what it has. It seems far bigger than its creators. Perhaps that's how it's supposed to be."
Mariah Carey gets a mustache for ‘Precious’
‘The mustache was the last straw,” director Lee Daniels says, of his efforts to deglamorize singer-actress Mariah Carey for her role in “Precious.” When the film premiered at Sundance in January, the shadow on her lip got a lot of comment. But not as much as Carey’s revelatory performance as the social worker Mrs. Weiss.
“I’m really happy for Mariah,” Daniels said of her good reviews, “because she’s really been through the wringer on this acting thing.” (Carey’s debut, in 2001’s “Glitter,” remains notorious.) “I know her without makeup, I know her in her own home, and my own home. She’s a regular girl. But she’s a machine, too; she knows what sells and what works best for her. And she switches it off and on, between the public persona and who she is.”
He said he thinks Mrs. Weiss is closer to who Carey really is — although not physically. “Physically, I went for the kill. It was mean of me. I did it partially to see how far I could take her without her having a meltdown.”
Daniels’ first choice for the role was another friend, Helen Mirren, and when she became unavailable, Daniels was stymied. When Carey told him that she’d read the novel, Daniels said, “Hmmm.”
“I called Helen and I said, ‘What do you think?’ She thought it was a brilliant idea. She said: ‘Lee, if I do it, it’s expected. But if you can do something with Mariah, it’ll be more interesting because it’s unexpected,’ and Helen was right, man.”
Daniels said he treated Carey as he would his sister, insisting she abandon all her pop star persona accessories. “I told her, ‘You gotta drop the baggage, you gotta come out of the bubble, you gotta lose it all.’ . . . I had a backup, an unknown, waiting, if she didn’t come through the way I wanted. But she did.”