For its director and young star, ‘Precious’ is ready to pop

John Anderson
Mariah Carey

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. 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
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

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 Monster’s 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

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.”

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.”

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.”

Via McClatchy-Tribune News Service.