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'Precious' Stirs Debate, 'Slumdog' Comparisons

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Oct 22, 2009 | 5:14am EDT

The New York Times today previews an in-depth magazine piece on Lee Daniels, director of festival darling Precious, in which he likens fundraising to drug deals.

The Risky Business blog meanwhile posits that the media blitz surrounding the film evokes a certain Slumdog of yore, and the New York Post and Gold Derby wonder if there may be a backlash brewing against the harrowing, Oprah-supported drama.

The NYT piece begins during the Cannes Film Festival, where Daniels received a 15-minute standing ovation. "They wouldn't stop clapping," Daniels told the NYT. "I'm a director -- after six minutes, I'm saying, please sit down. But I'm also a producer, so I'm thinking, what's the record? Can we break the record for the longest standing ovation at the festival?"

Well, before his Precious days, Daniels produced both The Woodsman, in which Kevin Bacon plays a convicted sex offender trying to reenter society, and 2001 Oscar winner Monster's Ball. Of financing films from his early career, Daniels said, "I loved the challenge. Even now, I don't think twice about raising money. It's no different than a drug deal. People have trouble getting movies made, but how many people could go out and steal for their families? You go in, you go gangster, you get what you've got to get and go on to the next. It's just another hustle."

Shadowboxer, a film he directed long prior to Precious, was cast in an unusual way, its star Helen Mirren told the Times. "One day, I was walking on Houston Street in Manhattan and because there were a lot of holes in the road, I was looking down at my feet. I got a tap on the shoulder, and I jumped. This mad-looking man with wild dreadlocks says, 'I love you and I have a movie I want you to do.' I thought, this is a complete madman, I'll never hear from this person again. Ninety-nine percent of the people who approach you this way are living in a fantasy world. But Lee, due to his charm and belief, makes his fantasies real. He doesn't hear 'no.'"

One person gave Daniels a resounding yes was Oprah Winfrey. On his way to accept the Audience Award for Precious at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Daniels' cell phone rang, and it was Winfrey. She was calling to tell him that she had seen Precious, that the movie "split her open" and that she wanted to put her might behind the film. "I said, 'I'm accepting an award right now,'" Daniels recalled. "She said, 'Then why are you answering your phone?'"

Winfrey's involvement with Precious was encouraged by Tyler Perry, who joined her as an executive producer. Having those two powerhouses behind a film should be a giant boon, right?

Not so fast. The New York Post's Lou Lumenick recently posited that the Gotham Awards snub of Precious tends to "confirm my suspicion that awards-wise, the film could suffer a backlash because of its high-profile endorsement by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry."

The Gold Derby blog does not concur -- not completely. A backlash is brewing against the film among some film critics, not among Oscar voters or other industry folks and not as a result of Oprah's or Tyler's embrace, Tom O'Neil writes.

"I think critics are starting to resent the fact that their darling flick's gone mainstream, as evidenced by it winning the audience awards at the Sundance and Toronto International film festivals. Now Precious is obviously Oscar-bound. Critics are stubborn, contrary-minded folk, of course, and I think we're seeing classic evidence of that in the nominations just announced by the Gotham Awards."

Still, on the point of Winfrey, could there be an Oscar backlash against flicks she pushes hard? That's a fascinating idea, says O’Neil. Lumenick wrote: "Oprah's own Oscar nomination for The Color Purple notwithstanding, she simply does not wield the same influence in the film world that she does with literature and theater. Witness her embrace of Baz Luhrmann's Australia, which she hailed as another Gone With the Wind. O reportedly plans a full week of shows to push Precious. Yikes. Which I'm not sure is going to help the movie's Oscar chances any more than Perry's recent public confession that he was abused as a child. "

Oprah was also a producer of The Great Debaters, O'Neil notes, and that film, he says, was unjustly snubbed at the Oscars. Ditto Beloved, which got crucified by critics first, then snubbed by Oscar.

Finally, the Risky Business blog offers up the theory that the Gotham snub has no impact given the upcoming Times piece, which, in one sense, BIZ says, "highlights the awards-season benefits of getting word out early. The film had a buzz arrival at Sundance and a full-bore rollout at Cannes...With that sort of lead time, magazine editors have had plenty of opportunity to line up their plans, resulting in, well, things like a glowing New York Times piece."

However, "it can be a mixed blessing to get an early media blitz for a film like Precious. Movies that bear down on you with their darkness…are often best discovered in the same way they are consumed -- slowly. Get too many people to see it too quickly, before they really know what it is, and you risk a backlash. And a breathless New York Times magazine story two weeks before a film is released (and accompanied by what will soon be flogging from Oprah) is the opposite of slow."

Still, Daniels' pic offers hope and strategically dispenses a few hugs, Biz notes. "In that sense...it has the feel of Slumdog Millionaire. In both, you're watching an underprivileged teenager in an exotic, difficult situation treated horribly by the people around them, but there's just enough redemption that you walk out of the theater feeling okay about it all. All Lionsgate needs now is a Bollywood number."

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