By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood October 24, 2009 at 10:58AM
Anyone wondering about a Precious backlash need only sit through the movie with an audience. The movie plays, people. It won the audience prize at the Chicago Film Fest, and scored at its London Film Fest gala as well.
Lionsgate opens the hard-hitting inner-city drama on a staggered rollout November 6.
I watched it score at Toronto with by far the most wired audience at that festival, possibly because Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry and pop star Mariah Carey were there. But on Friday night at the lower-key London Film Festival gala, only unknown Gabourey Sidibe was on hand (director Lee Daniels was ill). Watching the movie a second time, I was gobsmacked again by Sidibe and Mo'Nique's performances, and the audience ate up the improvised interactions with Precious and her alternative school classmates. After rousing applause, the fest announced Gabourey Sidibe for a Q & A. No one responded to her name. But when the 26-year-old actress stood at the front of the Vue screening room, the place rose to give her a standing ovation.
Who was this cheerful, articulate young woman in black sequins?
She's not Precious. If anything she's closer to the fantasy figure Precious conjures in her darkest moments in the movie. In fact Sidibe, who was studying psychology before Daniels plucked her for this role almost as soon as he met her, keeps some distance between herself and the role she inhabits so well. She persuaded Daniels that she wanted to play Precious as a girl who was not stupid, but illiterate and "smarter than she looked." Four years ago, nine years after the Sapphire book Push was published, Sidibe's mother was approached to play Precious's monstrous mother Mary, but didn't want to do it. She thought her daughter should audition for the role of the obese teenager, pregnant for the second time with her father's child. But Sidibe wasn't interested at the time.
During the shoot, things did not get heavy, Sidibe insists. The scenes that everyone thinks were the hardest--between her and Mo'nique as her abusive mom--"were the easiest to film" because Mo'Nique was cracking wise and being loving off-screen. Sidibe didn't have a clue that the movie would hit people "like an emotional train" until she saw it at Sundance. Then she "cried like a baby," she says. "The character is so real, so honest, not Hollywood, she's a real girl. It's so universal. We've all felt neglected, unsupported and ignored. I drew on my guilt for neglecting girls like her."
Now Sidibe has fallen in love with acting: "I hope to be an actress, as long as people let me." Is there an Oscar nomination in her future? The key is whether the Academy actors recognize the difference between the actress and the role.