Oscar Duel: Yes, It's Good, but is Precious An Oscar Movie?

by Anne Thompson
December 10, 2009 7:44 AM
10 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood
In this dueling blog, Moviefone's resident Oscarologist Jack Mathews and I discuss the Oscar merits of festival and indie box office hit Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire. We both agree that the inner-city drama about a sexually and emotionally abused teenage girl and the dedicated teacher who raises her self-esteem is a profoundly moving human story. But does it have the right stuff to make the Best Picture ballot for the 2009 Academy Awards? Mathews first.

JM -- In any year before this one, no. And if the Academy hadn't just doubled the number of Best Picture nominees from 5 to 10 this year, we wouldn't be talking about 'Precious' as an Oscar contender now. In fact, if director Lee Daniels had cleaned up the language a bit and eliminated an unnecessary rape clip, Precious might have found its natural home -- as a movie-of-the-week on TV -- and we'd be talking about its rightful fate of an Emmy winner.

AT -- I disagree. Yes, 10 slots make Precious a sure nomination, but Precious earned a spot on its merits as one of the best-reviewed movies of the year, ever since its launch at Sundance and galvanizing showings at the Cannes, Toronto, New York and London film fests. In order to counter the film's off-putting subject (neglect, abuse and incest in a poor black family), Lionsgate relied on mighty PR boosts from exec producers Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey and turned the film into a must-see. The Liberal-leaning Academy will feel obliged to watch the movie, which will likely earn Golden Globe noms for best drama, Gabourey Sidibe and Mo'Nique. At the very least, even without 10 slots, Precious is an actors' piece which will handily score SAG and Oscar nominations for Sidibe and Mo'Nique. As less established Hollywood outsiders, director Lee Daniels and writer Geoffrey Fletcher will have a tougher time landing nominations.

JM -- I am not convinced that Precious will make the Best Picture ballot. Most of the 6,000-plus Academy voters watch the contenders -- selected for them by critics, guild nominations and box office results -- at home. And as a person who saw this movie in a theater with six people, watching it alone is not easy. I don't think Lee Daniels will receive a Directors Guild nomination; directors aren't easily swayed by emotion and the ugly truth is that Precious is an awkwardly-directed film. The fantasy sequences are almost embarrassingly inept. I do believe Mo'Nique is a slam dunk supporting actress nominee -- what she does in speaking her dialogue is more humiliating than what Halle Barre did going-for-broke in Monster's Ball -- but those who vote the novice Sidibe are voting for her character more than her performance.

AT -- The groups that should fuel this movie into Oscar contention are the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild. I do not expect the critics to go nuts for this. First, it's already a festival and box office success ($36 million), and the critics will be more likely to support movies that could use their help, like the Coens' A Serious Man or Jane Campion's Bright Star.

Second, while Precious may face some trouble hanging on to multiplex screens outside of the urban areas where it plays best, the film still fits inside the Academy's wheelhouse. Oscar contenders To Kill A Mockingbird, In the Heat of the Night, The Color Purple, Driving Miss Daisy, Do the Right Thing and most recently, Crash, all addressed America's problems with race. In 2005, Crash beat out Brokeback Mountain for the Best Picture Oscar. The Academy may not be comfortable with a gay love story, but they should have no problem voting for a movie about the redemption and uplift of an illiterate and abused young African-American. Many small-scale movies with strong performances have made it to best picture without technical noms. All they need: the enthusiastic support of the dominant actors branch.

JM -- What all of those race-conscious movies have in common with each other but not with Precious is that they were made by established filmmakers with established actors. You can call them elitist, or job-protective, but the actors who make up the largest branch of the Academy aren't going to go hog-wild honoring performances by non-pros, semi-pros and musicians desperate for acting careers. Mariah Carey is only great in Precious if you consider how badly she has done in previous roles (a little Glitter anyone?) or if you give her points for appearing without make-up. Otherwise, it's a performance that could have been by any of scores of actresses.

The only past Best Picture nominee with a central racial issue and a no-name cast was Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies. But Leigh himself was by then a well-established and respected director.

AT -- Watching Precious on DVD, Academy members may miss the electricity of sharing the film with a big audience. But it should register nonetheless. While I agree that Mariah Carey isn't going to get an Oscar nomination, I do foresee at least three: Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress. There have been other small-scale festival discoveries in the Oscar race, like writer-turned-director Paul Haggis's Crash, which dealt with race, or Todd Field's In the Bedroom, which did not. They made up for a lack of polish or epic scope with rich dramatic performances. Precious is more like Marty. It's a film that digs into genuine pain, a deep place of hurt that can be uncomfortable, especially for blacks who don't like to see themselves this way. But that pain is undeniable.

Exec producers Winfrey and Perry, director Daniels and Mo'Nique all talk about the abuse they suffered, and while Sidibe is a far cry from the character she plays, she has had to come to terms with her weight, and her mother has long been a street performer. In other words, the movie feels authentic, not trumped up or contrived. My argument is that the films that will score this year are the ones that manage to deal with edgy material in an entertaining way, like Precious, The Hurt Locker, An Education and Up in the Air.

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10 Comments

  • James | December 18, 2009 2:53 AMReply

    When non-actors win recognition, it is usually (as in the case of "Slumdog") due to the efforts of the director. When the acting guild does not recognize this, then there is a problem.
    C Hans, your distaste for "Doubt" is interesting, given its Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning origins. But Hollywood has a Jump-on-the-bandwagon mentality. Hype rules. Hollywood doesn't seem to recognize a good film unless someone tells them it's good, e.g. a critic, a festival or a publicist.
    Inexplicably, the best reviewed and attended film of last year wasn't even nominated. "Dark Knight" will be remembered long after "Slumdog" has drifted in trivia oblivion. "Precious" has one-time shock appeal, but at the Hollywood saying goes, "no legs."

  • Kay | December 18, 2009 12:15 AMReply

    I find it odd that someone could look at this film and think it deserves to be a MOW..I don't know what kind off Movies of the week u have seen in the past but more often then not they remind me of soap opera's--overly dramatic and unbelievable...precious was not a film I even loved but u don't have to love a movie to know when it's great..are u sure u should be an Oscaroloist and not just a Armchair critic like the rest of us?

  • bv | December 17, 2009 11:50 AMReply

    Did we know anyone in the cast of "Slumdog Millionaire"? How about the Academy recognizing Melissa Leo and Richard Jenkins last year? I don't think they're household names. Sorry JM, that argument about established filmmakers and actors being selected WAS true, but times, like the Academy are changing. Thank goodness, because if a movie can get as many nominations as the "Color Purple" and not win ANYTHING, something has to be wrong.

  • jl | December 17, 2009 10:29 AMReply

    @C Hans, as for someone who's "just a movie fan", I was very disappointed by Slum Dog. A decent film? Yes. An "award-winning" film ... not so much.

  • C Hans | December 17, 2009 10:21 AMReply

    How can you say Slumdog Millionaire didn't deserve the awards it received. Doubt was so basic it was ridiculous, there have been better movies about the subject, it was predicable in its reverses, and the acting was the same as it always was in movies that take themselves too serious in their run for an academy award. Slumdog is by far a way more intelligent and beautiful movie. The reason it worked is because the actors were so believable, because they were actually perfectly cast. You can't say actors don't deserve awards because they act like themselves, otherwise half the big name actors in hollywood wouldn't have a job. People who attack Slumdog are usual snobs who are so wrapped up in their own little worlds they attack anything outside the norm.

  • jl | December 17, 2009 6:56 AMReply

    @Raymond Parker, oh you silly Internet troll ... time to go back to posting on 4chan!

  • Raymond Parker | December 17, 2009 6:48 AMReply

    Does the fact that it's an African-American movie have anything to do with you asking this asinine question? I bet you're a "birther" as well, questioning the legitimacy of a Black President.

  • bv | December 17, 2009 5:38 AMReply

    "Slumdog" beat the odds and the cronyism that happens all too frequently in Hollywood. If Daniels and "Precious" benefit from the increase in nominations, so be it. Blame the FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION ads for the hype you speak of. Ini the end, isn't it all about the hype?

    Good luck Mr. Daniels.

  • Eddie | December 17, 2009 4:23 AMReply

    What's the source of debate here exactly? Why single out Precious? EXACTLY BECAUSE it will receive a nomination? Does it deserve a nomination? I dunno--are you guys gonna debate the other 5 movies you think will be on the list but don't deserve to be?

  • James | December 17, 2009 2:48 AMReply

    "Slumdog Millionaire" proves the point that Mr. Mathews is making. It was over hyped and received more accolades than it deserved. Danny Boyle did a magnificent job of getting essentially non-actors to give outstanding performances. But when the hype handed the SAG award to "Slumdog" over the Academy- and Tony-Award-winning actors in "Doubt," I knew hype was winning over talent.

    With the exception of Monique, whose raw power and willingness to explore a very dark side of an inner city matron deserves awards recognition, Daniels direction does not overcome the underlying weakness of the one-note acting.

    If "Precious" is nominated, it will contribute to the defeat of the purpose behind the expansion: more films the general audience might have seen. Five films no one has heard of becomes ten films no one (outside of critics and true cinephiles) has seen.

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