By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood December 10, 2009 at 7:44AM
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.