Report from Cannes: Mariah Carey, 'Precious' Co-Stars Shed Glam Image

A look at the premieres and other key moments from this year's Cannes Film Festival.
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 16, 2009

CANNES, France, May 15 -- A genuine paparazzi star moment occurred here just after lunch on a clammy, drizzly afternoon as the Cannes Film Festival hit its peak yesterday. Mariah Carey, bedecked in a gold-flecked full-length gown, bangly hoop earrings and jewel-studded aviators, posed patiently under a white umbrella as the photographers and gawkers got their fill.

Chances are, they won't recognize her in the movie she's come to promote, "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire." In the film, a harrowing coming-of-age story about an overweight teenage girl battling abuse, incest, early pregnancy and other depredations in 1980s Harlem, Carey, the multi-platinum-selling singer with a penchant for glamorous, revealing clothes, plays a tough, no-nonsense New York City social worker named Ms. Weiss.

In "Precious," which will open in theaters in November, Carey undergoes a startling transformation that transcends the physical into the virtually existential. Gone are the trappings of fame and fashion that she brought out with full force at a news conference on the beach. The highlighted tresses she carefully tends with beige-polished fingernails are a mousy brown in the movie; out goes the square-cut diamond right-hand ring; out comes the full Long Island accent. Even the perfectly blushed cheeks take on a bureaucratic pallor in the film, which is showing out of competition in the Un Certain Regard section of the festival. ("Precious" made its world premiere at Sundance, where it won the festival's three top awards and caught the attention of Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, who signed on as executive producers.)

"Precious" director Lee Daniels, who appeared with Carey and co-stars Lenny Kravitz, Paula Patton and newcomer Gabourey Sidibe at the news conference, said he cast Carey in the role after Helen Mirren dropped out -- surely making him the world's first director who, when Helen Mirren dropped out of his movie, thought, "That's okay, I'll get the pop singer who starred in 'Glitter.' "

In truth, the decision wasn't that spontaneous. Daniels admits that when Carey, a good friend and fan of "Push," the controversial 1996 novel by Sapphire, began dropping hints, "I never thought she'd be right" for the role. But he gradually came to realize "that if I was making such a bold movie, how bold would it be to cast Mariah? Why not go all the way there? And I asked her if she could dye her hair, put on a wig, take off the makeup and darken under her eyes. I thought she would begin to give me her soul. And she did."

Carey's is a supporting role in the film, which is dominated by a mesmerizing breakout performance by now 26-year-old Sidibe in the title role of Claireece "Precious" Jones, and that of Mo'Nique, the comedian who plays Precious's mother, Mary, an almost psychotically abusive woman with a vicious violent streak.

As Ms. Weiss, Carey is a linchpin in the story, bearing witness to unspeakable breaches of faith Precious has been forced to endure. Carey's frank, unblinking performance is so free of mannerism and vanity that it literally takes a few moments to realize that it's her on-screen. And it's all the more remarkable considering she joined the film's cast only three days before filming.

"I said, just let me kind of peel layers away of who the world thinks I am and even I personally think I am as a performer, and really, truly become this woman, who has a large responsibility," Carey said yesterday. "In a way, she is the audience, she is that shocked person who hears about what goes on and has to bare her soul because she's hearing something so horrific that she's never heard before."

Even with such a daunting role and on such short notice, Carey says, she was confident she could do it: "Because I know that there's a creative side of me that needs to do work like this, and I trust Lee so much that I felt that there was no way we couldn't pull something out we could both be proud of."

Mo'Nique is already being touted as a probable Oscar nominee for her performance as Mary (she couldn't be in Cannes due to commitments to BET and her children, but she taped "Oprah" earlier this week). But with a well-timed release late in the year, "Precious" might bring Carey a nomination, too, which would represent a mighty leap from her decidedly wobbly performance in the universally panned "Glitter." It couldn't have escaped either woman's notice that Daniels shepherded Halle Berry to her Oscar win in 2002, for "Monster's Ball."

Daniels recalled a particularly searing moment in "Precious," when Mary throws a baby on the floor. It was one of the few times Mo'Nique didn't bring a sense of humor to the otherwise unbearably sad story. "I told her something I told Halle Berry when she was in prison and she had that conversation with Puffy before he went to the electrocution chair," Daniels recalled. "I said to Halle: 'You're gonna win an Oscar for this. I think you can win something for this.' I told Mo'Nique, 'People are really going to be blown away by this moment.' She said to me, 'Lee, my Oscar is that I made you happy and that you had M&Ms on the set for me.' "

For his part, Daniels was clearly giddy that his Cannes debut is a film that took 12 years to make "with a little bit of bubblegum, Popsicle sticks and grease." He quipped: "I'm waiting for somebody to yank the rug from under me and tell me, 'Negro, you are not in Cannes. You are in Kan-sas.' "

Aside from a moment when Carey, a beauty-school alum, sneaked a little blush onto her cheeks, she was a surprisingly good sport for a bona-fide diva. "I honestly felt that [Ms. Weiss] would throw a little blush on," she said like a seasoned Method graduate. "But it doesn't matter. To me, it wouldn't be the same performance if I even remotely looked like the person that's onstage as a singer." For now, it's back to recording on her next album, a process she craves. "Being in the studio for me is the antithesis of these moments," she says, gesturing to the circuslike atmosphere around her. "I like to go downstairs in my pajamas and sing. There's no hairdo, none of that. Lee, you'd love it."

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