Will 'Precious' auteur Lee Daniels' trash talk cost him an Oscar?
You can read veteran New York Times writer Lynn Hirschberg's new profile of Lee Daniels -- the man behind "Precious" -- as a portrait of a filmmaker who'll never be satisfied, no matter how much success he has in life. (When the film earned a 15-minute standing ovation at Cannes, Daniels' responses included: "What's the record? Can we break the record for the longest standing ovation at the festival?")
You could also read the story as an unsettling glimpse of a man who seems so in need of being the most audacious black man on the planet that he's even ambivalent about an Obama presidency -- as when he tells Hirschberg that " 'Precious' is so not Obama. 'Precious' is so not P.C," as if both of those possibilities were bad things. You could also read the story and realize that Daniels is -- like so many other insecure people in showbiz -- always in need of solace and reassuring words. When he showed "Precious" to his manager (who he made a point of saying was white, but didn't mention by name,) he acknowledged that his manager made the fatal error of not offering an upbeat assessment. "My manager said, 'Sorry, but I don't think anybody is going to see this movie.' That man is no longer my manager."
So why does all this matter? Because scoring a huge profile in the Sunday New York Times Magazine is a tried and true launching pad for Oscar campaigns. So the best the way to read Hirschberg's profile of Daniels is by asking -- will it help Lionsgate, which begins its release of the film Nov. 6, land "Precious" a best picture nomination?
PRO: Everybody loves having a nutty, bigger-than life character in the middle of the Oscar conversation. I mean, how much fun would last year's Oscar race have been without Mickey Rourke and his chihuahuas? But there's a fine line between being colorful and being combative, so Daniels has to tread carefully. As a gay African American, he has tons of street cred as an outsider. That should help, especially in a year where most of the obvious best picture contenders ("Up," "Nine," "The Hurt Locker," "An Education" and "Up in the Air") are insider affairs, from polished, sober-minded filmmakers with little facility for trash talk. (It'll be another story if Quentin Tarantino, who can mouth off with the best of 'em, gets a nomination.)
For now, Daniels looks like he has the microphone all to himself. At his first gala screening in Cannes, he greeted the crowd by saying, "I'm a little homo, I'm a little Euro and I'm a little ghetto." If he could expand on that litany at the Oscars, it would liven up the proceedings considerably.
CON: Oscar voters prefer their filmmakers to come off cool and self-assured, not outrageous and self-involved, which is why they still haven't forgiven Jim Cameron for his "Top of the World" chest beating acceptance speech. (Actresses get a pass -- they're actually encouraged to be as wacky and self-absorbed as possible.) So Daniels' downfall may come from his boast in the Hirschberg profile where he claimed that he "kind of co-directed" "Monster's Ball," which he produced, but was actually directed by Marc Forster. Daniels also says he gave (the Oscar-nominated) Halle Berry her line readings, which is bad form even if it were true and could lose Daniels a couple thousand votes from the actors branch right off the bat.
Even more problematic, Daniels spends much of the story talking about what other black people want and like and believe ("Black people are not all saints.... As African Americans, we are in an interesting place"). Oprah can make pronouncements like that -- she's put in several decades as the queen of American women. But an unknown filmmaker? It's hard to imagine the nearly all-white academy getting all warm and fuzzy over Daniels, especially an academy that still finds it uncomfortable around brash black men. Just ask Spike Lee, who after all his groundbreaking films is still waiting ... and waiting ... for his first Oscar.
Photo of Lee Daniels by Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times.