Oprah Winfrey did not write "The Bluest Eye" or "Middlesex" or "Love in the Time of Cholera." But her formidably influential book club has helped many an author — alive or dead, famous or no — reach a wider audience.
Now Winfrey hopes she can do a similar favor for a film she "really, really, really loves."
It is "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire." Already this year, director Lee Daniels'adaptation has won key awards at the Sundance and Toronto film festivals. There should be many Academy Award nominations in its future. The film may tone down the grim oppression of the 1996 novel, but it's nonetheless a wrenching experience.
In 1987 Harlem, a teenage girl named Claireece "Precious" Jones lives life one crushing day at a time. She is illiterate, obese and pregnant with her second child — both times, she was impregnated by her own incestuous and abusive father.
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Her mother offers no protection. As portrayed by Mo'Nique, mom is a fearsome, almost feral physical and sexual abuser herself, a barbed-wire hurdle that Precious, played by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, must clear before getting on to what life holds in store.
During the Toronto Film Festival a few weeks ago, I talked to Winfrey, Daniels and Winfrey's fellow executive producer Tyler Perry. While Daniels is the man who made "Precious," Winfrey and Perry make for a pair of high-profile champions.
Perry and Winfrey came to the project after it was finished. Daniels, who previously produced "Monster's Ball" and directed Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr. as assassins and lovers in "Shadowboxer," sent a screener of "Precious" to Perry, whose entertainment empire is spearheaded by his drag character, Madea. "After I saw it," Tyler said, "I called Oprah and said 'You gotta see this.' "
She did. "It struck me in a way that nothing else has," she said.
"The only thing that came close was reading 'The Color Purple' — that's how struck I was. It took the breath right out of me."
Winfrey called Daniels in January the same night he won an award at Sundance in Park City, Utah. She offered her support and encouragement alongside Perry's. She offered some money as well, which Daniels declined.
"Mariah Carey (who plays a social worker in 'Precious') wanted to invest too," Daniels said, "but I knew if I were to accept money from Mariah I couldn't get the same performance out of her. I can't get truth if they're cutting a check."
Winfrey has spoken freely of her childhood sexual abuse. Perry, too, has gone public with his own horror stories, and in Toronto he spoke quietly but candidly about "Precious" echoing his own experiences growing up in New Orleans.
Watching the film, he said, "was like seeing my life as a child played out in front of me. What sealed it for me was when Gaby's character, in the middle of her trauma, retreated to a fantasy world. Bam, she's out of the picture. I could relate to that. When all hell broke loose in my house, it was the same thing for me.
"That's what made me say: I have to be involved. I have to bring this to my fan base. I have to let them know about this film."
Winfrey didn't think the film could be made, at least effectively.
"The language, and the violence, and the brutality ... 'Push' is relentless. In 'The Color Purple' you get to skip through the flowers a little, and go to church, at least."
She and Daniels share a laugh.
"There's some relief, some lyricism." But Daniels' interpolation of fantasy sequences, showing Precious imagining herself as a paparazzi-dodging diva and superstar, did the trick, according to Winfrey.
Perry agrees, though he told me, "Everybody talks about how dark the subject matter is. Yet the power of it comes from a very simple place: This young woman makes it to a better place. She comes through it."