All stirring, worthwhile films have memorable characters, and surely the most memorable in Lee Daniels‘ Precious is Mo’Nique‘s mom-from-hell, whose name is Mary. But where is the common current in Mary, whose malicious treatment of her daughter, Precious (Gabby Sidibe), results in ruination and emotional shell-shock that’s stupefying, and which has been caused by levels of systematic torture and abuse that would make Klaus Barbie drop to his knees?
All dramatic art always points to some vein of human behavior and says to its audience, “This but for the grace of God could be your story or your neighbor’s…consider it, open your heart, let it in.” To therefore praise Precious and especially Mo’Nique’s performance involves an acknowledgment that Mary is us on some level — that she’s a metaphor for some aspect of our condition, or is at least a symptom of it.
We’re therefore supposed to nod and say, “Yeah, there’s a certain universality in her behavior…I get it, sure. Going along with her animal-pig boyfriend having sex with her daughter because she figures he’ll love her more if she allows him to do this…mmm-hmm. And because she resents Precious for attracting him in the first place…yup, I hear that, absolutely.”
And female viewers are also supposed to say “yeah, I can also relate to my husband impregnating my daughter twice, which results in a Down Syndrome child (a.k.a. ‘Mongol’) and ultimately Precious becoming HIV positive. It’s not pretty but it happens, right? I mean, don’t a lot of parents sexually abuse their kids and look the other way at father-daughter rape? That’s the kind of human drama I understand, you bet.
“And let’s be honest and admit that we all know a mother or two who constantly berates and emotionally tortures her child, and…you know, does what she can to force him or her to become not just morbidly obese but so humungous that the kid would cause a family of African hippos to flee in the opposite direction? Of course we do. This is who we are. And that’s why Precious is such a moving and powerful film.”
Oh, wait, I’m sorry…you’re telling me you don’t relate to Mo’Nique? That she seems like a grotesque aberration and in several ways inhuman? An easy-chair rage monster who has systematically tortured and slowly murdered her child? You find it bizarre that such a character has been catapulted into the national spotlight and become a topic of Oscar conversation? Oh…I see. Well, don’t you think Mo’Nique was exceptional in making this monster come alive? I mean, wasn’t she fantastic? Of course she was and is.
But to what end, you say? How does making a film about a repulsive and depraved life form add to the art of cinema? What’s the difference, for that matter, between praising a film like Precious in a Best Picture context and an actress who does a phenomenal job of portraying a fiend like Mary and a film about…oh, any of the big-name mass murderers of the last 40 or 50 years? Ted Bundy, Richard Speck, Ed Gein, etc.?
It could be argued that any movie about any monster can be made Oscar-friendly if you simply include a big scene at the end in which the monster explains why he/she did what she did, and why he/she is what she is. All you have to do is have the actor/actress break down and insert lines like “I need love too…what about me?…I may seem like a bad person to you but I hurt badly” and so on.