Is Precious, With Mo'Nique, The Movie of the Year?

Plus sizing up other leading ladies, nightlife crime, and Tony hopefuls.

Precious comes at you like the TV set that Mo'Nique hurls down the staircase at a high point in the film. Avoiding the "After-School Special meets Rocky en route to The Color Purple" trap its detractors already accuse it of, it's a hypnotically powerful tale (based on the novel Push) of a plus-size teenager in 1980s Harlem who is burdened with a frighteningly abusive mother, a father who has impregnated her twice, and an addiction to deep-fried chicken. And you thought Mackenzie Phillips had problems.

At the New York Film Festival screening last week, director Lee Daniels said he wanted to do the film partly because when he was 11, he saw a seven-year-old girl naked, bleeding, crying, and covering her private areas, saying, "My mommy's gonna kill me!"

That's far more compelling than the usual motivation: to pave the way for three sequels and a video game. But Daniels had an achingly hard time finding his lead actress, the magnetically sullen Gabourey Sidibe. "I called ICM," he related, "and said, 'Do you have a 300-pound . . . ?' They said, 'No.' So we moved on to the 'hood."

Alas, big-time Oscar lady Helen Mirren had to drop out of playing Precious's no-nonsense welfare case worker. Rather than go to the 'hood, Daniels went to Mariah Carey, who is probably not everyone's first choice for a Helen Mirren role. But casting director Billy Hopkins convinced Daniels, saying, "You're doing a movie about a 300-pound black girl. Anything's game." And Mariah's really good in the part! Glitter be gone!

As for Mo'Nique, Daniels had already worked with her in Shadowboxer, "so she knew we were one," but when Daniels told the comic/actress to throw a baby in one horrific scene, Mo'Nique looked sick and said, "What?" She finally got up the nerve to do it, but she started crying, so Daniels simply cut away to someone else.

Otherwise, the set was surprisingly lighthearted—no, really. Said Daniels: "Mariah is putting on Precious's makeup, Lenny Kravitz is helping the girls with costumes, and Mo'Nique—I had to keep her away from craft services!"

Other film news seems a little trivial in comparison, so I'm way more comfortable with it. Poignantly blaring out of the current Playbills are full-page ads for the Scorsese thriller Shutter Island, promising it for this very month. I've been diligently crossing out "October" in every copy I can find, and writing in "February."

Also slated for next year is the Jodie Foster–directed film The Beaver. Anyone want to bet big-time bucks that they change the title?

Not coming at all is David Mamet's adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank, which Disney scuttled, supposedly because it was too dark. Did they somehow think the tale of a girl trapped in a shoebox apartment while hiding from the Nazis—who are desperate to burn her and millions of other Jews alive—would make for a wacky musical with singing frogs and winky pop-culture references?

But back to my own diaries. I showed up at last week's board of directors meeting for the upcoming New York Nightlife Hall of Fame mainly because they promised dinner. (Just try keeping me away from craft services.) Between cannolis, Studio 54 promoter Carmen D'Alessio objected to the suggestion that club kid killer Michael Alig should be an inductee. "Honey," I snapped, "if we're going to make all criminals ineligible, then the only people in the Nightlife Hall of Fame will be two bathroom attendants and a coat-check girl." Fellow board member Steve Lewis—who did jail time himself—agreed, especially since D'Alessio wants two other convicts, Steve Rubell and Peter Gatien, to be inducted for their work. Bring 'em on. Nightlife without crime is like Broadway without gays!

There was some same-sex banter at last week's "Leading Ladies" panel (taped for American Theatre Wing's Working in the Theatre), which brought out a Hall of Fame of singing-and-dancing Tony winners. Alice Ripley was particularly randy, thanking the crowd for giving her a reason to wear clothes on her night off ("I'd be naked!"). Ripley also managed to mock-ask Bebe Neuwirth out and, at another point, tell Laura Benanti, "I'd hug you if I could!" But the Next to Normal star was at her most voracious when saying she adored the second leads in Kiss Me Kate, adding, "I wanted to eat them both!" Keep her away from craft services.

The other panelists got to show their poker hands, too, Neuwirth admitting that when she goes back to revisit Chicago, sometimes there's such bad stuff happening in the performances that she can't even look—"though that's very rare." "Names! Names!" urged Benanti, laughing.

I'll give you names of some of this season's Tony hopefuls. First off, Superior Donuts is a Tracy Letts–down. When did the playwright turn into a nouveau Neil Simon? The slick, cute approach to culture-clash comedy is very '70s-sitcom-ready, though as the evening turns out to be about developing a spine, the play finally grows some of its own. (By the way, at some performances, you hear wild screaming and applause during the dark part of Act Two. It's the crowd on the street cheering for Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig leaving their theater.)

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