Mo'Nique's anti-campaign builds Oscar buzz

'Precious' actress isn't politicking, and everybody's talking

February 05, 2010|By Betsy Sharkey | Tribune Newspapers

"Everything is up on the screen."

That's Mo'Nique, explaining why she hasn't decamped to Hollywood to woo those who hold her Oscar dreams, whatever they might be, in their hands.

How audacious of her. How refreshing.

Though the award gods have been thundering in anger for weeks now, she has won a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award; and on Tuesday, she picked up an Oscar nomination for supporting actress for her performance in "Precious" despite her unwillingness to wade into the fray.

Speaking in her stead is the guttural growl of Mary, a mother whose rage roars over her daughter Precious with such force, defying us to forgive the twisted abuse she has witnessed and inflicted on her child, and that child's children. The invective unleashed is so searing, the need so naked, the truth so ugly, the performance is almost unbearable to watch and yet impossible to turn away from.

Against that darkly drawn canvas of hate stand these words - simple, succinct, sincere. And with them, Mo'Nique has created a sort of "anti-campaign" right in the middle of the "campaign season." It's as if she is demanding to be judged on her work, of all things.

It's a notion that sometimes gets lost in all the hyperbole, that performance should trump everything else, especially popularity, when it comes to the Oscars and all the other movie awards that pile up this time of year. But it has taken Mo'Nique, no mincer of words and no prom queen in search of approval, to remind us of exactly that as we move ever closer to the Academy Awards ceremony in March - which, if you think about it, is pretty much Hollywood's version of prom night with all those fancy ball gowns and tiaras and tuxes.

Still too many of the obsessives (that growing mass of insiders, observers and ordinary fans, and I count us among them) who monitor every breath taken during award season, as if life itself were on the line, remain incredulous, a raucous, rising chorus of complainers chanting "off with her head." Doesn't she want it? And by extension, if she doesn't want it, how could she possibly deserve it?

If we're going to agree that the performance should be the measure, then attitude, even arrogance, shouldn't matter, but we're human, so of course it does. Her exquisite grace in accepting first the Golden Globe, then the SAG Award, should have stilled that debate.

There are others this year who left everything on the screen, performances so singular, so fresh that there is nothing more to say: Christoph Waltz, a monster of a different making, using a searing intellect to torturous effect in " Inglourious Basterds"; Jeff Bridges so good as Bad, a country singer in "Crazy Heart"; Colin Firth's journey of buried grief and unexpected insight found in "A Single Man"; Jeremy Renner's explosives' expert, who embraces the terrifying, irrational world of "The Hurt Locker," with adrenaline and death his drugs of choice; Woody Harrelson's soldier of repression, pain and dashed dreams in "The Messenger"; and Gabourey Sidibe, whose brooding, barely articulate hulking teen in "Precious" could not be further from the laughing, joyful creature she is in real life.

With characters mined so deeply, performances so fully articulated, they have said enough.

Whether intentional or not, Mo'Nique's "everything is on the screen" might turn out to be the most brilliant strategic stroke in Oscar campaigning since the early 1990s, when Harvey Weinstein turned the award season into an extreme sport, brutally fought, blood drawn, and a lot of other things that felt righteous then but don't feel right anymore.

Harvey literally forced academy members to pay attention to "The Piano," not allowing them to overlook Jane Campion's difficult film, with its mute lead character, its full frontal nudity, its agony and its generally discomforting soul. Somewhere in the years since, the idea that excellence should triumph has gotten lost.

But this year we've been reminded of the contract the academy forged with the artists and with the rest of us, the promise that those who win an Oscar will be the best. The question, as Mo'Nique might put it, is whether or not they've put everything up on the screen. If they have, that should be enough.


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