In graduate school, one alarmingly bad, blindingly obvious article about gay marriage convinced me that the New York Times Magazine, the one you get for free on Sundays, is actually bad for journalism. That the world’s pre-eminent journalistic institution can churn out, at times, such a poorly written and edited magazine has always troubled me, not least because I feel its tremendous reach obligates it to delve into the issues the country faces in a meaningful way. I may be committing professional suicide here, but the conviction that we should burn this magazine as soon as it touches our doorsteps was only made stronger by the coming piece on the movie Precious.
The movie is already an Oscar favorite; it cleaned up at the festivals and its challenging subject matter — an overweight teenager abused by her father and mother before a caring teacher and social worker help her find the beauty, the beauty that’s inside — is ready-made for the kind of congratulatory, back-patting spirit with which liberal Hollywood elites like to give awards. But by all accounts, the movie, which is based on the book Push by Sapphire, is actually a really good one,* especially because of (not in spite of!) the acting by Mo’Nique and Mariah Carey.
So it’s natural to want to know a lot about how the man who made it, Lee Daniels, did it, what inspired him, and how he got the woman who made this to become a good actor. Too bad, because the piece is written by Lynn Hirschberg for the New York Times Magazine, and what you get to read about is how one time Daniels caught Carey putting on some blush when he needed her to stay ugly. You should know something’s up when Hirschberg tries to draw you in with this lead:
At the Cannes International Film Festival in May, in the loud, chaotic bar at the Martinez Hotel, Lee Daniels seemed, as he often does, both ecstatic and nervous. He jumped, he slumped, his mood changing from giddy to anxious. He was the only black man in the crowded bar, a fact that he mentioned and then brushed away. He was dressed unremarkably in a loose, untucked shirt and slouchy khaki pants, but his hair, an electric corona of six-inch fusilli-like spirals, demanded notice. Although Daniels will be 50 this year, he has the bouncy, mercurial energy of a child. The previous night, at the gala screening of his movie “Precious,” which he directed and helped produce, he greeted the audience by saying, “I’m a little homo, I’m a little Euro and I’m a little ghetto.” The crowd cheered.
Wow, really? A movie director at Cannes is nervous and a little bit eccentric? What a unique fucking insight. I hope someday I become famous so a writer can pick this scene, in which I’m doing the exact same thing as everyone else is at that chaotic bar is doing, and describe my unremarkable clothing in the paragraph that’s supposed to make everyone want to read the story about my professional breakthrough.
It’s especially disappointing because later on, you learn some interesting stuff about Daniels, the actors involved and why they decided to become part of the movie. Many of those who join in or back it, like Oprah and Tyler Perry, admit to being abused. Daniels’s police officer father, who died when Daniels was 15, beat him, and Daniels aunt thinks it’s because the father knew Daniels was gay. See? That’s interesting. What’s not interesting is that lede.
Neither is this:
A MONTH AFTER Cannes, Daniels was back in Manhattan in his 11th-floor loftlike apartment near Madison Square Garden. “This is where I raised money for ‘Precious,’ ” he said. Daniels, dressed in black, lay sprawled on a plum-colored sectional sofa; on a low, white table in front of him were piles of scripts and stacks of photographs from “Precious.” A Roller Disco pinball machine stood next to a baby grand piano, and a large TV screen dominated one side of the room. Although he had a separate office in the same building, Daniels’s apartment seemed more like a lavish hotel suite than a home.
I DON’T CARE ABOUT HIS PURPLE COUCH! But if you make it through that, you get this great quote about the main character, Precious, “But at the end, it’s just this girl, and she’s trying to live. I know this chick. You know her. But we just choose not to know her.” So why isn’t that quote higher up in the story?
In a throwaway graph, we learn that a couple who live in Denver randomly gave Daniels $8 million to make the movie. Why? We don’t know. But we do learn that the wife is a Celestial Seasonings (you know, Sleepytime tea) heiress. Isn’t that more interesting than the couch? Can we know more about why the couple decided to give the money, and how Daniels convinced them to do it other than repeating, over and over again, the Daniels has a way of convincing people to do things without showing us how he does it?
We can’t, because Hirschberg is too busy following Daniels description of the spirit of the actor who plays Precious, Gabourey Sidibe, with this:
Daniels has said all this before — to journalists, to investors, to anyone he thinks needs convincing of Precious’s appeal. Like much of Daniels’s patter, it sounds both rehearsed and contradictory. But it’s also colorful and strangely persuasive — as long as you don’t listen too closely. Daniels is always convincing someone of something, and like any good salesman, he knows that selling is not just about the truth. “He’s not dishonest,” Bob Berney told me. “But Lee does what he thinks he has to do.”
Thanks for repeating something he’s said before, something that may not be entirely trustworthy because he’s such a good showman, and then tell us not to listen too closely to it. And please, by all means, spend more time with snide comments like this:
I met Mo’Nique and her ever-present entourage — bodyguard, assistant, full-time videographer who records her every move from the moment she leaves her house in Atlanta to when she returns at night — at the City Crab & Seafood Company on Park Avenue South. It was her choice. Mo’Nique, who was dressed in a tight black cocktail dress and high heels, entered the restaurant as if it were a premiere.
Ok, fine, pick on Mo’Nique. Make insider jokes about her picking City Crab. But there’s actually a great deal of reported tension between her and the rest of the cast, as well as the film’s makers, and it may cost Mo’Nique an Oscar. Hirschberg doesn’t touch on that to say more than what I just did; that there are reports. Thanks, reporter. Don’t bother finding out the real story. It’s not like you’re talking to the cast or anything.
Not every article in the magazine is bad, but this story is not unusual. There are interesting tidbits in the piece, but they’re crowded out by so much of the mundane. And that’s really the problem. We read reporters’ articles because they have the kind of access we can’t get. Reporters are supposed to take us to those places we can’t go, but this one takes us here:
BY THE TIME Daniels moved to Los Angeles in 1980, he had changed his name to Lee. “I should have been a casualty, honey,” he told me one afternoon this fall over rib-eye steak and lobster cocktail at his haunt, the Staghorn Steakhouse restaurant on the edge of the garment district, conveniently located on the ground floor of his apartment building.
I’m so glad to know Daniels lives above a steakhouse. Hold your breath: He orders steak.
*I can’t tell you much more about what it’s about, since I have yet to make it through a preview without bursting into tears.