Friday, May 22, 2015

Tears of a Clown Blogathon: Mo'Nique in Precious


A week ago, I announced the Tears of a Clown Blogathon. It's all about great performances by comedic actors in non-comedic roles. There have been many of these throughout cinematic history. In trying to figure out why, one might often come across the same reason. The best comedians seem to make us laugh by pulling from their own personal sadness. They smile through whatever pain is driving them. In his article for Time Magazine on Robin Williams, titled "Why the Funniest People Are Sometimes the Saddest," (August 12, 2014) comedian Jim Norton writes "The funniest people I know seem to be the ones surrounded by darkness. And that’s probably why they’re the funniest. The deeper the pit, the more humor you need to dig yourself out of it." We've seen the darkness Norton speaks of manifest itself in tragedy time and time again. Of course, there was Williams. Currently, we're watching the deconstruction of Bill Cosby. Before them, there were the well-documented troubles of Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison, Freddie Prinze, John Belushi, Chris Farley, Phil Hartman...I could go on.

Every now and again, a comedian manages to tap into that darkness in a constructive way and channel it into a compelling performance. Williams did it himself, several times. Another who turned the trick was Mo'Nique in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. She plays the always verbally, sometimes physically, abusive mom of a troubled teen. Mo'Nique is literally scary. She says things that make you cringe, not just because they're vile insults wrapped in profanity, but because we can feel that the person saying this really means and believes every horrible word spilling from her mouth. To understand how Mo'Nique musters the strength to create a completely true-to-life villain is to understand the reservoir from which she drank. To do this, we must look at two things, the life she's lead and the comedy that came from it.


Before seeing her in Precious, I was very familiar with Mo'Nique from having seen her pop up on my TV screen doing stand-up and in various sitcoms for years. She was usually pretty good. She made me laugh so I enjoyed watching her. Much of her humor revolved around her looks. She was a plus-sized woman who seem to keep putting on pounds over the years. Never did she show any shame about this. On the contrary, she fought fire with fire. She talked about all the put-downs she suffered through all of her life and returned the favor by delivering a venomous bite to those who dared not recognize the beauty of a big girl. In particular, she went after smaller women. Something she often said on stage was "I hate all you skinny bitches!" She said it with a smile, of course, but the pain that caused such a statement never seemed to be fully submerged. It was barely contained by her skin, struggling to break free, seeping out in obscenity-laced tirades. Throughout most of her shows, and particularly at the ends, she stroked the egos of other women with similar bodies. She lovingly bestowed affirmations on them. Telling people they should love themselves, regardless of how they look, is an amazing message to deliver, sublime in its simplicity. However, she was so forthright and committed to vocalizing it, I often got the idea this wasn't just for her adoring fans. She seemed to be convincing herself, too.

Like a lot of comedians, she would make the transition from the stage to the big screen. When she did, she showed up in a lot of low-budget fare playing small roles. Most of her characters fit snugly into the category of loud, black women with tons of attitude and snarky comebacks. She was a cheaper version of Loretta Devine, but more over-the-top. This didn't change as her career gradually grew and she went from supporting roles in these movies to playing the lead in the little seen Hair Show and Phat Girlz. The latter was exceptionally true to her stage persona. She plays a woman who works at a department store, is obsessed with her weight, and isn't sure she'll ever find a man. Of course, she does. It's a movie that has good intentions, but isn't good. Mo'Nique played a very similar character on her own sitcom, as well, The Parkers. This was her shtick.

During this time, Mo'Nique was still performing often as a stand-up and I still enjoyed her act. She was still tapping into that pain to elicit laughter whenever she held court with a mic in hand. Unfortunately, none of her work as an actress resonated with me, or hardly anyone else. When word came that she was going to play the evil mom in Precious, people familiar with her work were not quite sure how that would turn out. Just before this, it was revealed that she had another source of pain, buried a bit deeper. I don't think any of us knew how powerful this would prove to be. In a 2008 interview with Essence magazine, she revealed that from ages seven to eleven she was sexually abused by one of her brothers. Two years later, he admitted to it on national TV and is actually serving time for sexually abusing another girl. Mo'Nique was about to put all that hurt to good use.


In January of 2009, Precious opened at the Sundance Film Festival starring newcomer Gabourey Sidibe as the titular Precious and Mo'Nique as her mom, Mary Lee Johnston. Mo'Nique burst onto the screen as a woman who can fairly be described as a monster and stormed her way into movie history. She never makes a false acting choice and really brings the movie home during its closing moments. It's a role in which she could've easily pushed too much and come off as cartoonishly psychotic. To her credit, and the movie's benefit, she never crosses that line. This makes Precious a true-to-life horror film and her character, a splendid villain. That she is more snarling, fire-breathing dragon than human being is illustrated by the constant puffs of cigarette smoke dancing about her head as she spews evil between puffs of a Newport. The various looks she gives her daughter throughout the course of the film make it hard for us to believe this woman ever made anyone laugh.

For her efforts, Mo'Nique won the Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize for Acting. Buzz surrounding her great work grew uncontrollably as she racked up award after award, 44 by my count. This includes the crowning achievement, taking home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Sadly, she's scarcely been heard from since. I don't want to use this post to get into why. I just want to show my appreciation for a towering performance from an actor known for comedy. She gave us one of the all-time great movie villains. Mo'Nique's Mary is a downright horrifying person whose glimmer of hope has been snuffed out. Even more unsettling is how real she feels. Watching her was a peek into a world most of us want no part of. More unsettling than that? Her world is probably not that far from yours.




16 comments:

  1. First, how did I miss the announcement of your blogathon!?!?! I'll have to check that out and get on that.

    Second, this is a brilliant takedown of the life and performance of Mo'Nique. Such a towering turn, and one that so richly develops itself into so much more than a mere caricature. So many layers...and that final scene...UGH!!! Great work here, buddy!

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    1. Probably missed it when you were getting a break. Love to see an entry from you.

      Thanks. It's very quickly became one of my all time favorite performances. It is so visceral, so raw, it's impossible to look away from. And yes...her final scene. Wow.

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  2. God damn it, this is who I picked too! Yours is so beautifully written and I agree with all of it.

    My lesser version is scheduled for tomorrow, I believe. lol

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    1. Ha! Sorry to steal your thunder. Still looking forward to your posts. It's such a great performance we can't praise it enough.

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  3. "Towering" is the exact right word to describe this performance. She's just brilliant in every way, in every moment on screen.

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  4. That was a scary performance and dammit, worthy of the Oscar. I like Mo'Nique whether she's doing comedy or drama.

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  5. She was amazing in this movie! I don't think I have ever loathed a fictional character more.

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  6. I'm sad to say I haven't seen this movie, but I'll have to check it out now. Here's my entry: http://flick-chicks.blogspot.com/2015/05/tears-of-clown-blogathon.html
    - Allie

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    1. Please give it a look. Just be prepared for a really tough watch. I'll check out your entry, soon. Thanks!

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  7. Interesting piece on a performance I haven't seen. I tried to read the book on someone's recommendation and it just wasn't for me so I've never been tempted to watch the film despite the acclaim for its performers but you certainly gave it a nice overview.

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    1. Thanks. Honestly, I couldn't imagine trying to read this particular book. The time it would take wade through such a dark place might prove too much. While it is a very tough movie to watch, It's over in two hours and I don't have to repeatedly transport myself there for a few chapters at a time.

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  8. Great write up Wendell. I absolutely love Mo'Nique's fearless work in this film. Genuinely one of the best, most confident performances I've seen so far this century.

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    1. Thanks and I completely agree with you!

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