You'd be forgiven for not recognizing Mariah Carey in her role as a dowdy welfare caseworker in the urban drama "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire."
The legendarily high-maintenance pop diva underwent a soup-to-nuts physical transformation, checking her glossy celebrity patina at the door in order to convincingly portray the film's Ms. Weiss: a drab but deeply empathetic soul helping a troubled teenager in '80s Harlem. Far from the image Carey has cultivated for years, the character is no oil painting of music-video pulchritude, with her lank hair, a wardrobe of rayon sweater-coats and, yes, even a sparse mustache creeping across her upper lip.
"I had to lose all vanity," Carey said. "I had to change my demeanor, my inside, layers of who I am, to become that woman."
How R&B's most unabashedly glamorous chanteuse came to sport facial hair -- how Carey came to defy all expectations by delivering what some are describing as an Oscar-worthy performance in "Precious" at all -- is one of those quirky sagas upon which indie film-world dreams are made.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, November 06, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Mariah Carey: An article in Thursday's Calendar about Mariah Carey identified her latest album as "Confessions of an Imperfect Angel." The album's title is "Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel."
Turns out the alto with a five-octave range wasn't director-producer Lee Daniels' first choice. He had considered Jane Fonda for the role and cast Carey only when Oscar-winning British actress Helen Mirren dropped out at the 11th hour.
Daniels, who became chummy with the singer after casting her in his indie drama "Tennessee," implemented Carey's deglamorization process as a means to two ends -- to ensure that audiences wouldn't be "taken out of the picture by seeing Mariah Carey." But also to antagonize the singer for her own good by making her look homely in the extreme.
"It wasn't just the director in me," Daniels explained earlier this week, "but the big brother torturing his sister. This was just to irritate her. At what point would she start screaming and run up out of this chair?"
To put a fine point on how sheerly unlikely all of this is, one need look no further than Carey's 2001 star vehicle "Glitter." A semi-autobiographical musical romance, the movie was trounced by critics, fizzled at the box office and netted the performer a Razzie Award for worst actress.
Carey seemed to be just another one-trick songbird (Madonna, Britney and Jessica Simpson, please stand up) unable to transfer her talents to the big screen. Since "Precious" premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, however, critics have been singing a different tune. A reviewer for Variety called Carey's performance "pitch-perfect" while the New Yorker's Anthony Lane asks, "Hold on: a stern, song-free, compassionate piece of acting from Mariah Carey? . . . It's for real."
Nonetheless, Carey finds her appearance in "Precious" painful.
"Hideosity!" she exclaimed, raising her hands in mock horror. Carey was seated on the patio of the Polo Lounge wearing a plunging black gown, exhausted from a whistle-stop tour through Korea, Japan and Brazil in support of her latest album "Confessions of an Imperfect Angel" (which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 album chart earlier this year) but still impressively blinged-out in diamonds. The divide between her luxe life and latest movie role could not have been more vividly illustrated, but Carey left their disconnect unmentioned. "I am glad people are telling me they don't recognize me," she continued. "But when it comes to my scenes, I get like, 'Oh, I don't know if I can look.' "
Based on the acclaimed 1996 novel "Push," "Precious" took both the Grand Jury Prize and the audience award at Sundance and hits theaters in limited release Friday. The film -- executive produced by media heavyweights Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry -- follows Claireece "Precious" Jones (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe), a 16-year-old Harlem girl whose hard-knock life provides a taxonomy of urban poverty's worst ills. She's illiterate, on welfare, morbidly overweight and pregnant with a second child by her own father. After enrolling in a literacy program, Precious is reluctantly assigned to visit a social worker: Carey's Ms. Weiss.
"She still doesn't have a first name," the singer laughed, popping a blini with a glinting mound of caviar into her mouth. In her few but unforgettable scenes, the character plays a pivotal role in helping Precious pull out of her downward spiral.
Movie history is studded with A-list actors who subverted their prescribed images in a bid for greater respect and awards season glory. A few recent examples: Nicole Kidman's golden statue-grabbing turn (courtesy of a prosthetic schnoz) in "The Hours," or Charlize Theron's uglying up as a serial killer for her Oscar-winning portrayal in "Monster."