Ni­cole Kid­man

Lee Daniels drew on his past for his shock­ing new film, he tells Stephen Ap­ple­baum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - The Pa­per­boy is re­leased on Fe­bru­ary 28.

THE Cannes film fes­ti­val can be a dis­ori­ent­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for a film­maker — just ask Lee Daniels. The di­rec­tor of the Os­car-win­ning drama Pre­cious feared the worst when he read a neg­a­tive story about his new film The Pa­per­boy as he and the ac­tors were mak­ing their way to the movie’s pre­miere in May. His sense of dread wors­ened when Ni­cole Kid­man warned him she’d been booed on the red car­pet in the past. As Daniels climbed the steps of Cannes’s Palais des Fes­ti­vals, un­cer­tain of what was to come, nerves gripped him.

‘‘ I was ex­pect­ing to be booed,’’ he tells me the fol­low­ing af­ter­noon, in a ho­tel on the Croisette, the boule­vard edg­ing the Cannes shore­line. ‘‘ Then we got a 16-minute stand­ing ova­tion, which was dou­ble the amount of time we got for Pre­cious.’’

The re­views were less en­thu­si­as­tic, to put it mildly. Ac­cord­ing to one critic, The Pa­per­boy was ‘‘ tran­scen­den­tally aw­ful’’. When I ask Daniels why he thinks there is such a dis­par­ity be­tween his ex­pe­ri­ence and the re­ac­tions of a size­able sec­tion of the press (their screen­ing ended in a mix­ture of cheers and jeers), he is sur­prised.

‘‘ I was so trau­ma­tised by two re­views I read of Shad­ow­boxer,’’ he says, re­fer­ring to his de­but fea­ture about a ter­mi­nally ill assassin (He­len Mir­ren) and her step­son-cum-lover (Cuba Good­ing Jr), ‘‘ that I made a point never to read a re­view again. Ever.’’ In other words, this is the first time that he has heard there were other poor no­tices. ‘‘ But I think that the peo­ple speak. Two thou­sand peo­ple stand­ing on their feet for 16 min­utes was not a fig­ment of my imag­i­na­tion.’’

Per­son­ally, I en­joyed The Pa­per­boy. It is bonkers and over­heated, but this is part of its ap­peal. Adapted from Pete Dex­ter’s 1995 novel by the au­thor and Daniels, the film is a sweaty, sexy, vi­o­lent, not en­tirely se­ri­ous melo­drama, in which Kid­man, Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, John Cu­sack and singer Macy Gray throw them­selves into against-type roles with con­vic­tion.

Col­umn inches have been de­voted to a scene in which Kid­man’s tragic floozy, Char­lotte, uri­nates on pretty boy Efron. But this is just one of many gob­s­mack­ing mo­ments in a film that is unashamedly lurid, moody and feral, with per­for­mances that bring a gallery of com­pli­cated, con­flicted characters vividly to life.

‘‘ I’m not in­ter­ested in be­ing safe, and I’m will­ing to fail be­cause of that,’’ Kid­man com­mented dur­ing Cannes. Even this, how­ever, can’t pre­pare one for the sheer au­dac­ity and dar­ing of a scene in which the 45-year-old mother of two has what’s be­ing called ‘‘ tele­pathic sex’’ with John Cu­sack’s re­pul­sive death-row in­mate. The episode is weird and per­versely erotic, and leaves you feel­ing some­what grubby.

Some in Cannes put their necks on the line and sug­gested she might pick up an Os­car nom­i­na­tion for her per­for­mance, talk which now seems vin­di­cated by her nods for Screen Ac­tors Guild and Golden Globe best sup­port­ing ac­tress awards.

‘‘ She is fear­less and I have fallen in love with her,’’ Daniels says. ‘‘ I’m so in awe of work­ing with her be­cause she trans­formed.’’ He made Kid­man do her own make-up as a con­di­tion of play­ing the role and told her to gain weight, be­liev­ing this would help the ac­tress find the char­ac­ter. ‘‘ I said, ‘ You have to put on some pounds,’ ’’ he ex­plains with a laugh. ‘‘ That was what was key to the dis­cov­ery, be­cause she had the jig­gle but she didn’t have the junk in her bunk.’’

So why wasn’t The Pa­per­boy get­ting more love from crit­ics? Daniels, a black, gay, self­made man who grew up poor in a project in Philadel­phia, made his name as the pro­ducer of the Os­car-win­ning Mon­ster’s Ball and dar­ing pe­dophile char­ac­ter study The Woods­man, has a the­ory that goes back to Shad­ow­boxer. He once told me he be­lieved if that film had been made by an Ital­ian or French film­maker, Amer­i­can crit­ics would have em­braced it more. ‘‘ But since I’m an African-Amer­i­can film- maker,’’ he said, ‘‘ how dare I think out of the box like that?’’

Hear­ing now about the crit­i­cal re­ac­tion to The Pa­per­boy in Cannes — a snobby en­vi­ron­ment, to be fair — he says: ‘‘ What that means to me, again, is that as an African-Amer­i­can, I had bet­ter stick to telling AfricanAmer­i­can sto­ries.’’

Prior to his involvement, Pe­dro Almodovar had been work­ing on bring­ing Dex­ter’s book to the screen as his first English-lan­guage film. When the Spa­niard dropped out, Daniels stepped in. ‘‘ So I think crit­ics will take quite deep of­fence that I am not Pe­dro Almodovar telling this story.’’

At the end of the day, ‘‘ I am judged dif­fer­ently as Obama is judged dif­fer­ently,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s just the same. He can­not be the man that Bush was and say, ‘ This is the way it has to be’, be­cause then he’s an an­gry black man.

‘‘ And I dare not scream racism be­cause it’s po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect to scream racism. It’s not cool, be­cause Obama is Pres­i­dent.’’

You don’t have to dig very deep to find rea­sons for Dan- iels’s barely con­cealed anger and frus­tra­tion. When he was eight, for in­stance, he wit­nessed his fa­ther be­ing racially abused by a white man he thinks was his dad’s boss. Even as a child, he knew it was wrong. ‘‘ We got in the car and I screamed, ‘ Why would you let him talk to you like that?’ and he punched me in my face.’’ His fa­ther, a po­lice of­fi­cer who was shot dead when Daniels was 15, of­ten hit him. ‘‘ But I love him. He was a vic­tim,’’ the film­maker says softly.

‘‘ I think that African-Amer­i­can men in the 1960s weren’t really men — they were cas­trated — and he knew no bet­ter. It comes from slav­ery: we were beaten and then those peo­ple learned to beat their kids and so on.’’

In­trigu­ingly, his fol­low-up to Pre­cious orig­i­nally was go­ing to be Selma, a drama set dur­ing a piv­otal moment in the civil rights move­ment in Amer­ica in the 60s, but it col­lapsed.

He couldn’t let Selma go com­pletely, though, and ideas from it bub­bled over into The Pa­per­boy, which is set in the same era, as Daniels tried to in­form the ma­te­rial with his own ex­pe­ri­ence. This is the only way he knows how to work. ‘‘ I can­not tell a story un­less I know it. I can’t talk about the characters and tell the ac­tors what to do un­less I know it, and I know the truth. If I don’t know it, I don’t do the movie.’’

Thus Yardley (David Oyelowo), a white char­ac­ter in the book, be­came black in the movie. An abra­sive, chippy type, he can­not be him­self be­cause of racism.

‘‘ Yardley is me,’’ says Daniels, ‘‘ and [like him] I did what I had to do to get where I wanted to be.’’ Like the char­ac­ter, too, he had white lovers who were racked with shame af­ter sleep­ing with him. ‘‘ They were at­tracted to me and they hated them­selves,’’ he says.

Daniels’s films typ­i­cally tackle sex and sex­u­al­ity frankly and di­rectly. In his own life, un­der­stand­ing his ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity from a young age helped give him the de­ter­mi­na­tion to es­cape the world of lim­ited op­por­tu­ni­ties that he grew up in.

Daniels has got to where he is to­day through sheer de­ter­mi­na­tion and re­source­ful­ness. His life has made him fear­less and given him the strength of char­ac­ter not to be crushed by set­backs. De­spite the fail­ure of Selma, he’s pressed ahead with an­other pas­sion project, The But­ler, about a black White House but­ler who served eight Amer­i­can pres­i­dents through three decades. Find­ing fund­ing for this epic ‘‘ black For­rest Gump’’ again proved dif­fi­cult, and for a long time its fu­ture hung in the bal­ance.

‘‘ White Amer­ica doesn’t want to know about the mis­treat­ment of us in the 60s and slav­ery. They choose to for­get about it,’’ Daniels in­sists.

He didn’t give up, how­ever, and even­tu­ally got The But­ler into pro­duc­tion with in­de­pen­dent fi­nanc­ing. Peo­ple can knock him down, maybe, but they can’t knock him out.

‘‘ I dodged phys­i­cal bul­lets. I dodged an HIV bul­let in the 80s. I dodged be­ing told I was noth­ing by my dad. I dodged the racism in Hol­ly­wood. I have sur­vived. I will con­tinue to sur­vive. It’s my in­stinct. It’s what I know how to do un­til I die.’’

Di­rec­tor Lee Daniels with Ni­cole Kid­man at Cannes; be­low, Kid­man

as the tragic floozy

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