For movie, glam diva Mariah Carey gets drab makeover - and shines

By Chris Lee
Los Angeles Times / November 6, 2009

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HOLLYWOOD - 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 to convincingly portray the film’s Ms. Weiss: a drab but deeply empathetic soul helping a troubled teenager in 1980s Harlem. Far from the image Carey has cultivated for years, the character has lank hair, a wardrobe of rayon sweater-coats and a sparse mustache 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.

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 to ensure that audiences wouldn’t be “taken out of the picture by seeing Mariah Carey,’’ and also to antagonize the singer for her own good by making her look homely.

“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 unlikely all of this is, one need look no further than Carey’s 2001 star vehicle “Glitter.’’ The movie was trounced by critics, fizzled at the box office, and netted the performer a Razzie Award for worst actress.

But since “Precious’’ premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, 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.’’

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