Off Screen

Lee Daniels: Cannes Film Festival’s Mischief Maker

Director Lee Daniels stormed the festival with The Paperboy—and its buzzy Nicole Kidman urination scene. He talks to Richard Porton about race, Hollywood, and gay love in the 1970s.

05.27.12 8:45 AM ET

Before I can blurt out my first question during an interview with Lee Daniels at the press junket for The Paperboy, an official competition entry at the Cannes Film Festival, he steers the conversation away from my innocuous opening gambit and lays his cards on the table.

“Before we begin—and you can be very frank with me—what did you think of the film? Were you a fan or not?”

The publicist had warned me that Daniels would pose this question, and I had been taking mental notes beforehand. Not wanting to say that the film was one of the silliest pieces of tripe I had endured in ages, I replied, “Well, I have mixed feelings.”

This was apparently a sufficiently straightforward response for Daniels to grab me and exclaim, “I love you for your honesty! Tell me about your mixed feelings.” Toning down my negative reaction to The Paperboy, I told him that I was slightly put off by the movie’s sudden shifts of tone—from comedy to neo-noir and back again. “I’m glad you said that,” Daniels interjects. “People aren’t always that honest.” Grasping at straws, I proclaim, “Why is it necessary to lie?” Daniels laughs. “That’s why you’re with The Daily Beast. I love The Daily Beast.”

Based on Pete Dexter’s novel, The Paperboy is packed with enough melodramatic excess and Southern Gothic filigree to make the ghost of Tennessee Williams blush. The film recounts the convoluted tale of Ward (Matthew McConaughey), a Miami-based journalist who returns to his small Florida hometown with Yardley (David Oyelowo), his black partner, to investigate the murky details of a murder case that has landed the slimy Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) on death row. Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a woman branded a “sexed-up Barbie doll,” launches a passionate correspondence with Hillary and, before long, becomes his fiancée. Other complications ensue: Ward’s younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) develops a crush on Charlotte, and we eventually learn that Ward and Yardley are lovers.

In addressing my objections to the film, Daniels reveals that he “didn't pretend to be an auteur….I was going for a noirish comedy. People take the film so seriously. It’s supposed to be a ‘work of art.’ But it ain’t; it’s a piece of pop. What disturbs me is that people are taking this shit seriously. We didn’t take it seriously when we were making it, although the actors were able to explore themselves in ways they‘ve never been able to do, and they’re all working with me again.”

The problem with Daniels’s blithe dismissal of his own work is that, on other occasions, he wants to be taken very seriously. For example, making the film’s narrator an African-American maid named Anita (Macy Gray) represents an effort to critique the racism still endemic in the South during the 1960s. Daniels confides: “Everyone in this movie is someone I know. Macy Gray is my grandmother, my mother, my cousins, and my aunt.  They’re the real ‘help,’ the help that I know, not ‘the help’ I saw it that movie.” He is also emotionally invested in the film’s interracial romance between Yardley and Ward. “Matthew McConaughey’s character brings to mind so many white men I slept with in the ’70s. They were passionate relationships, even though they wouldn’t be seen with me in public. And they hate themselves for it; I know that. Look at Yardley’s character. Every African-American I know has two faces. There’s the face that we have for ourselves and the face we put on for white America for the places we have to get to. And that’s what Yardley represents to me. Just because Obama is president doesn’t mean that things have changed.”

Without getting a response from Daniels, I suggested that this public/private schism corresponds to what the noted African-American writer W.E.B. Du Bois once labeled “double consciousness.” Unfortunately, what most viewers will take away from The Paperboy are not lessons about the porous nature of black identity or pre-Stonewall interracial gay love but memories of Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron to alleviate the pain of a jellyfish sting—a scene that achieved instant notoriety after the Cannes press screening.

While The Paperboy received a critical drubbing at Cannes and no one likes bad reviews, Daniels appeared discernibly shocked by the reviewers’ invective. Moving in a bit closer to me, he confided, “Let me tell you something. I should never have taught my mother how to get on the Internet. It was stupid because she read the review in Variety. I’ve learned how to protect myself and I don’t read reviews. But because she sent it to me, I had to read it. I read it before the premiere while I was putting my socks on and I thought, ‘Oh, my God. They hate me; this is horrible.’”

When I wonder why he takes critical brickbats so personally, the well-known confessional side of Lee Daniels revs up. He replies, “Yes, I take it personally; that’s why I don’t read reviews. I told Nicole about this and she said, ‘But you know, they boo people at Cannes.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ You have to understand that I was at Cannes several years ago with Precious and we got an eight-minute standing ovation. It was spectacular! I was shaking as I was walking down the red carpet the other night and I said to myself, while expecting and ready to be booed, ‘Take responsibility for yourself, man up.’ But we got a 16-minute standing ovation. So I’m still trying to figure out that Variety review because, as a young man, my father told me that I was nothing and I would never amount to anything. That’s where my head is at.”

Compared to the self-assured veneer of most film directors, Daniels’s apparent vulnerability, or perhaps admixture of vulnerability and feelings of grandiosity, is slightly perplexing until one realizes that his films function as much as inspirational psychodramas as works of art.  His highly acclaimed, and highly controversial, 2009 film, Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, is a case in point. The movie subjects its overweight teenaged protagonist to a host of woes—primarily horrific abuse and incest—that might have been plucked from a particularly grisly Victorian novel. Yet just when the movie couldn’t get any bleaker, it turns into an upbeat tale of moral rearmament after the illiterate Precious is taught to read and championed by a caring social worker played by Mariah Carey.

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Daniels’s admission that he felt deeply hurt when a friend referred to Precious as an “atrocity” prompted me to ask if he was particularly wounded by virulent criticism of the film from African-American commentators after its release. Admitting that he was “saddened” by this reaction, he reminded me that “Obama was behind it” and added that “Gabby [Precious star Gabourey Sidibe] has been invited to the White House several times.”

Whatever I might think of Daniels’s films, I can certainly empathize with the exasperation he feels in being the constant subject of voyeuristic news items. In late 2011, his sister’s involvement in a drug bust became tabloidish Internet fodder. More recently, a dispute between him and Paperboy producer Avi Lerner, which yielded mutual accusations of racism, went viral. Daniels seems sanguine enough about this tsunami of unwanted publicity. Parsing his words more carefully than usual, he insisted that “producers and directors fight all the time. And now that everything’s on video, you can’t escape it. And with my sister, that’s a very personal thing.”

All of this demonstrates that the gossip surrounding the making of The Paperboy and its Cannes reception has proved much more galvanizing than the film itself. The critical brouhaha also raises the question of why the film was chosen to be in the Official Competition in the first place. It surely was a ludicrous idea for the selection committee to have this oddball entry rub shoulders with art films by the likes of Leos Carax, Michael Haneke, and Carlos Reygadas. In any case, this sort of peculiar programming has made the Cannes festival an annual three-ring circus for film buffs. In truth, it’s not such a bad idea to serve up an eclectic mixture of pop fare and highbrow cinema. It’s just unfortunate that The Paperboy is as lame as it is, and doesn’t even work as invigorating schlock or high camp.