It’s been roughly a year since Lee Daniels last snuck into the mainstream with The Butler, his overstuffed pageant of modern African-American history. I was surprised by how few mainstream critics acknowledged what a weird and angry movie it is (though I tried in my essay on the film). Indeed, with a year’s distance from The Butler, the details that most stand out in my memory are those that seem to have been created in explicit defiance of good taste. There’s Liev Schreiber, playing LBJ as an irascible Muppet, barking orders to his staff while sitting on the toilet; Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey in matching wind suits and unconvincing old-age makeup, visiting the site of a former plantation; or Winfrey, in even less convincing old-age makeup, doddering on about how ugly she considers a baby in a family photograph.
Not enough has been written about the influence of John Waters on Daniels’s work—or, for that matter, the influence of queer cinema in general. In Daniels’s cinema, any form of identity—sexual or otherwise—constitutes a type of performance. This would explain not only the exuberant overacting in his films and their frequent stunt casting, but also their gorgeous surfaces. (Daniels’s lighting, costumes, and production design are as subtle as his actors are unsubtle.) Like Ingmar Bergman or Ed Wood, Daniels seems driven by the need to express his personal worldview in every frame he directs, and this gives the films their energy and strange integrity. I may not enjoy every moment of his films, but I can’t say I’ve ever been bored while watching one. Nowadays, in fact, when I find myself getting bored with a movie, my first thought is usually, “I wish Lee Daniels had directed this.” Below is a list, in no particular order and by no means exhaustive, of ten movies I’ve watched in the last year that inspired this thought.
Enough Said Nicole Holofcener’s understated comedy about Los Angelenos finding love in middle age was far too complacent with regards to its upper-middle-class milieu—and the interior design wasn’t even that good. Daniels might have cut the characters’ privileged worldview down to size. He also might have generated stronger sexual chemistry between James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, given his results with such unlikely couples as Cuba Gooding Jr. and Helen Mirren or Joseph-Gordon Levitt and Mo’Nique in Shadowboxer.
Transcendence What a premise—Rebecca Hall falls in love with an A.I. system because it contains elements of her dead husband’s brain! With The Paperboy, Daniels acknowledged how ludicrous sexual desire can be while simultaneously extending great sympathy to characters in thrall to their sexual desires. Lee Daniels’s Transcendence might have been the Suddenly, Last Summer of sci-fi movies.
The Grandmaster Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love is a key stylistic reference point in both Shadowboxer and Precious. I imagine that if Daniels were to direct an out-and-out pastiche of Wong’s films, it probably would be livelier than this one that Wong himself directed.
Runner Runner I thought this was a perfectly decent thriller, reminiscent of B-grade film noirs of the 1950s. But what unimaginative casting! Ben Affleck as a smarmy villain, Anthony Mackie as a wisecracking FBI agent, Gemma Arterton as a busty femme fatale—even before these actors appear onscreen, you have a general idea of how they’ll inhabit these roles based on their performances in other movies. Daniels never takes a performer for granted in this way—by casting most of his actors against type, he guarantees that his films will be full of surprises. There’s no way of telling on your way in how a performer like John Cusack would play an illiterate murderer from the bayou, for example.
X-Men: Days of Future Past One accomplishment of Bryan Singer’s X-Men films is how they acknowledge the similarities between superhero movies and drag shows. Daniels could have worked wonders with this idea, especially with the actors that Singer assembled for the series. The homoerotic tension between James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender in X-Men: First Class made for some interesting subtext, and Daniels could have made a great film out of it.
Winter’s Tale I was more forgiving of this supernatural romance than most of my colleagues, if only because I appreciated the unabashed preposterousness of its metaphysics. The casting of Will Smith as a melancholy Lucifer was a nice, Danielsesque touch too. Again, I don’t think the filmmakers went far enough with any of their best ideas.
Philomena I saw this movie only eight months ago and don’t remember a thing about it.
The Bridge When my wife and I belatedly caught up with Eric Steel’s 2006 documentary about people who have committed or attempted suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, my wife said, “If Lee Daniels had directed this, Mariah would be up there, talking all those people down.”
Yves Saint-Laurent I saw this biopic about the renowned French fashion designer a few months ago, before the Weinstein Company pushed back its Chicago release. The studio had good reason to withhold it—the film’s a total snoozefest, generating little fascination about the fashion world or even Saint-Laurent’s period of drug addiction. Why didn’t they get Daniels? He’s got a great eye for fashion (he recruited Vivienne Westwood to design the costumes for Shadowboxer), and he could have had a field day depicting Saint-Laurent’s coke-fueled excess.
Her See comments on Transcendence.