"I'm speechless," said director Lee Daniels at an event hosted by the American Film Institute on Sunday. "I'm humbled and speechless. That's the best way to describe it. I just can't...I wish I had the words. Dreamlike? Sort of surreal."
The dark urban drama, which opens in U.S. cinemas on Friday, follows Clareece "Precious" Jones, an overweight, illiterate and abused Harlem teen who is pregnant with her second child and invited to enroll in an alternative school in hopes that her life will head in a new direction.
While at Sundance, where the $10-million film took top honors, Daniels got a call from Oprah Winfrey, who ultimately joined fellow entertainment mogul Tyler Perry in serving as after-the-fact executive producers.
Shortly thereafter, Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe, who marks her film debut in the title role, had an audience with Winfrey.
"Unfortunately, I forgot everything about it," Sidibe recalled. "It's so weird, because she's such a big deal to me, that when she speaks, I don't hear anything. It's like it's so weird. It's like hysterical blindness in a way. All I can remember is her saying my name over and over, and that can't be right."
"Precious" has earned strong critical notices for two unlikely recipients: Mariah Carey and Mo'Nique.
Mo'Nique, the stand-up comic, talk-show diva and comic-actor, plays Clareece's monstrous, abusive mother. "I got a phone call from Mr. Daniels, and he said, 'I've got something that might mess up your career.' I said, 'Sign me up,'" she said.
Carey has a role as social worker - a small part, but one the music superstar views as a milestone in her acting career. "I mean I had one milestone that almost had me under the stone," she laughed, referring to the 2001 bomb "Glitter."
"I didn't realize that you really have to be selective with the people that you work with and you have to have that support system and you have to work with people that you feel are geniuses and Lee Daniels is a genius in my book, so I'm grateful."
Other gala attendees Sunday included Winfrey and Perry, who posed for photographers but didn't speak to press. Also present were novelist Sapphire, "Precious" costars Paula Patton (with musician husband Robin Thicke) and Sherri Shepherd, as well as Carey's musician husband Nick Cannon and Mary J. Blige, who co-wrote one of the film's original songs. Like the film, it's an Oscar shoo-in, according to some key award-season pundits - all of whom director Daniels is trying to ignore.
"My way of dealing with [Oscar buzz] is not to embrace it," he explained. "I did the movie after I thought it was [only] going to DVD. Now I'm here on the freakin' red carpet talking to ya'll and it's like, that, that is the win. Oprah Winfrey is like behind the movie. I mean, come on. I'm gonna be able to tell my kids that forever."
By Michael Cidoni