Paula Patton has already played alongside Will Smith in “Hitch,” Denzel Washington in “Déjà Vu” and Kevin Costner in “Swing Vote,” but it wasn’t until her turn as an unassuming teacher-turned-student-advocate in a recently distribution-less indie flick that the 33-year-old actress caught the attention of Aspen Filmfest. And Sundance. And Cannes. And the Toronto Film Festival.
Patton, who plays Ms. Rain in the Lee Daniels film “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” is set to receive Aspen Film’s newest accolade, the Artist to Watch Award, today at 6 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House. She will be the first recipient of the award designed to recognize up-and-coming talent.
“Paula has performed in a number of great films, but this award is really acknowledging her for her relationship to the really strong American indie film “Precious.”
The movie centers around overweight, illiterate teenager Clareece “Precious” Jones, who has twice been impregnated by her father and must endure further emotional abuse from her mother. The film debuted at Sundance earlier this year, winning both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for the dramatic category. It went on to garner rave reviews at Cannes, and to win the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. And Oscar buzz abounds.
“I never expected this to happen,” said Patton. “We didn’t even have distribution at first. I thought, maybe, it could be a Netflix hit.”
If this story sounds at all familiar, it’s because last year’s breakout independent hit, “Slumdog Millionaire,” had a similar path to success. That film began its run with wins at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, eventually going on to win eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture), seven BAFTAs, five Critics’ Choice Awards, and four Golden Globes. Both films are, perhaps, indicative of a growing trend in Hollywood whereby story- and character-driven movies dominate during the industry’s top awards, even if the American public has yet to catch up at the box office.
“This is something we’ve been doing with Aspen Filmfest for several years now,” Eldred said. “We’re not just looking for crowd pleasers. We look for films that give the audience a sense that they’re connected with a real human being, or even a fictional character.”
And “Precious,” which was described by Variety as “courageous and uncompromising, a shaken cocktail of debasement and elation, despair and hope,” certainly fits the bill. But the story, a trifecta of incest, poverty, and race, could have very well been too much for audiences to connect with.
“It’s ultimately a story of someone overcoming unbelievable obstacles, and really overcoming it on their own,” Patton said. “And audiences have been able to look beyond the poverty and race and the incest and see that this is simply a story about humanity. People really love it in spite of the polarizing elements, and that’s really inspiring to me.”
Beyond just inspiration, this film — and its unlikely road to success — will likely change the course of Patton’s career. Though she admits she hasn’t quite gained A-list star status yet, Patton said “Precious” will undoubtedly open doors in the industry.
“People who didn’t know who I was might give me a shot just because I’ve been associated with such an unbelievable film,” she said.
“I did this film because I really believed in the script and I thought it would be an excellent experience for me,” she added, “and look where it ended up. My agents probably don’t want me to do many more indie films, but this really shows me what happens when you follow your heart.”
A screening of the film will begin at 6 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House, followed by the award presentation. Other award recipients at the 31st Aspen Filmfest include Jason Reitman, who will receive the first New Directions Award at 6 p.m. on Friday at the Wheeler Opera House; and Stanley Tucci, recipient of the Independent By Nature Award, at 6 p.m. on Saturday, also at the Wheeler Opera House.