A 'Precious' Oscar for Mo'Nique

In her most memorable line from "Precious," Mo'Nique's character plaintively asks, "Who is going to love me?"

But that's a question the Baltimore County-born actress may never have to ask again, not after receiving a standing ovation for winning the best supporting actress Oscar at Sunday night's 82nd annual Academy Awards.

"God bless us all," said the composed, but clearly emotional, actress, whose star turn in "Precious" has garnered widespread, critically acclaim and numerous awards.

In her brief acceptance speech, Mo'Nique offered thanks to Hattie McDaniel, the actress who became, in 1940, the first African-American to win an acting Oscar. Perhaps not coincidentally, Mo'Nique said this weekend that she has optioned McDaniel's life story and could end up playing her in a future project.

"I would like to thank Miss Hattie McDaniel, for enduring what she had to so that I would not have to," Mo'Nique said.

She also thanked her husband, Sidney Hicks, for encouraging her to work on "Precious," a film about an abusive, dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship that hardly seemed typical box-office fodder when it was released last year.

He pushed her, she said, by stressing that "sometimes, you have to forgo doing what is popular in order to do what's right. Baby, you were so right."

Mo'Nique's win came for playing the monstrously abusive but disarmingly vulnerable Mary Jones, mother to a resilient teenager in "Precious: Based On the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire."

As only the fifth African-American actress to win an Oscar (four, including Mo'Nique's, have been in the supporting category; one was for best actress), the actress, stand-up comic and talk-show host understands the cultural significance. "The black experience, in reference to it being a black director and the actors were black people — yes, we're proud of that, baby. Because you see very few of us in those positions," she said this weekend.

At the same time, she isn't ready to embrace Hollywood as finally becoming color-blind. But progress is being made, if not by the movie studios, then by world audiences.

"Whether they notice it or not, the world did," she said. "This film is far bigger than Hollywood. I have an award right now at my home from Germany. I have an award in my home right now from Sweden. I have an award in my home right now from Japan. I have an award in my home from London. 'Precious' was far bigger than Hollywood."

However, Mo'Nique bristles at suggestions that "Precious" is one of the first movies to win both critical acclaim and mainstream awards while chronicling the black experience. Such talk, she insists, trivializes both the movie itself and audiences' reactions to it.

"I want to be clear about something," she said. "It's not the black experience. This movie was a life experience, and the people playing the parts happened to be black. If you take Mary Jones and Precious and put them in the heart of Beverly Hills, don't you think they exist? ... If you take them and put them anywhere on the face of this earth where there are human beings, those two people exist."

For an actress who had been criticized for not actively campaigning for her Oscar, Mo'Nique certainly seemed to be relishing the experience. She was one of the first nominated actors to show up on the red carpet outside the Kodak Theatre more than 90 minutes before the show's scheduled start. She waved at fans, posed for pictures and paused for repeated interviews.

"I don't think my feet are touching. Am I floating, Maggie?" Mo'Nique asked fellow nominee Maggie Gyllenhaal as they were interviewed on the red carpet.

But Mo'Nique said all the awards she's won for her powerful, eye-opening star turn in "Precious" are secondary to what she believes the movie has to say -- and her good fortune in being chosen to help spread that message.

"The awards are a beautiful fringe benefit," Mo'Nique said. "But we didn't do this movie for the awards. We did this movie for the reward of knowing lives would be changed."

Mo'Nique's life has certainly changed since the Woodlawn native and Milford Mill Academy graduate first tried stand-up on a dare in 1991. While holding down her job as a customer sales representative for MCI, she became a regular at area comedy clubs and then a repeat performer on TV's " Showtime at the Apollo," and "Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam."

She soon had her own Baltimore showcase and restaurant, Mo'Nique's, as well as a slot co-hosting a morning radio show on WWIN (95.9 FM). By 1999, she had won a part in the UPN sitcom "The Parkers." She followed that with a slew of broad, popular big-screen comedies, but last year's "Precious" was her first major dramatic role in a Hollywood film.

Post-Oscar, Mo'Nique says she's still exploring her options. First up, of course, there's her nightly talk show on BET. Then, on March 19 in New Orleans, she kicks off her latest comedy tour -- with a stop set for the next night at Washington's DAR Constitution Hall.

But even as the accolades keep pouring in, the actress born Monique Imes and raised in Woodlawn and Randallstown can't help but laugh when she looks back on her first acting experience. It happened while she was a student at Milford Mill Academy. And as a start, it was anything but auspicious.

"I played the grandmother," she said with the hearty laugh one gets used to hearing when she's on a roll, "and she was darn near dead. Now I don't know what they were trying to tell me. My only line was, 'Aggghhh, gahhh!'

"That was my only damn line, and now they have gone and nominated me for an Oscar. Can you imagine? I said that line so damn good."

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