He’s A Box-Office Star, But People Are Still Asking: ‘Who’s Tyler Perry?’

Feel-good writer/director/actor explains why he's managed to fly under the radar.

BEVERLY HILLS — He has a die-hard following that might be larger than those of Kevin Smith, David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino combined. He has opened two #1 films in the last two years, with each grossing between four and six times its budget on opening weekend. His first book debuted in the top spot on The New York Times bestseller list last year, and every week of 2005 he had more than 35,000 people cramming into his sold-out stage productions across the country.

So why don’t you know what Tyler Perry looks like? Why haven’t you — or anyone you know — seen any of his movies? And when will this guy start getting some respect?

“Who knows?” the 37-year-old writer/director/actor laughed recently when confronted with such questions. “For me, what it’s been about is trying to do the best that I can and continuing to serve my niche.”

Perry’s “niche” might grow even larger next week with “Daddy’s Little Girls,” his third-straight February release. It is extremely likely that the film will debut with an opening gross in the $30 million range, giving the much-more-expensive “Ghost Rider” a run for the #1 spot next weekend. Once again, Perry’s movie will beat up on the lingering Oscar hopefuls that many hold up as the best artistic achievements of their time, which begs one important question: Why?

“I love all the films that are nominated for Oscars, but when I call my family in Omaha and I’m like, ‘Oh, did you see Helen Mirren?’ They’re like, ‘Who’s that? Is she in the Jay-Z video?’ ” laughed Gabrielle Union, the “Girls” star who hunted Perry down after a showing of “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” made her break out in tears on a plane. The actress insists that Perry’s films are just as touching as anything Oscar-worthy, but without the heavy-handedness: “I watched all of the Oscar films, and I needed a 12-step program, maybe a little [antidepressant] Lexapro,” she laughed. “You leave a Tyler Perry film, and you’re like, ‘I don’t know why I loved it, but I just like the dang movie.’ ”

Indeed, Perry’s films (which also include “Madea’s Family Reunion”) don’t feature Oscar-bait performances, memorable action scenes or any of the look-at-me camerawork that makes you remember that Scorsese, Spielberg or Tarantino are telling the story. If you ask most of his fans why they loved one of Perry’s movies, they’ll likely have a hard time pointing to a specific scene or line of dialogue. According to the enigmatic man who rose from New Orleans homelessness to own a multimillion-dollar Atlanta company, he often hears that people like his movies but don’t know why. And he considers it a compliment.

“I am not a director that likes to put the camera in different places,” he said. “I just think the camera should be your eyes just observing it. I don’t believe in handheld, or shaking it and up and down in the corner. Just tell the story!”

And he has done precisely that. His tales typically revolve around African-Americans struggling to make ends meet, surrounded by good people with a faith in God and each other. Oh, and his films do have one other thing in common that might be their most potent ingredient: They leave you feeling good.

“If you’ve worked all day and you are going through all this hell in your own life, it’s nice to go to the movies for two hours and forget about everything,” Perry said. “[If I can do that], then I feel like I’ve done something that’s been worthwhile.”

Somewhere in there lies the key to Perry, who could be compared to Frank Capra, the legendary writer/director who carved out a similarly successful niche delivering inspirational, humanitarian classics like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.”

“You’re the first to ever say that to me,” Perry said of the comparison. “But that’s great.”

“He is a great communicator,” observed Idris Elba (“The Wire”), who stars in “Girls” as a single father with a criminal past trying to do the right thing while fighting with an uptight lawyer (Union) to regain custody of his three children. “The thing about great communicators is that they are like professors in a class … he doesn’t do too much as far as, ‘Let’s show off this camera trick, let’s do a Hollywood special here.’ He does what he does.”

“I understand my audience,” Perry explained — but he cautioned that no one should assume he’s referring to a black audience. “The thing that’s always bothered me about that is for years black people have been going to see movies that there were no black people in. … In America there is this segregation still, especially in film … [but I've] been getting a lot of messages from people who aren’t black, who have seen ‘Madea’s Family Reunion’ or ‘Diary’ on cable or through Netflix. I’ve got a huge white fanbase through Netflix, for some reason.”

Laughing, he added, “It’s slowly starting to cross over, and people are starting to realize what it is.”

And although you might never see a Perry flick listed as “one of the year’s most anticipated films” or any serious talk of him joining the Oscar films he so regularly destroys at the box office, the star would much rather take praise from one of the hard-core fans who turn out to see exactly one movie a year — his.

“He tells the story of the people in the other 48 states,” Union explained. “He has a perfect blend of humor, moral messages and spiritual messages [for the] people that don’t live in Manhattan or Los Angeles — your regular, hardworking people whose stories and voices are underrepresented in mainstream media.”

Asked whether it would take a third, fourth or fifth straight hit for him to get respect, Union had one simple answer: “I don’t think he cares,” she grinned. “At the end of the day, the numbers are the numbers.”

Perhaps this year, we all won’t be quite so surprised when the numbers hit once again.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls.”

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