What Becomes a Legend Most? : Lynn Whitfield became Josephine Baker, Budapest became Paris and Harlem as HBO raced to complete the first movie about the storied entertainer’s life
It looks for all the world like a large-scale Hollywood epic--the kind they just don’t make any more.
The scene is Casablanca, 1942, as evinced by the sun’s glare and the palm trees lining a sandy desert clearing. On a stage which represents a club for GIs, actress Lynn Whitfield, playing the legendary black entertainer Josephine Baker, sings a moving song in French to an audience of wildly applauding American soldiers, 350 of them white and some 100 black. She is backed by a racially integrated eight-piece band performing in front of a Stars and Stripes backdrop.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Jul. 29, 1990 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 29, 1990 Home Edition Calendar Page 103 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
In the July 22 Sunday Calendar, the name of John Kemeny, producer of HBO’s “The Josephine Baker Story,” was misspelled.
British director Brian Gibson, sporting a two-day growth of stubble, a Hawaiian shirt and a wide-brimmed fedora, smiles affably. “Very nice, Lynn. Lovely work,” he tells the actress with professional courtesy. Then he strolls casually across the set, an Englishman out in the midday sun, to discuss the next set-up with director of photography Elemer Ragalyi.
But nothing here--nothing, is what it seems.
This is no big-screen extravaganza, but a TV movie being shot on a modest $8-million budget. “Josephine Baker” is being made by the pay-cable channel HBO together with Britain’s Anglia Television, and is scheduled to air on HBO next February. The relatively unknown Whitfield has a strong supporting cast, including singer-actor Ruben Blades, David Dukes (“War and Remembrance”) and Lou Gossett Jr.
The scene is actually being shot far from Casablanca, in a remote sand pit on the outskirts of Budapest. The palms have been specially imported. And Lynn Whitfield, while emulating the fabulous Baker poise, is in fact lip-syncing to tapes of singer Carol Dennis.
As for her audience, there isn’t a single American among them. The 350 white soldiers are from a battalion of the Hungarian Army, the Budapest Guard, which performs mainly ceremonial functions in the nation’s capital. Normally these troops take orders from tall, muscular and impeccably neat 1st Lt. Sandor Bocksei, who is here to observe. But today they must obey Laszlo Sipos, the movie’s bilingual assistant director, tousle-haired and bearded in T-shirt and jeans; he bawls orders in Magyar through a megaphone.
The 100 black “GIs” aren’t even soldiers, but students from various countries, including Senegal, Cameroon, Angola, Panama and Cuba, who attend universities in Hungary and Vienna. They’re about the only blacks to be found in this part of Eastern Europe, and working as extras offers them a welcome windfall. Manuel Jhon Alvaro, 24, an Angolan electrical engineering student on a 3-year course in Budapest, says: “I’m here on a scholarship, but it’s only $20 a month. If we can find work like this, for a day at a time, it helps.”
Gibson’s contented demeanor conceals the fact that shooting was halted for the previous entire week while he struggled to stave off exhaustion and the onset of pneumonia.
And behind his professional attentiveness to Whitfield lies some intrigue; in the six weeks since shooting started, the director and his leading lady have fallen in love. (They were married July 4).
Finally, even Gibson’s casual manner belies his state of mind. Two other film projects about Baker are in the works, one to star Diana Ross as Baker. But even if production on them has not started, Gibson, his cast, crew and British screenwriter Ron
Hutchinson, have been in a race. “We did a lot of rewriting while rehearsing, and we’re doing six days a week, up to 14 hours a day,” says Gibson. “It would be dispiriting to think someone else could get their movie out first.”
Josephine Baker’s life and career were so rich in incident that, 15 years after her death, it’s hard to figure why no films about her have yet been completed.
She was born in 1906 in St. Louis, and was raised in poverty by her washerwoman mother. She was 11 when race riots in East St. Louis stamped themselves on her memory. At 14 she joined a black vaudeville troupe as a chorus girl, danced on Broadway at 15 in Eubie Blake’s musical “Shuffle Along"--and in 1925 sailed to France with two dozen black dancers, singers and musicians to open a black song-and-dance show in Paris.
“La Revue Negre,” as it was called, was a sensation. With uninhibited sexuality, Baker performed one dance naked but for a skirt of feathers, and became not only a big hit but also a hot topic among critics, artists and intellectuals. Feted by Picasso, Colette and Hemingway, she achieved legendary status.
A year later, Baker moved to the Folies Bergere, and appeared in one dance as a native girl clad only in a skirt of fake bananas. It became her trademark. She was by now the biggest American star in Europe, yet attempts to repeat her success in the U.S. foundered--partly because black and white audiences alike somewhat resented her expatriate status.
During World War II she joined the French Resistance. Later, after publicly squabbling with columnist Walter Winchell over New York’s Stork Club’s refusal to serve blacks in the ‘50s, she campaigned for the civil rights movement. Unable to bear children, she adopted 12 orphans of varying ethnic backgrounds, calling them “the Rainbow Tribe.”
Three major biographies have traced her life--"Jazz Cleopatra” by Phyllis Rose (1989), “Josephine Baker” by Bryan Hammond (1988) and Lynn Haney’s “Naked at the Feast.” (1981).
Talk about film projects dealing with Josephine Baker has been plentiful. Ross, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of singer Billie Holiday in the film biography “Lady Sings the Blues,” has long voiced an ambition to play Baker. Producer Robert Halmi had for years been developing a script about Baker, with a three-part TV miniseries as a possibility.
But talk became action in early March, when it was disclosed Whitfield would portray Baker for HBO, which had bought Halmi’s script as a starting point. Three weeks later, Ross announced she would play Baker in a three-hour TV production for Ted Turner’s TNT cable service. In mid-April, a third contender entered the fray: Dolly Parton’s Sandollar company would make a film about the young Baker. Hugh Hudson (“Chariots of Fire”) was to direct.
Such was Baker’s legend that every black actress of note in America had wanted the role. Perhaps hyperbolically, HBO claims 500 actresses read for it. What is clear is that casting Josephine took seven months.
“Diana Ross was the first idea that came up,” says Brian Gibson. “But unless you want to do just the second half of Josephine’s life, the time for Diana Ross to play her would have been 10 years ago. I don’t think it’s time for her to do the girl who did the wild banana dance now.”
Whitfield, a character actress who got good reviews for her work in the movie “Silverado,” the TV miniseries “The Women of Brewster Place” and a brief drama series “Heartbeat,” went to a casting meeting last June at the Chateau Marmont.
“They were putting people on tape, and sending it along to Brian to give him an idea,” she recalls. “They wanted four scenes, a song and a dance, but I said I’d prefer to produce a screen test of my own. I figured this was a project where you might as well put your best foot forward.”
Whitfield enlisted an old friend, Michael Peters, who had co-choreographed the musical “Dreamgirls” and some of Michael Jackson’s videos. She found eager students at USC’s film school with directing and lighting experience, then shot her test.
Subsequently, she met Gibson for the first time. “I’d looked at her tape and thought--this is an enterprising woman,” recalls Gibson. “At the first meeting, we got on very well.” Whitfield agrees: “At that point, I was at the forefront of their minds. By the second meeting, I wasn’t.”
In the interim, Gibson came to feel it was unfair to favor Whitfield because her screen test was better directed and lit than her rivals’. Their next meeting, in October, was disastrous. “She felt betrayed, I think,” says Gibson. “Lynn thought it was in her grasp, that there were only one or two others up for the part. When she saw four or five other ladies of various ages swanning around, she came in to the meeting very angry. I took one look at her, and said, ‘She’s too angry to play Josephine.’ We both retreated into our prejudices.”
Gibson was also worried by the implications of casting: “Should we have a singer, a dancer, an actress? Shall we have one Josephine, or a 19-year-old with a 50-year-old?”
Various names were floated. At one point, Irene Cara was the front-runner if one actress was to be used; another scenario had Holly Robinson (of TV’s “21 Jump Street”) as a younger Josephine, with Diahann Carroll playing Baker in later life.
But Whitfield’s acting ability won out. “She can play 19 or 68,” says Gibson. “She’s at a stage in life where she has access in both directions. She’s a perfect age for the part.”
So in January, Gibson and producer John Kennemy asked her to attend another meeting. Whitfield, insisting she had given her all, refused. “I told my agent, I’ve had enough, tell them to look at the tapes,” she recalls. Eventually she agreed to meet the two men for dinner. They told her she was their choice, but that HBO wanted one more screen test. (On-set sources say HBO feared Whitfield was not a big enough name.)
“I could hardly even speak when they told me,” says Whitfield with a weary shrug. “But I could see their sincerity. I went in to do the test at 6 a.m. on a Friday and left at 5:30 p.m. On Monday, I learned I’d got it. By now, it was February.”
Now came the hard part. How to make a movie about Baker, from a script including scenes in Harlem and Paris to North Africa and Vienna, as well as splashy musical dance numbers and lavish period costumes, all on a reasonable budget?
“Originally,” says the Hungarian-born Kennemy, seated in a tent out of the heat on the sand pit set, “this movie was conceived very differently. It was going to be shot in France and America, and just a small part in Hungary.”
The budget was bigger too. But when their original partners dropped out, HBO assumed a greater share of financing and went into partnership with Anglia Television. Anglia’s David Puttnam (formerly studio head at Columbia) became executive producer with Halmi, and the budget was downscaled.
“It had to be,” says Kennemy. “To shoot a movie on this scale in the U.S. would cost us $20 million. And French costs were unbelievable. Then we went with production designers to Paris, and found we couldn’t empty the streets and fill them with vintage cars for period scenes. We couldn’t stop traffic on the Champs-Elysee.”
Kennemy had collaborated with Gibson and Hutchinson on another HBO project--"Murderers Among Us,” starring Ben Kingsley as the renowned Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal. It was shot in Yugoslavia, so Kennemy scouted and budgeted there for “Josephine Baker.”
“In the end, it wasn’t just that Budapest is a wonderful city for your cast rather than, say, Zagreb, Hungary was less expensive and the locations were better. You can shoot Paris, Vienna, Germany here.” The crew shot a scene of Baker’s arrival in Paris on Andrassy Boulevard, one of Budapest’s main streets, and closed it down for an entire Sunday.
“We had horse-drawn wagons, buggies, over a dozen vintage cars imported from Czechoslovakia, for a big musical number,” chuckles Kennemy. “It looked like a million dollars.”
Money in Budapest, then, goes a lot further. It needs to: The production calls for 70 locations, three separate construction crews, 6,000 extras and 200 dancers. But Kennemy does not pay a day rate for these services--the Hungarian companies providing them negotiate a flat rate in advance.
Hungary’s cheapness lies in its severely depressed economy. Budapest’s most luxurious villas cost only around $120,000; the nation toils under a $20 billion national debt, which is hard to repay now that it has distanced itself politically from the Soviet Union. Salaries are low; Hungarian crew members receive far less than Western Europeans or Americans.
“Costs will probably go up here eventually,” says David Dukes, who plays Baker’s second husband, bandleader Jo Bouillon. “I hope they do, because that’ll show the economy is picking up. Hungarians have to live very cheaply. Many of them pay accumulated taxes of 97%. Can you imagine?”
The economic crisis is affecting Hungary’s film industry, which has a distinguished history. (Miklos Jancso Jr., son of Hungary’s most famous director, is second unit cameraman on “Josephine Baker.”) Elemer Ragalyi laments: “My feeling is the industry’s in trouble. A little industry like ours can’t make money. The government’s subsidized us till now, but I doubt they’ll be able to in the future.” The talk is that Mafilm, the state-run Budapest studio, may even have to close.
This saddens the Westerners on the set, who admire the Hungarian crews. “They have great cameramen, excellent directors of photography and production designers,” enthuses Kennemy, who has imported only a dozen Americans or British to the 120-strong crew. Gibson agrees: “They have a tradition which goes a long way back in terms of filmmaking quality.”
Still, frustrations are apparent, and arise from Hungarian crews being less regimented. Gibson’s impatience is intensified by the language barrier. He has four interpreters dealing with different sections of the crew; on encountering a problem, he must identify who has caused it, then which translator should convey his displeasure.
On this day, just before shooting a crucial scene, Gibson discovers the GIs nearest the camera have not been spritzed with water by production assistants to give the appearance of sweating in the desert heat.
“Who’s responsible for this?” roars Gibson, eyes rolling heavenwards. “Anyone outside this country would be astonished by this!”
Dukes sees it similarly: “When you change wardrobe at the last minute, you need translators who are never around when you need them. It can get frustrating.”
Kennemy has problems with bureaucracy: “In no eastern European country is it easy for a director in the evening to say, let’s not shoot location scene 132 tomorrow, let’s shoot scene 65. It’s the nature of the system--there’s inflexibility.”
“It can be irritating,” sighs Gibson. “Every day I try not to start blaming and getting resentful, and every day I fail. But I always end up apologizing.”
Despite the problems, Baker’s spirit somehow infuses the production. The word “Josephine” is on everyone’s lips constantly, and Lou Gossett Jr. speaks warmly of having met Baker when he was a young actor in the 1950s. Gossett plays Sidney Williams, an Army officer in North Africa who encouraged Baker to perform for GIs there.
“I was on Broadway in a play and we did an Actors’ Fund benefit to which she came. I was introduced to her as a young man taken out of high school in Brooklyn to do this show, and she said: ‘How do you like the theater? Is it a wonderful experience?’ I said I was excited about it, especially meeting someone like her. She hugged me and wished me luck. I was too young at the time to understand the enormity of her life, but I remember the awe and respect with which people talked of her.”
Some of that awe is coming Whitfield’s way because she is playing Josephine. During a lunchtime interview in her hot trailer, she opened a window for ventilation--and minutes later, an arm appeared through it, brandishing a red flower.
“I geev you thees, my rose,” said a sad-eyed Senegalese student, standing devotedly outside the trailer. “It’s funny, playing this role,” marveled Whitfield, touched by the gesture. “People treat you like Josephine--with respect.”
Which is just the icing on the cake for her. “This gives me an opportunity to do everything I’ve wanted in one role--dancing, singing, acting, glamour, aging from 19 to 68. And it’s a vehicle that makes statements you can believe in.”
It’s also a vehicle that seems to be burning off the other Baker projects. Two weeks after the sand pit scene, Hugh Hudson told The Times the Sandollar project had been postponed.
“We’ll make it at the end of next year, I should think,” he said from his car phone in London. “We were about to go into production, but we decided to delay it because there’s no point in clashing with (HBO).”
Hudson added playwright George Wolfe (“The Colored Museum” and “Spunk,” about the writer Zora Neale Hurston) had written “a wonderful screenplay. We’ll make a musical from it, a classic movie musical.” He expected it to cover the first year of Baker’s life in Paris. The budget would exceed $15 million. “I imagine we’ll find an unknown actress as Josephine, and surround her with a strong supporting cast,” he added.
“We’re using the time to rework the screenplay. It’s not a race. I try not to be pessimistic about these things.”
However, Hudson confirmed that Orion, which had been linked with the project, was no longer involved: “We couldn’t agree on financing, but we’re talking to other studios.” He had personally put some “seed money” into the film, and some financing would come from Sandollar and a French company, Sara.
Meanwhile, Ross’ plans to bring Baker to TV are moving slowly. Little seems to have happened since late March. “We get development information biweekly,” said TNT publicist Misty Cannon, “but there’s really nothing new to report.”
Cannon said no starting date had yet been set for production, no casting was set, and that to her knowledge, no budget had been agreed. “We know it’ll air in 1991, but we don’t have a date yet,” she added.
Gibson would not have been surprised to hear these developments; he had wondered aloud whether the other Baker projects would ever be made, citing his doubts that Hudson would obtain financing for an expensive project, and his belief that Ross might be disinclined to shoot a movie about Baker under the sort of conditions imposed by tight budgets.
“Despite our frustrations, I’d rather be shooting in Hungary and getting more for our money,” he said. “And I do think that good things come out of a struggle, out of the fact that what we’re doing is sort of impossible.
“No sensible person would try to re-create Harlem, Casablanca, New Orleans and Paris all in Budapest. It’s an impertinence, almost. Yet there’s this determination to succeed--and we’re succeeding.”