Josephine Baker, described by Ernest Hemingway as the most sensational woman anybody ever saw or ev er will, became the sultry, controversial rage of Europe in the 1920s after leaving the United States at 19 to escape racism. She was called one of the most successful black entertainers of her time and a civil rights leader of historical stature.
America never opened its arms to Baker--a sad, recurring strain in the bittersweet ballad of an irrepressible talent. In the years since her death in 1975 at age 68, Hollywood, too, has been slow to warm up to Baker as a dramatic subject, despite the undeniably dramatic events in her life.
"I think that it's been very difficult for the industry to really have a strong enough belief in who Josephine Baker was, even though they could see the vastness of her story," said Lynn Whitfield, who stars in the extravagant HBO movie "The Josephine Baker Story" airing Saturday. "I mean, this is an epic life."
Whitfield says whole generations of audiences today are unfamiliar with who Baker was--her childhood in an old railroad boxcar, her unabashed sexual freedom on stage in her trademark banana skirt, her status as one of the wealthiest black women in the world, her multi-ethnic "Rainbow Tribe" of a dozen adopted children, and her eventual financial ruin.
"You know, being a black woman in this country and knowing about people through the folklore, through the word of mouth, through the family, you understand the tragedy of anonymity in America that occurs to so many black people who have accomplished so much. Because the history books simply weren't geared to telling our stories," Whitfield said.
There have been plans for other Baker projects--a feature film from Dolly Parton's Sandollar production company and a Turner Network Television movie starring Diana Ross, who received an Oscar nomination in 1972 as jazz singer Billie Holiday in "Lady Sings the Blues." But while the $8-million HBO movie, which a spokesman called the cable channel's most ambitious movie to date, is ready for telecast the others are still stuck in early stages of development.
"I think the feature film industry is not ready at this point to put all their energies into a project that features the life of a black woman," said Whitfield, who was so determined to play Baker that she produced her own screen test. "And in terms of television it was a tough story to tell because it required nudity. . . . If you take that out of the story you take out a huge chunk of what gave Josephine the momentum she had. That would have been a tough network sell. It really took cable TV coming to its maturity to make this movie."
(HBO shot two versions of Whitfield recreating Baker's "Banana Dance" and "Danse Sauvage." In one version Whitfield was semi-nude and in the other she was covered up for future syndication and foreign markets.)
The critical success or failure of "The Josephine Baker Story," which co-stars David Dukes, Ruben Blades and Louis Gossett Jr., falls on Whitfield's slim shoulders. The responsibility is heavy for a relatively unknown actress who has played mainly character parts in film ("Silverado") and television (the ABC miniseries "The Women of Brewster Place"). HBO says that hundreds of actresses auditioned for the role. Whitfield, a dancer but not a singer, was passed on at first and then called back after several months of unsuccessful auditions.
"It was her acting," British director Brian Gibson said. "There was a certain monotony watching the other actresses audition for Josephine. They sort of got the main points. They got the energy and the upishness and the political commitment. But the performances became compulsive or repetitive or self-righteous, a lot of things Josephine wasn't. Josephine had all these subtle harmonics around her, and Lynn managed to capture those."
Whitfield had to strip down in several ways to play the title role.
Physically, she had to drop her inhibitions--and her clothing--to present Baker's unabashed sexual freedom--posing as a statuesque nude for an artist, dancing seductively on stage wearing next to nothing and losing herself in the lusty embrace of her first husband (Blades).
Mentally, she had to let go and make herself vulnerable to the emotions that Baker embodied, which Whitfield summed up as "innocence, narcissism, heroism, self-indulgence and anger." It was partly because Whitfield made herself so vulnerable in rehearsals that she fell in love with her director and married him in July, a week after shooting wrapped in Budapest.
"More than any time before in my career, there were great demands of tremendous intimacy between myself and my lead actor," said Gibson, whose credits include NBC's "Drug Wars: The Camarena Story," an Emmy winner for best miniseries last year.
"Josephine was a very open, vulnerable character," he said. "And early on in rehearsals we both realized that we had to be very open to one another in a way that goes way beyond what a formal director and actor might share. That was the basis; we couldn't have any secrets."
Whitfield said, "We had to respect each other, and listen to each other, and support each other. I think many of the qualities that are necessary for a creative partnership we learned and carried off into marriage."
In addition, neither the director nor his actress had shot nude scenes before. When asked at what point he fell in love with Whitfield, Gibson laughed and said, "During the banana dance."
Whitfield and Gibson were interviewed at their lavish, Spanish-style home in Hollywood Hills. In person, seated at her kitchen table eating corn flakes, Whitfield's petite body seemed in marked contrast to the towering character she portrayed on the screen.
"I was disappointed when I first heard about the role," Whitfield said. "The first thing I said was, 'I don't think I'm right for this part.' You know, she was tall and a dancer and a singer."
Still, citing a shortage of leading roles for black women, especially ones of such impact as Baker, Whitfield desperately wanted the part. So she tacked up ads on USC and UCLA bulletin boards for film students, had a friend design some costumes, turned to another friend to choreograph dance numbers and then videotaped her own screen test, all for about $3,000.
"I had a vision of who Josephine was, and I wanted to make sure that vision was captured."
When she won the role, Whitfield wanted to do Baker justice by reintroducing her to new American audiences.
Baker gave Whitfield something lasting in return.
"I learned a lot from what I would consider to be her human flaws, her inability to be truly intimate," Whitfield said. "She was very capable of being intimate with an audience, but being intimate with one person was difficult for her. I think I had a touch of putting my life on hold until my career was where I wanted it to be.
"Had I not done Josephine, had I not felt the real brunt of some of the decisions she made as an older woman, had I not dealt with myself, I probably wouldn't have gotten married. . . . I learned from who she was, the wonderful parts and the tragic parts, so that I could make some adjustments in my life, so I wouldn't end up 68, having lost everything, with no man, with children who are distant, and with no career."
"The Josephine Baker Story" premieres Saturday 8-10:15 p.m. on HBO.