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 at 8 p.m. "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 multiethnic "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.
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."
"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."
"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.
"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 8-10:30 p.m. on HBO.