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Angela Bassett Reaches a Stellar Groove at Last

NEWSDAY

If the intent of most summer movies is to rouse oohs, aahs and various other sound effects from their audiences, then “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” more than fulfills its mandate.

Nothing blows up--not literally, anyway--in this adaptation of Terry McMillan’s best-selling novel about a 40-year-old African American stockbroker and single mom (Angela Bassett) who travels to Jamaica on a whim and finds passionate love in the form of a 20-year-old islander, Winston (newcomer Taye Diggs).

But there’s plenty of fire and heat generated by some of the more torrid love scenes to be found in any commercial Hollywood film. The lush, steamy eroticism between Bassett’s older woman and Diggs’ younger man is the contemporary equivalent of old-fashioned, rip-snorting, bodice-ripping romance, and, during one advance screening, it made half a row of fortyish African American women go “Ooooooh!,” “Whoa!,” “All right then!"--and, maybe just once in a while, “Hmmm.”

One of those “hmmms” was accompanied by a curt whisper aimed toward Bassett’s character: “And she’s married in real life?! What is her husband going to think?”

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A couple of days after this screening, Bassett laughs with gentle recognition when informed of such concern. She’s heard second- and third-hand accounts of similar squirming on her husband’s behalf at other previews of “Stella.” Don’t these people know she’s married to an actor? Don’t they know that the actor in question, Courtney Vance, had done his own share of on-screen lovemaking? Don’t they know that it’s--for heaven’s sake--only a movie?

Um, but since it has been brought up, what does Vance think? Bassett laughs again. “It’s funny to him,” she says. “It tickles him. His comment usually is: ‘She’s a great actress!’ ”

No argument there. Bassett’s work has earned her such accolades as “riveting” and “extraordinary” from those who have seen her performances on stage (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” the recent New York Public Theater production of “Macbeth”), on TV (“The Jacksons: An American Dream”) and on the big screen (“What’s Love Got to Do With It,” as Betty Shabazz in “Malcolm X,” “Waiting to Exhale”). Indeed, producer Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds said last month that Hollywood regards Bassett and Whitney Houston as the only first-choice, bankable African American actresses.

“Stella,” however, is something of a milestone for Bassett in that she is the movie’s undisputed star. Even with her bravura turn as rock icon Tina Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” she shared attention--and Oscar nominations--with Laurence Fishburne, whose performance as Ike Turner was equally powerful. She enhanced her already considerable reputation with “Exhale,” the successful adaptation of McMillan’s previous bestseller, with a bold, steel-nerved performance as a betrayed wife. Yet, she was part of a core ensemble of women that included Lela Rochon, Loretta Devine and Houston--with Houston getting top billing.

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But not even one of Whoopi Goldberg’s finest performances (as Stella’s earthy best friend Delilah) or, for that matter, Diggs’ youthful screen power can cut into Bassett’s magnetic presence throughout “Stella.” It is also a romantic presence. She runs the kind of emotional gantlet that such great Hollywood stars as Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck did.

“I can’t say enough about Angela,” says Deborah Schindler, who produced both “Exhale” and “Stella.” “I have seen her under the most extraordinary circumstances when shooting is delayed way past dark or conditions are awful and everything just drags. And not only is she prepared--always!--she will do five, six takes, and, without being told, she’ll deliver something different in each one. She gives you options. And with someone of such range, she not only gives you options, she gives you the full spectrum of emotions, sometimes in just one frame.”

Schindler says she and McMillan, the movie’s co-executive producer and co-screenwriter, agreed before the book was published in 1996 that Bassett (who turns 40 this year) was the only one who could play Stella. McMillan began writing the book around the time “Exhale” was released three years ago. Though fiction, “Stella” captures what its author has called the essence of a real-life experience McMillan had when, after the deaths of her mother and her best friend in one year, she decided to take a trip to Jamaica, where she fell in love with a man who was 20 years younger than she.

“I’m not sure how the sequence of events went,” Bassett says, “but I remember meeting McMillan’s young man shortly before or shortly after ‘Exhale’ came out.”

Was she happy to take the part? Please! The major role in a follow-up to a box-office smash? And a few weeks of shooting in Jamaica? What’s not to like? Asked what the most arduous part of the filmmaking process was, the worst thing Bassett mentions is an unexpected storm that forced one scene originally intended as a twilight beach stroll to be shot indoors. Oh, yes, there also was what she remembers as a nightly cacophony of tree frogs. That was annoying. But still several leagues above worst.

The best part? Bassett is challenged to isolate one high point. Working with Goldberg will suffice. The interplay between their characters is natural and unaffected enough to make one believe it was all improvised. Some of it was. In one instance, director Kevin Rodney Sullivan encouraged both actresses to improvise a hospital sequence.

“And she was a little sick that day,” Bassett says of Goldberg. “You couldn’t tell from looking at her, but she wasn’t feeling good. Kevin got us to rehearse what we were going to say. And doing improv with Whoopi! Talk about a little intimidating! But by the time we were rolling through all this stuff about high school dates and memories, Kevin said, ‘Stop! Let’s just get it on camera!’ ”

During one pillow-talk sequence between Stella and Winston, she tells him about growing up in a housing project and being encouraged to chase her dreams. One hears Bassett’s own voice speaking through her character. She too grew up in a project (in St. Petersburg, Fla.), and she was also urged to keep her grades up, maintain her focus, stay true to her calling--which, after a class trip to Washington, D.C., to see James Earl Jones in “Of Mice and Men,” became acting.

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“Who knows?” Bassett says. It might have turned out exactly the same way for her as it did for Stella, who traded her original dream of making furniture for major-league finance. “While a Yale University undergraduate, I did think that I should perhaps be more practical about my career and go to business school,” says Bassett, who holds two Yale degrees, a bachelor’s in Afro-American studies and a master’s from the drama school. “But that thought lasted for maybe about a year. And it was in my junior year that I decided to give it a shot, to give my dreams a shot.”

To say things turned out OK would be understating matters severely. She moved swiftly from Yale productions into Broadway roles and has now achieved such status among Hollywood actors that she no longer has to audition for roles, even relatively minor ones, such as that of the presidential aide in last year’s “Contact.”

“I thought it was interesting,” she says of the film. “I met director Robert Zemeckis and had a, you know, wonderful conversation with him, and then he offered me the part.” She whispers. “I always appreciate that. And Zemeckis is such a wonderful director and writer. And Jodie Foster! I mean, how can you say no to all that?”

“Contact” also gave her something to do while waiting for “Stella” to be developed and written. Playing Lady Macbeth last winter to Alec Baldwin’s Macbeth also filled time between movie projects, but it meant much more to her.

“I hadn’t been back to the stage in so long. I missed that intimate contact with a live audience, the way you get into the emotion of a character. In movies you’re doing small moments again and again and again, building a scene. But there’s something about the passion you bring to the stage, the way you have to be bigger on the stage and reach all the way to the back of the theater, and I could pull it back and shape it and do whatever I want with it.

“That’s where I started. That’s the way I grew up. I remember when I used to audition for theatrical roles, and I would do anything! Jump on a fireplace, roll around, shout. Whatever was needed. And that’s such a wonderful difference from working in front of a camera, which is like working with a laser as opposed to a scalpel to get at a character.”

Still, for all of her consummate stagecraft, Bassett has become one of the best at letting her face project conflicting emotions in front of a camera. One keeps going back to that riveting sequence in “Exhale” in which her character, Bernadine, in silent, agonizing rage, responds to her abandonment by jamming the entire contents of her husband’s wardrobe closet into his BMW and setting the whole thing ablaze.

“I tend to be self-conscious about the camera, so I do my best to forget it’s there,” Bassett says. Referring to that scene, she says she had abandoned herself to her character’s emotions to the point where she could say, “Oh the cameras are on? Well, I don’t care!’ ” And then she laughs the way she never would if she were in character.

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