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She’s Back, ‘Livin’ for Love’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Natalie Cole, garbed in fashionable black, her hair beautifully coiffed, looks calm and composed as she sits down for an interview in a quiet booth at the Polo Lounge. The old Hollywood setting seems especially appropriate for an artist whose father--Nat King Cole--was one of the most loved members of mid-century Hollywood royalty.

But Cole is present for an interview that, despite her elegant manner and relaxed demeanor, has far less to do with the lifestyles of the rich and famous than it does with the roller-coaster ride through emotional trauma and recovery that has brought her from privileged origins to, finally, a stable and mature adulthood. Many of the highs and lows in that journey will be depicted in Sunday’s NBC bio-pic “Livin’ for Love: The Natalie Cole Story.”

“It’s taken me a long time to get to this point,” she says, “but I know now that you have to be taught how to look at the glass as half full. And that requires having a very honest kind of vision. It requires redefining the word ‘happy,’ and dealing directly with words such as ‘shame’ and ‘guilt’ and ‘pain’ and ‘fear.’ And that’s what I’ve tried to do with both the book [“Angel on My Shoulder”] and the picture.”

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The outline of Cole’s story is fairly familiar: The talented daughter of a world-famous celebrity is devastated when he dies, and she moves into a period of self-destructive acting out via intense use of drugs. Despite this, she has a loving marriage, and her talent manages to carry her into a successful career in her own right. But everything crashes and burns as her drug involvement deepens. With the support of friends and the discovery of her own inner spirituality, she kicks her habits and makes a major comeback--one that, via the album “Unforgettable,” is directly linked to her father.

Despite a few glitches in her progress, largely associated with her not always wise choice in male companions, her career remains on track. She publishes an excruciatingly honest autobiography, titled “Angel on My Shoulder” (written with Digby Diehl), in her 50th year, and portrays herself in the latter scenes of the made-for-TV movie.

So much for the bare bones of the tale. And it’s just as well that Cole feels she had an angel on her shoulder, since the devil was surely in the details of what she endured.

If anything, the most cautionary aspect of her story--especially as it is revealed in the autobiography--is how easy it was for her to slip into a lifestyle that was at such dramatic variance with who she was and where she had come from.

“I remember that when somebody actually offered me cocaine the first time, I didn’t want it,” she says.

She shakes her head ruefully, still amazed, years later, about the choices she made.

“With the heroin,” she continues, “I liked the feeling because it made me calm, it made me quiet. It made me not be so anxious about everything that was going on in my life that was so emotional. And I think that’s why I was drawn to it. But then, in a very short period of time, I couldn’t do without it.”

Depicting Drug Use on Network Television

Despite one or two harrowing passages, the film biography skims across the darker waters of Cole’s years of dealing with addiction. But she is quick to acknowledge the difficulties of portraying the details of that period of her life on network television.

“Let’s put it this way: They didn’t want it to be too much of, or so much of, a drug movie.”

“It’s true,” says director Robert Townsend in a later conversation. “We had to do a little dance. Because we had to indicate that Natalie was doing these drugs, but we couldn’t show her with a needle in her arm or a pipe in her mouth. And the challenge was to show how deep the situation was for her.”

Putting on her cap as the executive producer of the picture, Cole takes a reasoned, executive position.

“And, of course, it’s on at 8 o’clock [Central time],” she says, “and they couldn’t include certain types of very heavy scenes of things that I experienced, because it’s the family hour--Sunday night. So it’s a movie that young people can watch, and that’s OK.”

Then, with a mischievous, very un-executive grin, she adds, “But they still should get the book to get the full story.”

The full story about Cole is obviously something that has had broad appeal for years. “Unforgettable” reached across two, even three generations with its blending of nostalgia, the rejuvenating qualities of a child-parent reunion, and the sheer musicality of two instantly compatible voices. The breadth of that appeal probably has something to do with the fact that the Polo Lounge pianist has been playing tunes associated with Nat King Cole since the interview began. First, “Walking My Baby Back Home,” then “Paper Moon.”

Cole smiles and notes, “He’s already done ‘The Very Thought of You.’ ”

Soon to be followed by “Orange Colored Sky,” “That’s All” and more. Obviously a real fan.

And, no doubt, a fan who will be fascinated by the opportunity to see Cole as herself in the latter scenes of “Livin’ for Love.” (In the period from 1970 to 1984, actress Theresa Randle plays Cole.)

Telling your own story in print and portraying your own life by acting on the screen are two different matters, of course, and Cole approached the task with some trepidation, despite previous acting experience (including “Touched by an Angel,” and the HBO movie “Always Outnumbered” with Laurence Fishburne).

“All I can say is that I tried to be as honest as I could with what I did,” says Cole.

Even so, there were moments in which--even within the film process--that memories took over.

“At one point,” recalls Townsend, “we were doing this scene in which she was talking about grieving for her father. And there was a moment in which she really lost it. You really felt her love and her bond with her father, right there on camera. And it was real, not just a movie, at that moment.”

Randle, playing the younger Cole, was also vividly aware of the unique aspects of the situation--that she was portraying the life of an artist she admired, who was also present on the set, and executive-producing the entire project.

“I thought it was going to be scary,” notes Randle. “But Natalie was so supportive, so much in my corner, that it was hard to go wrong. And, when we started to spend time together, and I realized how much we were on the same spiritual path, it became much more than just an acting job.”

Back at the Polo Lounge, Cole is recognized by an elderly couple, who stop to recall a previous encounter. She responds graciously with a smile and a brief conversation.

Asked about the wide age range of her audience, she cocks her head hesitantly.

“Well, you know, I hope that’s true,” she says, “but it’s not quite that simple. ‘Unforgettable’ was not universally accepted when it first came out. I thought my R&B; fans were going to lynch me. But I felt that if I hadn’t secured an audience by then--I’d been around for 15 years--I was never going to do it.”

She leans back for a few moments, pondering the long, strange trip that has brought her to the point where she even has the option to make such considerations--an option that 20 years ago would have seemed unlikely.

“The things that I went through,” she says, “I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that they have helped to make me the person I am today. I don’t believe that you get shaped always lovingly and wonderfully. That’s not what creates character and integrity. What creates character and integrity is displacement, trials, challenges--going through the fire.

“However deep those experiences are,” says Cole, “and how you respond to them, is going to shape you into the person you will eventually become.”

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“Livin’ for Love” can be seen Sunday night at 9 on NBC. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).


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