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The reigning Queen of film

It’s official. The movie business has finally fallen in love with Queen Latifah.

Fourteen years after her first rap hit, 10 years after becoming a regular on the sitcom “Living Single,” seven years after wowing young moviegoers as a bank robber in “Set It Off,” the 33-year-old hip-hop star and entrepreneur is Hollywood’s latest overnight sensation. It didn’t take much, just an Oscar nomination in “Chicago” for her role as prison matron Mama Morton and a co-starring role as a sassy ex-con in “Bringing Down the House.” When you’re in two consecutive $100-million-plus hits, it has a way of getting people’s attention.

“Latifah has great acting chops, incredible comic timing and, oh by the way, she’s an amazing musical talent,” says Nina Jacobson, production chief at Disney Studios, which released “Bringing Down the House.” “I mean, where else do you see that these days?”

So the race for Latifah’s next project is on. Paramount chief Sherry Lansing, who met with Latifah a few weeks ago, is looking for material for her. MGM has been in talks with Latifah to star in a “Barbershop” spinoff that would have her running a neighborhood beauty salon. 20th Century Fox Co-Chairman Tom Rothman, who says his daughter is still buzzing after he introduced her to Latifah at the Oscars, wants Latifah for a remake of Luc Besson’s “Taxi.” Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein, who prodded director Rob Marshall to cast Latifah in “Chicago,” says he’s been talking with her about new projects for months. Disney is developing several projects specifically for her.

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It’s an embarrassment of riches for Latifah, who grew up as Dana Elaine Owens in East Orange, N.J. “When you’re in both a hit movie and an Oscar best picture winner, you’re a winner -- and people here love being with a winner,” says producer Brian Grazer, who met with Latifah recently to kick around ideas. “She just has a gigantic amount of charisma when she walks in the door. When I said to her, ‘I don’t know what to call you, Queen or Latifah,’ she laughed and said, ‘I’m gonna push you right up to the top slot -- call me Dana.’”

The true sign of Latifah’s success is that studios are feverishly reworking parts that were initially written for middle-aged white men or size-2 starlets that could now serve as vehicles for Latifah. “Once Latifah is in a room with someone, it really makes things happen,” says Randi Michel, her William Morris agent. “Two or three of our favorite offers are male leads that could be rewritten for Latifah.”

It’s a tribute to her talent, as well as years of patient career building by Latifah and her advisors, that the hip-hop goddess has managed to reinvent herself as a movie diva instead of a failed phenom. The lesson: You can avoid being stereotyped by playing to your strengths.

“In a lot of ways, she could be the modern-day Mae West,” says producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who’s developing an action-comedy project for her. “She’s sexy, saucy, quick witted and ... has a warmth that audiences really love.”

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‘Real life size’

Latifah, who refers to her physique as “real life size,” has often had to rely on her charisma and forceful personality to carve out a niche for herself. “Chicago’s” Rob Marshall imagined Mama Morton as a 50-year-old woman, but after meeting Latifah, he changed his mind. In the 1998 drama “Living Out Loud,” Latifah plays an elegant club singer who performs a show-stopping version of “Lush Life.” Richard La Gravenese, the film’s writer-director, says he originally envisioned a 45-year-old actress playing a lonely older woman. “But after seeing how much confidence Latifah had in herself, I rewrote the part. She helped me realize that you didn’t have to be older to be lonely.”

Latifah is hardly the first hip-hop star to make it in Hollywood. But so far, the biggest crossover stars have been men -- Will Smith, Ice Cube, DMX and Eminem. With the exception of Smith, they’ve rarely escaped the ghetto of urban comedies, action films and music-based dramas. Up until now, Latifah has worked sparingly but managed to avoid playing a watered-down version of her hip-hop persona. When big roles weren’t available, she took smaller parts so she could work with a great actor -- she played Denzel Washington’s caregiver in “The Bone Collector” -- or classy filmmakers such as La Gravenese or Barry Levinson, who directed her in “Sphere.”

Latifah’s manager, Shakim, met Latifah through her mother, who was his art teacher in high school. He recalls that after “Set It Off,” everyone wanted Latifah to play tough characters. “When you start as a rapper, it’s easy to get stereotyped, playing urban neighborhood characters,” he says. “But we watched Will Smith, who never allowed himself to be stereotyped, and we tried to do the same thing. Latifah’s the kind of person who, when she’s done something once, doesn’t want to repeat it; she’ll look for something more challenging.”

When Disney came to Latifah with the first draft of “Bringing Down the House,” she agreed to take the part only if she could serve as an executive producer with creative control over the material. Disney had no objections. When Latifah and Shakim, who’d spent years managing such rap icons as Naughty by Nature, L.L. Cool J and OutKast, suggested that Disney hire a street-team marketing firm to promote “House” with younger audiences, the studio agreed.

“She knows her fan base and how to reach them and it worked,” says Disney marketing chief Oren Aviv. “Everyone -- young, old, male, female, black and white -- has gone to see this film.”

With much of the movie’s broad comedy involving humor about racial stereotypes, Latifah felt the material -- and the hip-hop slang -- needed personal vigilance. “She could tell us where we might be going too far,” recalls “House” producer David Hoberman. “She gave Eugene Levy a lot of his best lines, including the one where he says, ‘You got me strait trippin’, boo.’ Eugene is the first to say that he just did what Latifah told him and that’s why he gets so many laughs.”

Nonetheless, the film’s low-brow racial humor has displeased a variety of critics. The New York Times’ Elvis Mitchell dismissed the movie as a “bland, tepid throwback ... that becomes a sexual version of a minstrel show.” And “Boondocks” cartoonist Aaron McGruder lampooned Latifah in a recent strip, having his main character send a letter from the Almighty Council of Blackness, which warned, “If you do not cease and desist with embarrassing and stereotypical movie roles, the Council will have no choice but to rename you Whoopi Latifah.”

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Overlooked actresses

Such are the perils of crossing over. Latifah was so busy working on projects -- she also has a new album coming this summer -- that she didn’t have time to speak to us. But Shakim takes the criticism in stride, saying, “When you have success, these things come with the territory.” The good news is that now Latifah won’t be overlooked for decent parts, as has happened to talented black actresses such as Vivica Fox, Nia Long, Jada Pinkett Smith and Gabrielle Union.

When “Brown Sugar” screenwriter Michael Elliot pitched a project for Latifah to Disney, he sold it before he left the room. The Cinderella story casts Latifah as a woman whose weight has always been her Achilles heel but who finds her prince in the form of a Kobe Bryant-like basketball star. The movie could start a minor cultural revolution, since the princess gets the guy without having to slim down.

“My whole pitch to Disney was, most women can relate to Latifah. After all, how many women look like Halle Berry?” says Elliot. “It’s groundbreaking for a woman who doesn’t fit the Hollywood mold, whether it’s Latifah or Nia Vardalos, to have this kind of success. You can relate to them because they’re real.”

Latifah was paid $325,000 for “Chicago” and roughly $1 million for “Bringing Down the House.” But expect the cash register to start ringing the next time out. Her agent Michel says the Monday after “House’s” opening weekend, she had an eight-page phone sheet full of names of industry-ites wanting to chat about the agency’s new star. Latifah could make $10 million or more on her next film, with the added advantage of being a first-dollar gross participant.

In Hollywood, when you become a star, you suddenly become a magnet for the rarest of all treasures -- great scripts. “It’s always hard to get good material, especially if you’re not a 30-year-old white guy,” says Disney’s Jacobson. “There are even fewer scripts being written for black women. But if people are taking scripts that were meant for the 30-year-old white guy and giving them to Latifah instead, that’s a true sign that she has arrived.”

The Big Picture runs every Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions, ideas or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.


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