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Elusive 'Beloved'

It took Oprah Winfrey more than a decade to bring Toni Morrison's ethereal novel to the screen

Thursday, October 15, 1998

By Christopher Borrelli, Block News Alliance

DETROIT - Eleven years ago, in her Lake Shore Drive apartment in Chicago, Oprah Winfrey sprawled out in bed and read Toni Morrison's "Beloved" from beginning to end. When she finished the novel - about slavery's spiritual toll, told through an escaped slave who would as soon kill her daughter as hand her over to a slavemaster - it was late and dark outside. "I can't just sleep now," she said aloud to herself.

 
Oprah Winfrey portrays the escaped slave Sethe in the movie 'Beloved,' which Winfrey calls her "Schindler's List." (Ken Regan) 

She got up and walked around the apartment. Back and forth. Around and around. Walked through one room, then the next, then the next. Sat down on the bed. Picked up the book and looked at the cover. Put it down. Morrison's slow-burn prose was acidic. Oprah felt as though it had somehow slipped into her bloodstream. She picked the book up again, flipped it open, and said: "Did I read that? Did I read what I thought I read?"

And since she is OPRAH - perhaps the most influential woman in America, savior to the publishing industry with "Oprah's Book Club," and the most popular talk show host of all time - she decided to call Morrison, a Princeton University professor, at home and ask about her Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning masterwork. But it was a weekend and she couldn't get the number. So Oprah called the fire department in Morrison's New Jersey town and told them to "call Toni and tell her Oprah called."

Eventually the two connected and Oprah grilled Morrison on the parts she didn't understand. She also told Morrison she wanted to make a movie based on "Beloved" - that is, a Hollywood movie based on a very pensive literary novel, told through metaphors and flashbacks, one of those books labeled: Not An Easy Read.

"And how you going to do that?" Morrison asked.

"Oh, I am," Oprah said. "I just am."

Oprah Winfrey, 44, can move the Earth and the stock market.

She grew up poor in rural Mississippi, was voted Miss Black Tennessee in 1971, was a news anchor at 19, and had the No. 1 talk show in America before she was 30. She is one of Time magazine's "20 Most Influential Entertainers of the 20th Century." Her first acting experience, in Steven Spielberg's "The Color Purple" (1985), earned her an Academy Award nomination. Her talk show's book-club selections land on best-seller charts. Fifteen million households watch her daily. She's worth $675 million, and, let's face it, Oprah Winfrey doesn't really even need that last name anymore.

"Beloved," though? It's her masterpiece - or at least that's what she says.

Earlier this month, with rain slapping against the window of her Detroit hotel suite, she sat down for an interview. And talked. A lot.

"It's my 'Schindler's List' and my 'Sophie's Choice' and my 'Dances With Wolves' in the way that it is able to take a period of history that has a big institutional label to it - 'slavery' - and bring humanity to it and a sense of lives lived day in, day out. Slavery meant your body did not belong to you. And any person who achieves anything has made a decision to do so: decide to go to school, decide to cut school, decide to get a biscuit, decide to have a glass of water. The spiritual knowledge that you don't own you is far more devastating than anything you've been told about slavery.

"But I was certainly more naive than I needed to be [during that first phone call to Morrison]. I didn't have a clue as to how difficult [making "Beloved" a film] would be. Toni knew."

"Beloved" the movie, which opens nationwide tomorrow after a decade in the works, is directed by Jonathan Demme ("Silence of the Lambs") based on screenplay draft after screenplay draft. And it's a remarkable feat: not merely the rare studio adaptation of a piece of contemporary literature, but an adaptation told with a bold visual style that wrings new meaning from the book.

Oprah is the film's producer, credited as much as Demme for bringing the Morrison novel to the screen. She also plays the escaped slave Sethe, so tough and knotty that after a few moments, Oprah the Superstar evaporates.

"Oprah completely inhabited Sethe," Morrison said recently. "Or Sethe completely inhabited Oprah. I don't know which is which, but I did not see Oprah."

"I've seen [the movie] 11 times now," Oprah said. "After the first time, I left the theater and was literally bumping into walls. I didn't want to talk to anyone. I didn't think I would have been able to get-get-get it on the screen quite like that. Not like that.

"Sethe was a slave; she was born without hope. I don't know what that feeling is like. I was wise enough to know that I wouldn't be able to relate my own pain to this. I can imagine what sad feels like and I imagine being beaten, because I have been beaten, but I can't imagine hopelessness.

"One night after doing a scene, I ached inside myself. I was up one night and aching and I was looking for some Advil and I felt weariness in my bones. Weariness - you know what I mean? I thought I was tired; then I realized I don't know what real tired is. I don't. I realized I needed to refocus my life and make an adjustment to how I was living through this talk show I do. It wasn't just a show anymore: I was a descendant of slaves who couldn't be heard across the Ohio River, and 130 years later I have a voice to speak to the world. I felt this need to create more meaning in the world, to have some purpose beyond handing out mascara tips."

"Hey, Oprah," a journalist said to her in Detroit, "if this thing takes off will my mother still be able to watch you every day at 4 p.m.?"

"What you mean 'if'?" she answered, and then muttered more to herself, "If it takes off - when it takes off!"

Oprah and Thandie Newton, the English actress ("Flirting") who plays the character named Beloved, have been flying around the country doing interviews to promote the nearly three-hour film, which has the slow, casual rhythms of a storyteller biding time. Oprah knows it's a difficult movie ("Takes some audiences a while to settle into the story") and a hard sell ("Requires your full attention, just as all art does"). So she's stumping the country on behalf of the movie.

Detroit was her third stop. Oprah and Newton were flanked by a legion of assistants who wore walkie-talkie headsets and shepherded the stars through the hotel with Secret Service stealth and gravity. (A Mel Brooks comedy moment: Two assistants stood around the corner from each other but continued to speak to each other through their headsets.)

Oprah - The Skinny Oprah - was dressed in a peach turtleneck, tight black pants, and black Raggedy Ann curls. She breezed into her suite, plopped down at a table, and began talking about the movie. Ask her one question, the answer is 10 minutes long. But don't interrupt: She'll shoot you a glare, then continue. She was funny and open and frank, and entirely self-possessed.

"There isn't a breath in this film that's gratuitous," she said. "There isn't a leaf that falls that isn't connected to something."

During the conversation, she often punctuated her replies with bits of dialogue from the movie. Once, while explaining the plot, Oprah began reciting an entire scene about a ghost, verbatim, using Southern dialects, playing multiple female characters:

"You know them that die bad don't stay in the ground."

Then, changing her voice to that of another character, she said dismissively: "Guess she had it coming."

Then, switching again: "Nobody got that coming."

She tried the first line again, this time to herself, shifting the emphasis: "You know them that die bad don't stay in the ground."

Then Oprah became Oprah again, summarizing the scene: "All those women - they agreeing with each other, they thinking 'UmmmHmmm. ... Yeah, honey.' "

She mentioned that she is working on a movie version of a Zora Neale Hurston classic, "Their Eyes Were Watching God." And that she owns the rights to Morrison's latest book, "Paradise" - "I see that one as a miniseries." And she wants to make a TV movie of Detroit sportswriter Mitch Albom's "Tuesdays With Morrie," which of course she owns the rights to as well.

"There was never a problem finding a studio for 'Beloved,' " Oprah said. "My problem was finding a script and director who I trusted to share my vision. We went through three different writers."

Akosua Busia, who played Nettie in "The Color Purple" and had never attempted a screenplay before, wrote the first draft. Oprah shopped it around. "No one responded to it," she said. Directors found it too long and confusing, with too many flashbacks. And there was the problem of Beloved, a young girl Sethe thinks is her dead daughter risen from the grave.

"Beloved in the book is an elusive character," Newton said. "And that's perfect for the book, to have her be more metaphor than character. But an actor needs more than a metaphor to work from."

Screenwriter Richard LaGravenese ("The Bridges of Madison County") spent a year on the script. Then Demme signed on, and the script work was handed to screenwriter Adam Brooks ("Practical Magic"), who did one draft, then a second, then a third. Brooks wrote nine drafts before he was through.

The first script reading was at Oprah's farm in Indiana. During the flight there, Newton got up from her seat and realized Morrison was on the plane.

"I didn't want to open my mouth because I'm English, and I didn't want these people not to believe in me before we even started. Then I said 'Hi,' and we talked, and eventually I asked Toni who Beloved was, and she said the most extraordinary thing. She said, 'Beloved is the you in you.' "

Oprah, likewise, prefers to regard the movie as a litmus test for audiences:

"You can look at it for its story, or for its ghost story, or for its metaphorical meanings. Making this movie did for me what I think a lot of people are trying to do for themselves: to find that connection to the lives that came before, to the sacrifices others made that paid for you.

"Everybody is connected to the past. I see it every day on my talk show. What happens to you when you're 4 affects how you act when you're 34. The past can walk right in and sit down and eat dinner with you and you won't recognize it. It happens to Sethe when Beloved shows up. The past will bleed into your life today unless you heal the wounds of it. That is true of every individual, and it is true of this nation. The past always comes back - it just looks like something else."


The Block News Alliance is a joint venture of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, both Block newspapers. Christopher Borrelli is a reporter for The Blade.



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