Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Queen Latifah as BESSIE

It is really a sin and a shame if Hollywood cannot come up with other Oscar nomination-worthy script offers for Oscar-nominated actresses Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique.  They star in the HBO film, BESSIE.
The TV biopic premiered last month. Bessie Smith was openly bisexual and a major 1920/1930s recording star who was called "Empress of the Blues."  Bessie was a legendary and influential jazz artist.
Latifah was Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for the musical Chicago, winner of the Oscar for Best Picture of 2002.  Mo'Nique won the Best Supporting Actress of 2009 Oscar for her blistering dramatic performance in Precious.  Latifah, in blue, stars as Bessie Smith.  Mo'Nique, in gold, stars as blues singer Ma Rainey.
HBO's Bessie should have been a big screen release.  It's not an 4-star, excellent biopic but it's good enough to be a theatrical release here and overseas.  I write that as a man who had to endure sitting through preview screenings of The Wedding Ringer, Get Hard and Horrible Bosses 2 -- alleged comedies that did play on big screens nationwide -- so I could review them on TV.  HBO premiered this production last month.  May is a major ratings month in TV, so that makes sense.  However, I do hope the network repeats it during June because it's a good TV movie to see during Gay Pride Month.  And "Brava, Latifah" for committing to the character and playing her truth plus the truth of the material.                                                                
In Bessie, we see a sexuality that Steven Spielberg shied away from showing in his 1985 adaptation of The Color Purple.  The black lesbian relationship is present and obvious in the Broadway musical version of the film based on the acclaimed novel of the same name.  Latifah was a hip hop music star.  In the 1980s, would a black music star who successfully transitioned over to acting have done a vivid same-sex love scene on screen?  Probably not.  We also see Bessie get her sex groove on with men.
My one criticism about this biopic as that it needed to give us more, maybe more back story about Bessie and the relationship with her mother.  If you see Ken Burns' Jazz, the brilliance of that binge-watchable documentary series is how to puts the jazz artists in their places of historical importance and influence.  He details why some performers, like Louis Armstrong, were geniuses in that American art form and did not get the full respect in life that they deserved here in U.S.  A reason for that in many cases was race.  Bessie Smith was one of those geniuses spotlighted in the Ken Burns feature.  In this biopic, we needed to see what forces formed and shaped her into the distinct artist that she was.  What drove her.  What were her big transitional periods.  We know that she was bi, that she was tough and that she like a lot of gin.  But we needed more.  Also, the end felt incomplete.  As if there could be a sequel.  Bessie Smith died in her early 40s in 1937 from severe injuries sustained in a car wreck.

The screenplay needed to be fuller.  I wasn't completely satisfied like I was when I saw Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter,  Jessica Lange as Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams, Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose and Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line.

What we do have is impressive and underscores Hollywood's need to get a grip and embrace diversity. Bessie was directed by a young African American female I first became aware of because of Meryl Streep.  In a live Los Angeles interview the night Streep won her third Oscar (Best Actress for 2011's The Iron Lady), she told the reporter that there easily could have been more than five nominees for Best Actress.  She hailed the Kim Wayans performance in the drama, Pariah, written and directed by Dee Rees.  I rented the indie feature by the new filmmaker and agreed with Meryl Streep.  Wayans was amazing as the proper Brooklyn mother coping with her teen daughter's coming out.  Dee Rees directed and co-wrote Bessie.  Here's a trailer.
This project must have been waiting the wings for Hollywood to produce.  Waiting a long time.  The shortcomings in the script could be because the other writer -- and what a great one he was -- died in 2009.  Horton Foote won Oscars for his screenplays To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Tender Mercies (1983).  He was an Oscar nominee for his A Trip to Bountiful (1985) screenplay.  Foote must have been working on this script for a Hollywood treatment, is my guess.  One of the Bessie producers was the esteemed Richard D. Zanuck.  He gave us The Sting, Jaws, Cocoon, The Verdict and Driving Miss Daisy.  Mr. Zanuck died in 2012.  Shortcomings aside, Dee Rees did an admirable job.  She is a writing and directing talent to keep your eye on.

What should've been on a big screen went to the smaller screens in our homes.  Queen Latifah threw herself into this role like it was a hearty meal and she was really hungry.  That's perfect because she played a woman given to large appetites for things.  In the first 10 minutes of the  biopic, we see Bessie fighting for equal treatment in three areas -- sex, income and skin color.  A full-figured and strong woman with a temper and a swagger, she will knock a man down in a heartbeat.  When she says, "No," she means "No."  She's making out in an alley with a guy before she goes onstage to sing.  He wants to go all the way for an alley quickie.  She just wants to keep kissing.  She slaps her hard.  She picks up an object, hurts him where it counts, leaves him wailing in the alley and goes inside to do her number.  There, Latifah did the kind of scene there that Barbara Stanwyck would've done in the 1930s.

Brash Bessie has talent but hasn't learned stage technique.  She doesn't connect emotionally to her material.  She hasn't learned how to sell a song and win an audience.  She learns this from blues star Ma Rainey.  Oscar winner Mo'Nique brings it as Ma Rainey.  She is flat-out fabulous.  Her Rainey is a no-nonsense, disciplined lesbian mentor to Bessie.  Ma is a tough woman who knows the game of show biz and how to deal with white folks who try to play her for a fool.  Some of Latifah's strongest dramatic moments are in scenes with Mo'Nique.  Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique -- two actresses who started on TV sitcoms (Latifah on Living Single and Mo'Nique on The Parkers).  Both went on to Oscar nominations.
Another powerful scene -- Bessie with her angry sister, Viola.  Khandi Alexander...Lord, have mercy!   Another knock-out performance.  She is so good in kitchen table scene when Bessie, now a star, comes to visit.  You could just hear her bitterness sizzle like country bacon frying in a skillet.  Many know Ms Alexander as Olivia's mother on Scandal.
Latifah sings from a lower register to match Bessie Smith's range.  She doesn't quite have the magnetic grit that Smith had but her acting in this biopic is strong.  She gets emotionally and physically naked.  You do wonder how many good scripts she and Mo'Nique got from Hollywood after their Oscar nominations.  It seems like they're in the league of black and Latina actresses who had to go to TV after an Oscar nomination (or even a victory) because Hollywood offered no other worthwhile scripts afterwards -- actresses like Whoopi Goldberg, Viola Davis, Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodard, Halle Berry, Taraji P. Henson, Gabourey Sidibe, Jennifer Hudson, Rosie Perez and Rita Moreno.  And that league is not just our American actresses.  British actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste joined the cast of CBS' Without a Trace because Hollywood had no movie scripts to offer after her Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for 1996's Secrets & Lies.

Mo'Nique was so marvelous, it made me think maybe she should be in a movie version of August Wilson's play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.  The late black playwright August Wilson won two Pulitzer Prizes.  However, neither of his award-winning plays -- Fences (on Broadway, 1987) or The Piano Lesson (on Broadway, 1990) -- has been turned into a big screen movie like other award-winning Broadway plays.  The 2010 revival of Fences won top Tony Awards as did the original production.  The revival starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.

The Bessie Smith story should've already been made into a major Hollywood movie.  I have a feeling folks tried to accomplish that.  HBO's Bessie is worth seeing.  Go to and see when its airing again.  Don't be surprised of Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique get Emmy nominations for their work.
If you haven't seen Ken Burns' Jazz, check out that PBS documentary series too. It's excellent.  I leave you with the real Bessie Smith singing "A Good Man Is Hard To Find."

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