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What Becomes a Legend Most? : Lynn Whitfield became Josephine Baker, Budapest became Paris and Harlem as HBO raced to complete the first movie about the storied entertainer's life

July 22, 1990|DAVID GRITTEN

BUDAPEST — It looks for all the world like a large-scale Hollywood epic--the kind they just don't make any more.

The scene is Casablanca, 1942, as evinced by the sun's glare and the palm trees lining a sandy desert clearing. On a stage which represents a club for GIs, actress Lynn Whitfield, playing the legendary black entertainer Josephine Baker, sings a moving song in French to an audience of wildly applauding American soldiers, 350 of them white and some 100 black. She is backed by a racially integrated eight-piece band performing in front of a Stars and Stripes backdrop.

British director Brian Gibson, sporting a two-day growth of stubble, a Hawaiian shirt and a wide-brimmed fedora, smiles affably. "Very nice, Lynn. Lovely work," he tells the actress with professional courtesy. Then he strolls casually across the set, an Englishman out in the midday sun, to discuss the next set-up with director of photography Elemer Ragalyi.

But nothing here--nothing, is what it seems.

This is no big-screen extravaganza, but a TV movie being shot on a modest $8-million budget. "Josephine Baker" is being made by the pay-cable channel HBO together with Britain's Anglia Television, and is scheduled to air on HBO next February. The relatively unknown Whitfield has a strong supporting cast, including singer-actor Ruben Blades, David Dukes ("War and Remembrance") and Lou Gossett Jr.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 29, 1990 Home Edition Calendar Page 103 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
In the July 22 Sunday Calendar, the name of John Kemeny, producer of HBO's "The Josephine Baker Story," was misspelled.

The scene is actually being shot far from Casablanca, in a remote sand pit on the outskirts of Budapest. The palms have been specially imported. And Lynn Whitfield, while emulating the fabulous Baker poise, is in fact lip-syncing to tapes of singer Carol Dennis.

As for her audience, there isn't a single American among them. The 350 white soldiers are from a battalion of the Hungarian Army, the Budapest Guard, which performs mainly ceremonial functions in the nation's capital. Normally these troops take orders from tall, muscular and impeccably neat 1st Lt. Sandor Bocksei, who is here to observe. But today they must obey Laszlo Sipos, the movie's bilingual assistant director, tousle-haired and bearded in T-shirt and jeans; he bawls orders in Magyar through a megaphone.

The 100 black "GIs" aren't even soldiers, but students from various countries, including Senegal, Cameroon, Angola, Panama and Cuba, who attend universities in Hungary and Vienna. They're about the only blacks to be found in this part of Eastern Europe, and working as extras offers them a welcome windfall. Manuel Jhon Alvaro, 24, an Angolan electrical engineering student on a 3-year course in Budapest, says: "I'm here on a scholarship, but it's only $20 a month. If we can find work like this, for a day at a time, it helps."

Gibson's contented demeanor conceals the fact that shooting was halted for the previous entire week while he struggled to stave off exhaustion and the onset of pneumonia.

And behind his professional attentiveness to Whitfield lies some intrigue; in the six weeks since shooting started, the director and his leading lady have fallen in love. (They were married July 4).

Finally, even Gibson's casual manner belies his state of mind. Two other film projects about Baker are in the works, one to star Diana Ross as Baker. But even if production on them has not started, Gibson, his cast, crew and British screenwriter Ron

Hutchinson, have been in a race. "We did a lot of rewriting while rehearsing, and we're doing six days a week, up to 14 hours a day," says Gibson. "It would be dispiriting to think someone else could get their movie out first."

Josephine Baker's life and career were so rich in incident that, 15 years after her death, it's hard to figure why no films about her have yet been completed.

She was born in 1906 in St. Louis, and was raised in poverty by her washerwoman mother. She was 11 when race riots in East St. Louis stamped themselves on her memory. At 14 she joined a black vaudeville troupe as a chorus girl, danced on Broadway at 15 in Eubie Blake's musical "Shuffle Along"--and in 1925 sailed to France with two dozen black dancers, singers and musicians to open a black song-and-dance show in Paris.

"La Revue Negre," as it was called, was a sensation. With uninhibited sexuality, Baker performed one dance naked but for a skirt of feathers, and became not only a big hit but also a hot topic among critics, artists and intellectuals. Feted by Picasso, Colette and Hemingway, she achieved legendary status.

A year later, Baker moved to the Folies Bergere, and appeared in one dance as a native girl clad only in a skirt of fake bananas. It became her trademark. She was by now the biggest American star in Europe, yet attempts to repeat her success in the U.S. foundered--partly because black and white audiences alike somewhat resented her expatriate status.

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