NEW YORK — If there were a Goddess of Gravity, one imagines she would resemble Angela Bassett. And it's not just because of such supernal physical attributes as her taut, regal cheekbones, sleek, symmetrical physique and expansive, penetrating eyes. It's something less tangible, yet somehow more palpable: a magnetic field of serenity, coated with steel yet warm to the touch. It's easy to think she was born encased in the element that keeps things connected to the earth.
What's both ironic and potent about such imagery is that Bassett, 37, has become one of Earth's hottest film stars by playing characters pitched into emotional free-fall who, somehow, survive the ordeal.
One thinks foremost of her Tina Turner in 1993's "What's Love Got to Do With It"--a bolt of pure electricity onstage whose body and spirit prevail over vicious assault offstage.
That role gave Bassett her first Oscar nomination. Her second could very well come for her performance in "Waiting to Exhale" (opening today in Orange County and throughout Southern California), the super-hyped adaptation of Terry McMillan's best-selling novel about the turbulent romantic lives of four middle-class African American women: worldly, glamorous Savannah (Whitney Houston); impulsive, swashbuckling Robin (Lela Rochon); generous, grounded Gloria (Loretta Devine); and passionate, vulnerable Bernadine (Bassett).
Of the quartet, Bernadine has the harshest dues to pay. Her husband, a prosperous businessman, has abandoned her and their children for his white bookkeeper. Bernadine's immediate response to his betrayal is to jam the entire contents of his wardrobe closet into his BMW and set the whole thing on fire. The surreal, near-operatic grandeur of this scene is both offset and magnified by the narrative of agony, rage and devastation making its way across Bassett's face. No words are added. Or needed.
This moment is so consummately realized that one imagines Bassett, a product of Yale Drama School, preparing detailed notes diagraming Bernadine's tumble into the abyss. Apparently, it was nothing of the sort.
"I just went with my gut as opposed to building the role from the inside out," she says one recent afternoon in a Manhattan hotel suite, her voice trickling over some contemporary gospel music like a mountain brook over a pile of stones. "It was just a matter of taking that which you've observed and getting at the emotional essence as intuitively as you can."
Having actor Forest Whitaker in the director's chair helped a lot, she says. "We speak the same language, Forest and I. He was like my third eye, which was what you like to have backing you up. He kept me honest and focused at the same time."
Whitaker also helped create a comfort zone in which the four lead actresses could establish their own collective solidarity. Bassett says they all got along so well that she's, at best, mystified by gossip here and there about on-set tension. One published report portrayed Houston as keeping to herself, off in a corner, away from the other three.
"Off in a corner?" Bassett counters incredulously. "Unless she was in a corner with her daughter when she needed to be . . . that was the only time I was aware of."
Things were just fine, Bassett recalls. Better than fine, in fact, when they were rehearsing Gloria's birthday party scene, in which several bottles of champagne are consumed. Not during rehearsal, Bassett says. The four got drunk on one another, not on the champagne.
"Yeah, we were four lively women," Bassett practically sings, rocking gently to the music's beat, snapping her fingers. "We had experiences to share. [Snap, snap.] We were talking about all kinds of stuff. [Snap, snap.] After we finished rehearsal, it was like, 'Oh, yawl gotta leave? [Snap, snap.] You don't wanna go to sleep? . . . Well, where we gonna go to afterwards?' . . . Heey! [Snap, snap.]"
That's what can happen when you talk to Bassett. You're moving at a nice steady hum, conversing about matters of art and the spirit, and then she takes an unexpected turn to Planet Angela, where it's cool to riff on one's memories and let the imagination have its own little party. So long as you don't get far away from reality.
It's not that different from when she was growing up in a housing project in St. Petersburg, Fla., keeping her grades up while dreaming about boys and maybe even about singing with the Jackson Five. ("I mean, that was the age, right?" jokes Bassett, who played mom to Michael, Jermaine and Tito two years ago in the ABC miniseries "The Jacksons: An American Dream.")
Such dreams didn't acquire a focus until a class trip to Washington, where she saw James Earl Jones' heartbreaking portrayal of Lenny in a production of "Of Mice and Men."
"It was so pure, so honest," Bassett recalls of the performance that moved her to tears. Of such moments are lifetime commitments forged.