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Angela Bassett Reaches a Stellar Groove at Last

Movies: After winning acclaim in several co-starring roles, the actress gets the opportunity to dominate the big screen.

August 21, 1998|GENE SEYMOUR | NEWSDAY

If the intent of most summer movies is to rouse oohs, aahs and various other sound effects from their audiences, then "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" more than fulfills its mandate.

Nothing blows up--not literally, anyway--in this adaptation of Terry McMillan's best-selling novel about a 40-year-old African American stockbroker and single mom (Angela Bassett) who travels to Jamaica on a whim and finds passionate love in the form of a 20-year-old islander, Winston (newcomer Taye Diggs).

But there's plenty of fire and heat generated by some of the more torrid love scenes to be found in any commercial Hollywood film. The lush, steamy eroticism between Bassett's older woman and Diggs' younger man is the contemporary equivalent of old-fashioned, rip-snorting, bodice-ripping romance, and, during one advance screening, it made half a row of fortyish African American women go "Ooooooh!," "Whoa!," "All right then!"--and, maybe just once in a while, "Hmmm."

One of those "hmmms" was accompanied by a curt whisper aimed toward Bassett's character: "And she's married in real life?! What is her husband going to think?"

A couple of days after this screening, Bassett laughs with gentle recognition when informed of such concern. She's heard second- and third-hand accounts of similar squirming on her husband's behalf at other previews of "Stella." Don't these people know she's married to an actor? Don't they know that the actor in question, Courtney Vance, had done his own share of on-screen lovemaking? Don't they know that it's--for heaven's sake--only a movie?

Um, but since it has been brought up, what does Vance think? Bassett laughs again. "It's funny to him," she says. "It tickles him. His comment usually is: 'She's a great actress!' "

No argument there. Bassett's work has earned her such accolades as "riveting" and "extraordinary" from those who have seen her performances on stage ("Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," the recent New York Public Theater production of "Macbeth"), on TV ("The Jacksons: An American Dream") and on the big screen ("What's Love Got to Do With It," as Betty Shabazz in "Malcolm X," "Waiting to Exhale"). Indeed, producer Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds said last month that Hollywood regards Bassett and Whitney Houston as the only first-choice, bankable African American actresses.

"Stella," however, is something of a milestone for Bassett in that she is the movie's undisputed star. Even with her bravura turn as rock icon Tina Turner in "What's Love Got to Do With It," she shared attention--and Oscar nominations--with Laurence Fishburne, whose performance as Ike Turner was equally powerful. She enhanced her already considerable reputation with "Exhale," the successful adaptation of McMillan's previous bestseller, with a bold, steel-nerved performance as a betrayed wife. Yet, she was part of a core ensemble of women that included Lela Rochon, Loretta Devine and Houston--with Houston getting top billing.

But not even one of Whoopi Goldberg's finest performances (as Stella's earthy best friend Delilah) or, for that matter, Diggs' youthful screen power can cut into Bassett's magnetic presence throughout "Stella." It is also a romantic presence. She runs the kind of emotional gantlet that such great Hollywood stars as Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck did.

"I can't say enough about Angela," says Deborah Schindler, who produced both "Exhale" and "Stella." "I have seen her under the most extraordinary circumstances when shooting is delayed way past dark or conditions are awful and everything just drags. And not only is she prepared--always!--she will do five, six takes, and, without being told, she'll deliver something different in each one. She gives you options. And with someone of such range, she not only gives you options, she gives you the full spectrum of emotions, sometimes in just one frame."

Schindler says she and McMillan, the movie's co-executive producer and co-screenwriter, agreed before the book was published in 1996 that Bassett (who turns 40 this year) was the only one who could play Stella. McMillan began writing the book around the time "Exhale" was released three years ago. Though fiction, "Stella" captures what its author has called the essence of a real-life experience McMillan had when, after the deaths of her mother and her best friend in one year, she decided to take a trip to Jamaica, where she fell in love with a man who was 20 years younger than she.

"I'm not sure how the sequence of events went," Bassett says, "but I remember meeting McMillan's young man shortly before or shortly after 'Exhale' came out."

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