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COVER STORY

The Director Talks

April 18, 1999|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Anyone who saw the acclaimed 1983 drama, "Testament," which starred Jane Alexander as a mother watching her family die from the effects of a nuclear holocaust, no doubt wonders what ever happened to the film's gifted director, Lynne Littman.

Save for an episode of "Cagney & Lacey," a brilliant montage on women in film for the 65th Annual Academy Awards and an episode of Showtime's "Rescuers: Stories of Courage" anthology, Littman all but disappeared from view.

But now Littman's back in the director's chair with a vengeance, with two TV movies premiering Sunday evening: Showtime's "Freak City" and CBS' "Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years."

Littman, who worked as a producer, reporter and director at KCET in the '70s and was an original member of the American Film Institute's Women's Directing Program, explains her absence from the scene: She was raising her two sons by ex-husband, director Taylor Hackford. The couple divorced in the mid-'80s.

About the same time, her friend and colleague, anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff, died of cancer. In 1976, Littman had won the Oscar for her documentary short, "Number Our Days," based on Myerhoff's field work. Littman's 1986 documentary, "In Her Own Time," chronicled her friend's battle with the disease.

"It was a lot of shock," the petite Littman said softly, during a recent interview at her cozy Hollywood Hills home.

Littman acknowledged her comeback is "really astonishing. That [the projects] fell together on the same day is priceless . . . The wonderful thing is I love both."

Despite not directing for several years, Littman continued to develop numerous projects, including "Freak City," which was written by Jane Shepard ("Nine").

The Showtime film stars Samantha Mathis as a feisty young woman with multiple sclerosis, who is sent to an institution against her will after the death of her grandmother. Jonathan Silverman plays a blind momma's boy; Marlee Matlin is Mathis' mentally challenged roommate; and Natalie Cole is a former singer who suffered brain damage from a car accident.

"It was the exactly the right kind of movie for me to begin with because it takes place in one location," explained Littman. "It was only about people. The special effects are a lot of people in wheelchairs, which is indeed difficult. It was contained, so it was manageable. It wasn't a thousand pieces flying into the air. 'Having our Say' is much more complicated." Littman completed "Freak City" one day and was at work on "Having Our Say" the next.

Based on the hit Broadway play and best-selling book, "Having Our Say" chronicles the life of African American sisters Sadie and Bessie Delany. The siblings first became famous in 1991 when writer Amy Hill Hearth (Amy Madigan) wrote about the sweet 103-year-old Sadie (Diahann Carroll) and her headstrong and cynical baby sister, 101-year-old Bessie (Ruby Dee) in the New York Times. Hearth eventually turned her article into a best-selling book, on which she collaborated with the Delanys, who were daughters of a former slave.

In a time when there were few opportunities for blacks, Bessie, who died in 1995, became a dentist in Harlem; Sadie, who died earlier this year at 109, spent her life teaching high school. In 1995 Emily Mann adapted the book as a Broadway play, then went on to adapt her play for the CBS film.

"The thing that Lynne has in her movies--god it sounds so female--is that she works from the heart," said her good friend, Judith James, who, with Camille O. Cosby, (wife of actor Bill Cosby) is executive producer of "Having Our Say."

Initially, James didn't hire Littman for the project because she knew the director was still working on "Freak City." But after interviewing several directors, both she and Cosby agreed that Littman was the only person who could do their film justice. Littman knew the Delanys' story, having read the book and seen the play twice, but wanted to set all those images aside.

"There were hours of tape of the old ladies and there was a lot of digging that could have been done, but I chose not to," said Littman. "It's not because I am afraid of copying them or they are more brilliant, but there is some kind of blindness that has to make me feel original.

"The gift was that both Ruby and Diahann did their research. What I had to do to was make what was in front of me real and not worry about who the real ladies were."

Though the project has wrapped, Littman admitted it's been particularly hard to let go of Bessie and Sadie. "I wept the other day in the editing room. I was weeping because I was going to lose those two women," she said. "Everybody who came to work on this movie wanted to do it for a reason which had nothing to do with their career. It had to do with their souls."

"Freak City" airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on Showtime. It is rated TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14); "Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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