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THE BIG PICTURE PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

The reigning Queen of film

April 01, 2003|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

It's official. The movie business has finally fallen in love with Queen Latifah.

Fourteen years after her first rap hit, 10 years after becoming a regular on the sitcom "Living Single," seven years after wowing young moviegoers as a bank robber in "Set It Off," the 33-year-old hip-hop star and entrepreneur is Hollywood's latest overnight sensation. It didn't take much, just an Oscar nomination in "Chicago" for her role as prison matron Mama Morton and a co-starring role as a sassy ex-con in "Bringing Down the House." When you're in two consecutive $100-million-plus hits, it has a way of getting people's attention.

"Latifah has great acting chops, incredible comic timing and, oh by the way, she's an amazing musical talent," says Nina Jacobson, production chief at Disney Studios, which released "Bringing Down the House." "I mean, where else do you see that these days?"

So the race for Latifah's next project is on. Paramount chief Sherry Lansing, who met with Latifah a few weeks ago, is looking for material for her. MGM has been in talks with Latifah to star in a "Barbershop" spinoff that would have her running a neighborhood beauty salon. 20th Century Fox Co-Chairman Tom Rothman, who says his daughter is still buzzing after he introduced her to Latifah at the Oscars, wants Latifah for a remake of Luc Besson's "Taxi." Miramax's Harvey Weinstein, who prodded director Rob Marshall to cast Latifah in "Chicago," says he's been talking with her about new projects for months. Disney is developing several projects specifically for her.

It's an embarrassment of riches for Latifah, who grew up as Dana Elaine Owens in East Orange, N.J. "When you're in both a hit movie and an Oscar best picture winner, you're a winner -- and people here love being with a winner," says producer Brian Grazer, who met with Latifah recently to kick around ideas. "She just has a gigantic amount of charisma when she walks in the door. When I said to her, 'I don't know what to call you, Queen or Latifah,' she laughed and said, 'I'm gonna push you right up to the top slot -- call me Dana.'"

The true sign of Latifah's success is that studios are feverishly reworking parts that were initially written for middle-aged white men or size-2 starlets that could now serve as vehicles for Latifah. "Once Latifah is in a room with someone, it really makes things happen," says Randi Michel, her William Morris agent. "Two or three of our favorite offers are male leads that could be rewritten for Latifah."

It's a tribute to her talent, as well as years of patient career building by Latifah and her advisors, that the hip-hop goddess has managed to reinvent herself as a movie diva instead of a failed phenom. The lesson: You can avoid being stereotyped by playing to your strengths.

"In a lot of ways, she could be the modern-day Mae West," says producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who's developing an action-comedy project for her. "She's sexy, saucy, quick witted and ... has a warmth that audiences really love."

'Real life size'

Latifah, who refers to her physique as "real life size," has often had to rely on her charisma and forceful personality to carve out a niche for herself. "Chicago's" Rob Marshall imagined Mama Morton as a 50-year-old woman, but after meeting Latifah, he changed his mind. In the 1998 drama "Living Out Loud," Latifah plays an elegant club singer who performs a show-stopping version of "Lush Life." Richard La Gravenese, the film's writer-director, says he originally envisioned a 45-year-old actress playing a lonely older woman. "But after seeing how much confidence Latifah had in herself, I rewrote the part. She helped me realize that you didn't have to be older to be lonely."

Latifah is hardly the first hip-hop star to make it in Hollywood. But so far, the biggest crossover stars have been men -- Will Smith, Ice Cube, DMX and Eminem. With the exception of Smith, they've rarely escaped the ghetto of urban comedies, action films and music-based dramas. Up until now, Latifah has worked sparingly but managed to avoid playing a watered-down version of her hip-hop persona. When big roles weren't available, she took smaller parts so she could work with a great actor -- she played Denzel Washington's caregiver in "The Bone Collector" -- or classy filmmakers such as La Gravenese or Barry Levinson, who directed her in "Sphere."

Latifah's manager, Shakim, met Latifah through her mother, who was his art teacher in high school. He recalls that after "Set It Off," everyone wanted Latifah to play tough characters. "When you start as a rapper, it's easy to get stereotyped, playing urban neighborhood characters," he says. "But we watched Will Smith, who never allowed himself to be stereotyped, and we tried to do the same thing. Latifah's the kind of person who, when she's done something once, doesn't want to repeat it; she'll look for something more challenging."

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