The Haunted Oprah Winfrey has made a movie of 'Beloved,' Toni Morrison's searing novel about the spiritual wounds of slavery, to exorcise the horrors of the past.

October 11, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Tell me your diamonds."

This is one of many memorable lines in "Beloved," the film adapted from Toni Morrison's book that opens in theaters on Friday. The title character, a strange, otherworldly girl, is asking her mother, played by Oprah Winfrey, to tell the story of a long-lost pair of shiny crystal earrings.

But when Winfrey - who has spent 10 years bringing Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to the screen - recently met with the press in Chicago, she was not wearing crystal. She was wearing very real, very big diamonds that dangled voluptuously from her ears.

And it was impossible not to relish the fact that the woman playing a former slave, and herself a collector of slave memorabilia, is now the most powerful woman in the entertainment business, maybe even on the planet.

But make no mistake, she's still Oprah. Never mind that Life goes where she goes, that Time follows her around. Never mind that 33 million TV viewers consider her a big sister or mother or therapist or New Age healer. Never mind that she's worth an estimated $550 million, that her famously fit form currently graces the cover of Vogue, that her personal and cultural power seems to multiply exponentially every day.

Oprah can't play the diva, even when holding court with a table full of jaded entertainment reporters (who somehow get a little less jaded when she's in the room).

Still, even though she was her jocular and deprecatory self while being peppered with questions, she seemed somehow chastened, awed by what she has borne and borne witness to. "It's my baby," she answered when a reporter asked if she felt exorcised. "It's my birthing. It's just a C-section, and a little late."

Difficult conception

Oprah Winfrey first read "Beloved" the way any busy woman would, in furtive spurts at the office, or on airplane trips here and there. But she soon realized she could not do Toni Morrison that way. "You just have to give her her 'propers' and sit on down and give her the space."

So in 1987, Winfrey scheduled a day for herself at her Chicago penthouse, and in one sitting read Morrison's searing story of Sethe, a former slave living as a free woman in Cincinnati in 1873, whose life is deeply haunted by a legacy of oppression and the guilt of having survived it.

When she had finished the book, Winfrey knew two things: "Beloved" was meant to be a movie, and she was meant to play Sethe.

"When I put that book down, I couldn't even articulate what it was I was feeling," Winfrey recalled in Chicago. But she could articulate what she wanted. She got Toni Morrison on the phone and asked if she could buy the rights. Morrison laughed. "What do you want with those?" she said with her famous hauteur. "How do you plan to make a film of this work?"

Winfrey assumed that Morrison was angling for creative control. "I said, 'Listen, you can write the screenplay.' And she said, 'Never. Never. I don't want these people in my house again.'"

Morrison's reluctance was understandable. Her novel is a mournful one, full of ghosts and terror, violence and misery. Sethe herself is a reserved, rather forbidding character inured to pain. Sethe's daughter Denver (played in the movie by Kimberly Elise) - the only one of four children who still lives with Sethe in the family's house at 124 Bluestone Road - is an isolated, unhappy child whose only playmate is a mischievously active poltergeist.

Sethe is convinced that the ghost is the spirit of the daughter she murdered to save her from slavery. When that ghost, named Beloved (Thandie Newton), comes to life, the house and its inhabitants succumb to a deep, if temporary, madness. Even Paul D. (Danny Glover), who has been searching for Sethe since they left the Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky 18 years earlier, cannot overpower Beloved's primal force.

It's an enormously difficult story, one that Morrison relates with an exquisitely intricate structure and poetic language. In other // words, "Beloved" is the most un-adaptable of books. And director after director turned Winfrey down while she shopped the "Beloved" script around Hollywood.

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