By John H. Foote
Beloved (1998) is not the sort of film that wins awards, however, it was clearly made TO win awards. It is called Oscar-baiting when high minded, self-important folks think they are making an important, lofty work they hope the Academy will recognize.
Instead, the film, or performances within, are pretentious. Oscar-baiting is silly, unspeakably arrogant.
History has shown that it rarely works. No one celebrates ego. No one gives an Academy Award because they are bullied into doing so by filmmakers who claim to have made an Oscar-winning IMPORTANT film.
In bringing Beloved to the screen, Oprah Winfrey allowed her massive ego to ruin the film. Though she claimed to admire and identify with the stunning book, she did not care enough to cast it right. Casting herself in the film, actually believing she had the depth as an actress to pull it off was foolish. Had she truly cared about the book being brought to the screen she would have relished her role as producer and helped make the film perfect, rather than pushing herself onto an Oscar-winning director as the lead.
Cast Angela Bassett?
Masterpiece, because then, with Bassett, you have an actress with the depth to make the character work, and bringing this film to the screen, the need for a strong actress was essential. How could Winfrey not know that? With images of an Oscar for Best Actress dancing in her head, she bought the rights to the Toni Morrison book, published in 1987. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and remains one of the finest pieces of literature of the 20th century. The book is set in 1863 and is a striking statement about the American holocaust, slavery.
Now, to appreciate this film, to understand it in every way you must accept the following without exception. Ghosts exist, and the dead can return. Without the acceptance of those two things, the film, and book will not have the same impact on you.
Winfrey knew, having worked with Steven Spielberg on The Color Purple (1985) that a confident, strong director would be required for the film. To the surprise of Hollywood, she chose Oscar winner Jonathan Demme, who had won his Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and the directed the superb AIDS legal drama Philadelphia (1993). That he was white surprised everyone because after The Color Purple (1985) it was felt that perhaps black filmmakers better understood the black experience. Spielberg, arguably the finest director in movies sugar-coated the edge of The Color Purple, which like Beloved was a spiky, powerful book. In many critical circles, Spielberg was accused of giving the film a feel-good sense, a zip pa di doo dah feel, so much so that animated characters came through the weeds, I would not have been surprised. It remains one of his weakest films.
Demme was a very different Director than Spielberg and had the advantage of seeing Spielberg fail with his film. If he disagreed with Winfrey as his leading lady, he did not say, instead focusing on how to make the best possible film out of a very difficult book. It was interesting he surrounded her with the strongest actors he could find and insisted another actress portray the younger Sethe. Was that for her confidence, or his?
Again to appreciate the film, ghosts exist, the dead return. No argument.
Sethe (Winfrey) is living in Cincinnati in her house with her children and a dog. In the first moments of the film, we gain a terrifying glimpse into the nightmare they live with, an angry, violent ghost, who at the beginning of the film is raging. The boys, both terrified and tired of it all, run away, finally free of this thing haunting them. Their dog is picked up and thrown across the room with such force, it’s eye is knocked out of its socket. Sethe, a calm in this storm quietly slips the eye back into the socket and begins cleaning up the mess. Her daughter Denver (Kimberly Elise) lives with her, the only child to remain.
Back into her life comes Paul D. (Danny Glover) a former slave who feels the presence of something dark and sinister the moment he walks into her home. They become lovers, he takes a job in town and is told about Sethe and the dreadful secret she hides.
The narrative moves back and forth in time, Sethe’s past and we will see how she came to this home. She and her children were slaves at Sweet Home where she was treated fairly by the Teacher. But one night his nephews trap her in a barn shortly after she has given birth and repeatedly rape her. However the greater violation in her eyes is that they drank her milk, they took what was meant for her child. Sethe (Lisa Gay Hamilton) tells the Teacher who raped her and instead of punishing the boys, she is whipped, her back torn to shreds, forever left with flesh resembling tree bark. Sethe escapes, but Teacher follows and when he finds her, rather than see her children or herself back in slavery, she slits her infant child’s throat and attempts to do the same to Denver before being stopped. Thinking her insane, he leaves her there, wanting nothing to do with that kind of madness. When Paul confronts her with what he knows, she admits it to be true, but also tells him if it is too much for him to handle, he should leave.
Pail and Sethe take Denver to the fair in town, the first time Sethe has ventured from her home. All around her are looks and talk, she ignores them.
Out of the swamp, covered in insects, emerges a young woman, fully grown. Her breathing is laboured, body walk unsteady, her movements erratic. Dressed entirely in black, her feet prove to be pristine, unwalked on. She is much like a child a few weeks old in everything she does and speaks in a deep croaking voice.
They return from the fair to find this girl, who spells her name in her croaky, hatch voice, “B e l o v e d” and they take her in. Like a newborn, she sleeps, everything she sees is new to her, and her body is pristine, her feet never have been walked on. Through the next few weeks, it becomes apparent to all, she is the ghost of the child Sethe killed, the scar on her throat evident. She wants Sethe all to herself and often demands “Tell me” when wanting a story. As she ages, she takes control of her body, can walk and run, speaks with greater confidence but still has the mind of a jealous, cruel child. Sethe spoils her, puts her ahead of Denver out of guilt and shame, not seeing the divide in the home the ghost has brought about.
The creature tricks Paul D. into having sex with her and humiliated he leaves, stunned Sethe does not believe him. The behaviour of the girl escalates out of control until it is clear she is a genuine threat to Denver. The young girl can think of nothing else to do but seek out The help of the church women who come to banish the creature, which sends Sethe into great, terrible depression. Once again it is Denver’s strength which saves her mother, inviting Paul D. to come to see Seth, hoping he will be good medicine for her.
Thandie Newton is astonishing as Beloved, the ghost emerging from the bowels of the earth to live again. Using her entire being and body, she does an extraordinary job creating an otherworldly being existing in the here and now. Her movements are initially awkward, erratic and jerky, but like a newborn, she learns. As she grows and presumably ages so do her demands on and of Sethe. It becomes clear she pathologically wants Sethe all to herself. Newton is genuinely frightening in the film, yet there is something truly sad about her too.
As her sister, Denver, young Kimberly Elise is equal in every way, her massive brown eyes displaying her range of emotions. The hurt and immense sadness she conveys at the realization of who Beloved is remains heartbreaking. Both actresses deserved nominations for Oscars as Best Supporting Actress, but the film was long gone from Oscar talk.
Lisa Gay Hamilton was superb as the young Sethe, leaving me to wonder why was she not permitted to portray the character in later years? Why was Winfrey permitted to portray Sethe when she was so obviously out of her depth? Makeup would have made Hamilton older and many very fine actors before her have submitted to four hours in the make up chair to portray characters older than themselves.
Danny Glover, as always is solid and reliable as Paul D. who loves Sethe, but cannot bear the ghost of her child. Glover has always been a fine actor and was Oscar-worthy in Places in the Heart (1984).
Leveling criticism of any kind at this woman is dangerous because of how it may make me appear. Let me State I admire what she has accomplished in her life, I admire what she has done for women, especially women of colour and that she wants to produce films about the black experience in America. What I do not admire are her efforts to try and get herself an Academy Award for Acting when it became clear quite some time ago the lady is not a good actress.
“But John! She was nominated for supporting actress in The Color Purple (1985)! Surely that means she can act!” some readers will howl.
No, it means she was seen in a role critic-proof, and ready-made for Oscar attention. As the hot-tempered character in Spielberg’s film, how could she not get nominated? After all, she got to slug white folks and later break out of her apparent depression, howling in laughter, shoveling food in her mouth! Anyone, I repeat, anyone that played that role could have been nominated.
As Sethe, she simply lacks the depth to portray such a haunted and haunting character. The way she says, “They took my milk” should feel like they were tearing her soul out because her love and her milk were all she could offer her child. Instead, she says it flatly, as though she was discussing having her lunch money taken. There is nothing in the performance that suggests Winfrey has a single clue as to how to approach playing this character, yet she forged ahead because of her gigantic ego. And that same gigantic Oprah ego is the reason this often brilliant film failed miserably with audiences and critics. She cannot inhabit a character as great actors can, it is not within her.
Demme created something dark, something frightening in the film, you can see where he often attempts a new cinematic language, yet because so much of it lands on Winfrey’s shoulders, it fails. And worse, Beloved (1998) was so obviously Oscar bait the characters might as well as hung placards asking for a nomination. It was kind of shameful.
Winfrey has acted since, with the same results, she is always the weakest link in the films she is in. Remember The Butler (2013)? Surrounded by those fine actors, the great Forest Whitaker especially, she looks woefully out of place. The costumes fit, the wigs are fine, it is her, Oprah, who can never escape the fact she is Oprah and a very bad actress.
Why buy the rights to a blazing book of such power and then screw it up because you think you can act?
Only Oprah can answer that.
Single-handedly, she destroyed Beloved (1998) which without her might have been a movie masterpiece.
Perhaps a remake might be considered with Viola Davis? Now that, I would see again.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.