Producer Larry Sanitsky was at lunch with Angela Bassett, discussing his ambitious new undertaking, a biopic about the iconic Whitney Houston, when he sought the advice of the actress who’d won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Tina Turner. “I said, ‘Hey Angela,’” he recalled to the audience at Lifetime’s premiere of the movie “Whitney” on Tuesday night, “‘Do you have any ideas of who might be able to direct this movie?’” To which Bassett responded, “What about me?”
Later, the fear of being a first-time director struck her…until she received a sign. “A big truck went by and on the back were two letters, W-H,” she relayed to the crowd. “And they were in purple, her favorite color, and her song was playing, and I was on my way to the production office, and I said, ‘Girl, okay!’”
Why such passion for this project? “I loved Whitney,” Bassett told Variety. “And you know, so much is said, there was such scrutiny. I don’t know if I know enough to set her record straight or do anything, but I can tell a story about [someone] who essentially was a beautiful artist and a lovely woman.”
Hers is an epic love story, penned by Shem Bitterman, and with Yaya DaCosta, who bore uncanny resemblance to the songstress at times, in the title role. “One of the things that I really appreciated about her was her elegance and her sexiness. She made it okay for slender girls like me to be pretty and sexy — because in certain communities, that’s not the hot look,” said the svelte actress, embroiled on screen with Arlen Escarpeta’s flawed but endearing Bobby Brown. Explained Escarpeta, “At Bobby’s heart of hearts, he’s a lover, he’s a provider, he loves his kids, he loves family, and we really tried to give Bobby his respect within his family, along with the tumultuousness of being in love and trying to maintain a relationship within this industry.”
Also depicted is Houston’s amorous — though not physically demonstrative — relationship with her longtime best friend and assistant, played by Yolonda Ross. “At the bottom of it, whether they were lovers or not, they were two people who loved each other,” she said, of the rumors.
Houston’s former label-mate Deborah Cox sang five famous musical numbers, for which Bassett’s instruction was clear. “She didn’t want the songs to be performed as if we were trying to recreate a record,” said Cox. “The intention was to help to tell the story of this woman in this very specific timeline, to get to the core of who she was as a person, as a wife, as a mother, as a sister, as a friend, all of the things that she had to come up against, while trying to be the superstar that she was.”
The filmgoers moved on to an after-party at Spago, where, through Houston’s music, her presence was felt, just as it had been for Bassett during filming: “Her spirit was with me, and I just knew I could do it, that it’d be alright, that she was smiling from on high.”
(Pictured: Suzzanne Douglas, Angela Bassett, Arlen Escarpeta, Yaya DaCosta and Yolonda Ross at the “Whitney” premiere.)
“Whitney” will premiere Jan. 17 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Lifetime.