What is it about Queen Latifah? It doesn’t matter what she appears in, whether it’s a prestigious big budget musical or small-scale film with a mediocre script, she seems incapable of giving a bad performance. Leah and I saw her new film “The Last Holiday” this weekend, an old-fashioned star vehicle based on the 1950 Alec Guinness movie by the same name. At first glance, Latifah seems like an odd choice to replace Guinness as the hapless, shy salesman who learns he doesn’t have long to live and so takes a final holiday during which he rediscovers himself. This updated version is not going to win any Oscars but I think Queen Latifah’s performance as Georgia Byrd is every bit as revelatory as Alec Guinness’ turn as George Bird. I was particularly impressed by the way she played Georgia in the first part of the film when the character is very quiet and unassuming, not attributes one usually associates with the former rap star. She was completely believable during this part of the film and hit it just right every step of the way during her transformation. There was none of that phony wink, wink, you know I’m going to dramatically change my personality later in the film but bear with me now and see how well I can play against type. Nope, it was clear to me that in addition to having the most natural acting style I’ve seen in decades, Queen Latifah is consistently able to call up just the right emotions from her reservoir of life experience.
Though the script is largely implausible, Latifah’s character rings true from the first frame to the last (and there’s barely a moment of the film in which she doesn’t appear). Her love interest in the film is played by LL Cool J and when I saw his name in the opening credits I groaned, thinking they were shoving one more rap artist into a movie purely for reasons of demographics. I should have dropped this bias after seeing Queen Latifah in action because LL Cool J (what’s his last name—J?) was excellent, playing Latifah’s nerdy department store colleague. The funny thing about this movie is that while the basic storyline is preposterous and almost comic book-like, each of the supporting characters achieves a subtlety that is completely unexpected. The cast includes Timothy Hutton as a greedy multimillionaire (it’s hard to believe he’s the same guy who was young Conrad Jarrett in “Ordinary People”), Alicia Witt as his corporate squeeze who treats service people like crap until she learns an all-important lesson from Latifah, and Susan Kellerman who plays a Nazi-like concierge at a luxury hotel who hates everyone until she experiences the power of Latifah’s love. Even French star Gerard Depardieu (I thought he retired from films) shines in a small but moving role as a world-class chef who is going batty from the crazy Americans who want him to make health-conscious substitutions to his gourmet cuisine. The movie is very sweet but even if it sucked it would be worth seeing for the gorgeous shots of mouth-watering meals—don’t you love movies that know how to film a good cooking scene? It’s like watching a glitzy, big budget version of the Food Network.
One thing that is so remarkable about Queen Latifah is that she goes so completely against the grain of the straitjacket Hollywood usually reserves for its female leads. She is living proof that you don’t have to be skinny to be a glamorous movie star. Leah and I never talk during movies, being the film lovers that we are, but every time Latifah came out in a new get-up, Leah would exclaim, “Oh my God, she’s so beautiful!” Latifah has also managed to avoid the pitfalls that many African-American actors have had to endure in being offered only certain kinds of roles. Indeed, in a rare bit of Hollywood executives knowing a good thing when they see it, the studios seem to be bending over backwards to rewrite characters to fit Latifah, even if it means turning white males into black women.
On the day “The Last Holiday” opened, Warner Home Video issued new DVD versions of three classic all-black films which were called “race films” back in the day: “Hallelujah” (1929), “Green Pastures” (1936), and “Cabin in the Sky”(1943). These are all remarkable films and I urge you to buy or rent them immediately. Directed by white men, of course, and containing groan-inducing “Negro dialect” and many stereotypical characters, they were still way ahead of their time in the sense that they showed black people as three-dimensional characters having full lives, not just as slaves or servants for whites. The new editions come complete with a warning message about some of the dated and very politically incorrect references in the films, but at least the actors were presented as people who had rich lives of their own as opposed to the countless bumbling, inept characters these same actors (such as Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and Oscar Polk) played in so many other films. Ethel Waters and Lena Horne fared better in mainstream Hollywood movies, but even they rarely had the chance to play fully rounded human beings who have relationships and sexual desires as they do here. And Lena Horne’s segments in many MGM films were often isolated so that they could be easily lopped off when the films were screened in the Deep South. As we think about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. on his birthday today, I can’t think of a better beginning to a film festival than these amazing films.
You might want to continue your holiday film festival with “A Patch of Blue,” a biting 1965 look at racism starring Sidney Poitier, Elizabeth Hartman, and in one of the bravest roles of her career, the great Shelley Winters who died this weekend at the age of 85. Winters won her second Oscar for her portrayal of Rose-Ann D’Arcy, the violently racist mother of a blind girl who falls in love with Poitier’s character. “A Patch of Blue” opened to critical acclaim just a few months after King’s first march from Selma to Montgomery in which 600 civil rights workers were attacked by local police with billy clubs and tear gas. Winters was a lifelong advocate of human rights and in 1960 was one of the sponsors of a controversial ad in the New York Times for “The Committee to Defend Martin Luther King Jr. and the Struggle for Freedom in the South.” She was a brilliant actress, a kooky talk show guest, and a great American citizen and will be missed.
I was trying to figure out what elusive qualities Queen Latifah brings to her performances that make her so likable and appealing no matter what film she is in. I tried to think of other actors who gave me that same feeling and the first one that came to mind was the wonderful Judy Holliday. Although this blond Jewish actress was obviously a very different physical type than Queen Latifah, I got very excited thinking about Latifah taking on some of Holliday’s plum roles. What a fantastic Gladys Glover Latifah would be in a remake of George Cukor’s dazzling “It Should Happen to You.” I can hear her repeating one of Judy Holliday’s lines from the film—a line that also applies to Latifah’s character in her current movie and to her life in general: “I haven’t changed. I’m the same as I was before—only in a different way." How fun would it be to see Latifah as Billie Dawn in “Born Yesterday?” At first it’s hard to imagine her playing a character that is famous for being a dumb blonde but we know that Billie Dawn wasn’t really dumb at all. What I’d give to hear Latifah’s version of this exchange: “Would you do me a favor, Harry? What? DROP DEAD!” I’d also LOVE to see Queen Latifah as Ella Peterson in a remake of Vincente Minnelli’s “Bells Are Ringing.” Think of what she could do with Comden and Green’s “The Party’s Over” or “Just in Time.” Holliday and Latifah share the same kind of sincerity, openness, and world-wise smarts that comes from maneuvering through tough times. I don’t know that much about either of their personal lives and I don’t really want to—I just know that the minute they appear on screen they radiate a luminosity that extends to everyone in the scene and spills out into the audience.
Sadly, “Bells Are Ringing” was Judy Holliday’s last film. She died of cancer a few weeks before her 44th birthday. Queen Latifah has already made twice the number of films that Judy Holliday made. I have no doubt that if they were contemporaries the former Judith Tuvim would have been great buds with the former Dana Owens. Both are walking visions of goodness without smarminess. I’m usually dead against remaking classic films but I’ll change my tune if Latifah decides to tackle the Judy Holliday oeuvre. Mark my words—if she does, she’ll soon be following Holliday down that aisle to collect her Best Actress Oscar.