The late Whitney Houston was one of a kind.
That being the case, it’s unrealistic to expect someone else to look exactly like her, to walk and talk exactly like her, to sing exactly like her.
But Angela Bassett — the actress who makes her directing debut with Whitney, a Lifetime movie about Houston’s tumultuous life with Bobby Brown — says it’s possible for a biopic to achieve something greater than mere mimicry.
“What we wanted most from our actors was a chemistry and a connection,” Bassett says.
She believes Yaya DaCosta (as Whitney) and Arlen Escarpeta (as Bobby) met that goal and then some in Whitney, which premieres at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Yes, it’s inevitable that some viewers will fixate on superficial differences, like the fact that Escarpeta doesn’t have Bobby’s gap-toothed smile.
“But if the performances come from an informed and truthful place, then we, the audience, will believe,” Bassett says.
True to life
She knows whereof she speaks. Bassett has played famous people in biographical films many times, including Tina Turner in 1993’s What’s Love Got To Do With It, for which she received an Academy Award nomination.
It’s also worth noting that Bassett has some personal insight when telling the Whitney Houston story. She knew the Grammy-winning, multiplatinum-selling singer, who died in February 2012.
“I knew her just a little, not a lot,” Bassett says. “The beautiful years are what I remember best, her star quality and her magnetism. She was open and available and joyous. And what a glorious singing voice. When she stood center stage, she just owned it. There was no one like her.”
When the film opens, Houston is already a huge star and Brown’s career as a solo R&B artist is just kicking into high gear. They meet and instantly connect at the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards. The film chronicles the subsequent ups and downs of their three-year courtship and 15-year marriage.
Whitney depicts the two as flawed individuals who weren’t always good for each other. Houston already has a cocaine problem when Brown enters her life; he turns to alcohol whenever his ego can’t handle being the second-biggest star in the family.
But there’s no question, Bassett says, that their passion for each other was real.
“This movie is a love story,” she says. “It’s about these two individuals coming together and the choices they make along the way. It was a great love affair. But is love enough?”
The movie doesn’t sugarcoat the bad times, but it doesn’t wallow in them either.
“I just wanted to provide a loving tribute memory,” Bassett says. “Because she was a very loving person. Both of them were. So it’s loving, but honest.”
It’s in the spirit of honesty that we point out that DaCosta doesn’t do her own singing in the movie. Houston’s vocal performances come from Grammy-nominated entertainer Deborah Cox.
And as for re-creating Brown’s gap-tooth smile, Bassett insists they tried. But the Invisalign clear braces that were crafted for Escaerpeta to wear just didn’t look right. “It looked like the gap was drawn on with a Sharpie,” she recalls. “So we decided to go without.”
Bassett currently co-stars in FX’s American Horror Story. It was a quite a feat of scheduling to wedge directing a film into her calendar, but she made it work because she felt strongly about the story.
“It was divine,” she says of directing. “I really took to it. And if there’s another story that moves me, I’d like to do it again.”
Another thing the film provides is a glimpse at how difficult it must have been at times to be as famous as Houston and Brown were.
Bassett can relate, at least on some level. She and her actor husband, Courtney B. Vance, aren’t that famous, “but I know what she was up against in terms of the loss of anonymity,” she says.
“I was at church recently and there were people coming up to me, giving me a movie script, and there were paparazzi outside the church,” Bassett says. “I was like, ‘This is ridiculous,’ that sort of invasion of privacy. Sometimes you’re ready for it. But that doesn’t make it bearable at certain times.”
▪ 7 p.m. Saturday