HOLLYWOOD, CALIF. — When Oprah Winfrey produces a TV movie, people pay attention. "Their Eyes Were Watching God," an elegant epic airing Sunday night on ABC, is based on the 1937 novel written by Zora Neale Hurston.
Many consider "Eyes" a largely overlooked classic, so Winfrey hopes the film will raise its author's profile. "I'm hoping that it will elevate her to the kind of stature that she deserved when she was alive," she says.
The story follows Janie Crawford (played by Halle Berry) as she grows from her teens to mature womanhood in pre-World War II Florida. A search for purpose and the meaning of real love drives her to reject the conventions of marriage and prim behavior many expected of women in that era. She is shunned by her community, but in the end finds something more meaningful - a sense of self-fulfillment.
"This has been my favorite love story since I started reading," says Winfrey, who believes this personal and intimate side of the black experience has been given short shrift by Hollywood.
Hurston herself was criticized and dismissed by the male critics of her day for focusing on the theme of love to the exclusion of the powerful political themes that drove much of the Harlem Renaissance, the era between 1919 and the late '30s in which African-American art began to flower. Stories that dealt explicitly with racism were favored by the black artists of that time.
Adapting the novel, which has since garned critical acclaim, was daunting for Suzan Lori-Parks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. "It was easy because it's such a well-written book," she says. "It was incredibly hard because it's such a well-written book. It was both."
Winfrey says this adaptation serves the deeper purpose of rounding out the black experience in the public consciousness. "It's really important for us to see black people, African-Americans, in a life that allows not only the history and legacy of the culture, but to show love," she says.
Some may see a TV role as a step down for Oscar winner Halle Berry, but the actress says it's the material, not the medium, that matters. "It's a fully realized character that starts in one place and ... ends up really discovering what life is really all about," says Berry. The story's protagonist learns that "love is about loving self first, and then all the other love from other avenues seems to trickle your way."
A new series - this one edgy rather than elegant - also tackles the issue of female identity. "Fat Actress," starring Kirstie Alley, launches Monday night on Showtime. The partly scripted, partly improvisational format explores the ups and downs in the personal and professional life of an actress (Alley) whose weight gain jeopardizes her Hollywood career. Given Alley's newfound status as spokeswoman for Jenny Craig, it is easy to guess where this semiautobiographical series is headed.
But the actress insists it is about much more than body shape. "The show is really more about the state of mind of women and introversions that they experience, and how easy it is to sort of prey upon women and their insecurities," says Alley. "It's really about much more than just being fat."
The first episode veers between harrowing private moments on the bathroom scale and public humiliations that take place in agents' and producers' offices. In one wrenching scene, Alley arrives for an interview with Jeff Zucker, the head of NBC. Prior to the meeting, Zucker exacts a promise from her agent that Alley is really much thinner than the tabloids have been trumpeting. Alley shows up in all her zaftig glory and the meeting quickly goes downhill.
This is all a bit confusing for the viewer who might wonder how Alley can expose herself to such public scrutiny of such private demons. The former "Cheers" star says she is not afraid of being honest about her struggles. Before filming started, the actress told one of the writers that they might need to pad her clothing. " 'I'm really not that fat,' " she declared at the time. When she watched the first episode, she realized how wrong she was. "I was like, 'Oh ... I had no idea I was that fat,' " recalls Alley. "So, this is cathartic for me as well."
Nonetheless, "Fat Actress" manages to find a comedic tone, illustrated in small moments such as a running gag about the character's search for a French fry that has gone missing in the folds of her bathrobe.
"Great comedy is overly dramatized tragedy," says Alley. "I did spend three days in bed once because I was fat, old, and ugly and never going to work in a sitcom again. But you know," she says with a smile, "if we were showing it in the show, it would be, like, four days."