Angela's Fire

Angela Bassett has a flair for the dramatic. Two hours into a long, frank interview at a Beverly Hills lounge, the actress is asked why, after not starring in a movie for four years, she turned down a chance for the lead in "Monster's Ball." Bassett bolts out of her overstuffed chair, and throws out her arms in a gesture worthy of her idol, Bette Davis: "It's about character, darling." In "Monster's Ball," which won Halle Berry an Oscar, a black waitress has a graphic, tortured--and, Bassett believed, demeaning--affair with her husband's executioner. "I wasn't going to be a prostitute on film," she says. "I couldn't do that because it's such a stereotype about black women and sexuality.'' Bassett is clear she isn't criticizing Berry--just the way Hollywood views women in general and black women in particular. Several actresses, including Vanessa Williams, passed on "Monster's Ball" as well. "Film is forever," says Bassett. "It's about putting something out there you can be proud of 10 years later. I mean, Meryl Streep won Oscars without all that.''

It's been almost 10 years since Bassett, now 43, had her own shot at the Oscar, exploding onto the screen as a rip-roaring, muscle-flexing Tina Turner in "What's Love Got to Do With It.'' Trained at Yale's drama school, and blessed with regal cheekbones and flawless skin, Bassett radiated a cool that audiences hadn't seen from a black actress on the big screen since the days of Diana Ross, Diahann Carroll and Cicely Tyson in the early '70s. Bassett seemed on her way to a glorious career in the mainstream. But talent and opportunity don't always go hand in hand in Tinseltown.

Bassett is the first to admit that her career hasn't gone the way she'd dreamed it would when the spotlight swung her way after "What's Love Got to Do With It." "I remember sitting at the Oscars and thinking, 'This is great! This is the beginning of something big for me','' says the actress, dressed California chic in a faded denim shirt and beige tank top. "But I didn't work again for another year and a half. I guess I was pretty naive to think it would be different--that it was just about the talent--particularly for someone who looks like me. You forget that sometimes.'' Bassett hasn't headlined a movie since 1998's "How Stella Got Her Groove Back." Now she's back, drawing raves in John Sayles's new ensemble drama "Sunshine State." Bassett shows off her trademark intensity and range as Desiree, a struggling actress with a past she'd rather forget. "Because of Angela's theater background, she has a strong command of the art form," says Sayles. "She just keeps digging and digging into a character so you get every ounce."

As a kid in St. Petersburg, Fla., Bassett devoured everything from the poetry of Langston Hughes to the films of Bette Davis. After appearing in high-school and community plays, she won a full scholarship to Yale to study drama. Only for a moment, she says, did she think to herself, "My skin has been kissed by the sun--can I really do this successfully?'' By the mid-'80s she was working with August Wilson on Broadway, and by the early '90s she was in Hollywood, playing supporting roles in "Boyz N the Hood" and "Malcolm X." By 1993, she had landed the role of a life-time. "Playing Tina was such a big, demanding role--one that could eat you up if you weren't a very strong, confident actress. But Angela ate it up," says black-film historian Donald Bogle. "Bassett is like the old-style actresses. She very much reminds me of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, women who commanded your attention in a film even when their mouths were closed."

After grabbing Hollywood's attention, Bassett was sure she'd get the quality roles befitting a classically trained actress. Instead, she got offered a lot of "booty call'' scripts. She snagged the lead in film adaptations of two Terry McMillan books, "Waiting to Exhale'' and "How Stella Got Her Groove Back,'' but then found herself waiting for Hollywood to make the next move. Bassett figured the drought was over when she read with Sean Connery for the 1999 romantic thriller "Entrapment.'' "Sean told me he would love what our being in the film would mean across the board for black and white,'' recalls Bassett, her voice getting deeper, head tilting back in thought. "I remember him saying how beautiful our skin would look next to each other's, and how I was perfect. I left the meeting thinking, 'It's mine.' But a few weeks later, they cast a lesser-known actress at the time." (That "lesser-known" actress, Catherine Zeta-Jones, went on to become Mrs. Michael Douglas.) "I guess Hollywood wasn't as progressive as Connery thought," she says. "I think I really could have added spice to that role.'' Connery couldn't be reached for comment.

If race is the No. 1 obstacle for Bassett, age is a close second. "She doesn't work much because most actresses over 25 don't, and that certainly applies to black actresses even more," says director Sayles. "It's a lack of interest and imagination by the studios." At 43, Bassett still doesn't look much over 30--and she's proud of it. "Black don't crack, honey. Do you see a wrinkle?!" she says, offering her face up for close inspection. That hasn't stopped studios from relegating her to supporting parts in films like "Contact" and "The Score," even as "What's Love Got to Do With It" costar Laurence Fishburne is making $10 million on "Matrix" sequels.

Bassett says it is a constant struggle, balancing her love of the craft with the reality of paying the bills. She's not much of a Hollywood player, opting to spend nights at home with her husband, actor Courtney Vance ("Law & Order: Criminal Intent"), instead of networking. But Bassett says she has no regrets. She says she loved Halle Berry's performance in "Monster's Ball" and was moved to tears when Berry mentioned her in her acceptance speech. "I can't and don't begrudge Halle her success,'' she says. "It wasn't the role for me, but I told her she'd win and I told her to go get what was hers. Of course I want one, too. I would love to have an Oscar. But it has to be for something I can sleep with it at night."

A high road to take. How long can she stay on it? "I'm not living on beans and water yet,'' says Bassett. "I'll just have to wait for it to come to me. If it's supposed to be mine, it will be.''