By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood October 3, 2008 at 8:43AM
While Oprah may not be willing to promote Barack Obama on her show these days, she doesn't hesitate to use her considerable clout with women to sell movies she believes in. She delivered for helmer Spike Lee, exhorting her millions of viewers to see his revisionist World War II epic The Miracle at St. Anna, for which he was duly grateful. The movie needs her help; it scored a miserable 29 % on Rotten Tomatoes.
And Oprah came through for Gina Prince-Blythewood's faithful, effective, and (given the presidential election) resonant adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd's 2002 bestseller The Secret Life of Bees. O Magazine also visited the set during filming.
Oprah gushed over Queen Latifah, who's warmly charismatic as the mom-figure bee-keeper in the 1964-set southern drama about a young teen runaway (Dakota Fanning) who seeks refuge with a cultured family of African-American women; Alicia Keys, who admitted to tapping into her own personality as a tough but lovelorn musician; Sophie Okonedo, who doesn't overplay an over-emotional woman who never recovered from losing her twin sister; Jennifer Hudson, who stays real as the young girl's nanny; and Fanning, in some ways more experienced than some of her co-stars, who carries the movie on her narrow 14-year-old shoulders.
Fanning told our first Sneak Previews class this week that while she reads and researches and prepares for any character she plays, this one came naturally, partly because she's from the South. Something happens the minute a director calls action, she says. She just becomes the character. While a group of reps and her mother read all her scripts, Fanning makes the final decision on what to make, based on what she responds to emotionally. While she enjoyed finally kissing a boy (The Wire's Tristan Wilds) in this coming-of-age story, Fanning only wants to do age-appropriate roles; she's in no rush to grow up.
Prince-Blythewood admitted that having been adopted played a part in her strong response to this story about a girl who thinks she accidentally killed her mother. Prince-Blythewood chased the project (produced by Lauren Shuler Donner, Will Smith and Joe Pichirallo) after it fell apart at Focus Features, and brought more Civil Rights consciousness to her adaptation for Fox Searchlight. Being a screenwriter, said the UCLA film school grad, has made all the difference in being able to direct movies like Love and Basketball (a fave of mine) and Bees. Despite the eclectic casting, from Brits Okonedo and Paul Bettany to untrained actor-singers Keys and Hudson, the ensemble hangs together. Even though the director wound up casting some mighty crooners in the film, Prince-Blythewood kept the singing to a minimum. "I was afraid it would pull the audience out of the movie," she said.
The Secret Life of Bees opens October 17.
[Originally appeared on Variety.com]