The Oprah Winfrey we see on the cover of her own magazine always looks so perfect and glossy and unlined, it’s almost as if she’s an avatar of herself.
Hey. If I had a magazine called “R” and I were inclined to put myself on every cover, you wouldn’t see me looking like I do right now. Or how I ever look in real life.
But Winfrey the actress has never shown the slightest hesitation to strip away all vanity in the service of the character. From Oprah’s Oscar-nominated work in “The Color Purple” (1985) through her fine performances in films such as “Beloved” and “Selma,” she has demonstrated a remarkable ability to disappear into characters whose adult lives couldn’t be more dissimilar to hers.
Yes, I know. It’s called acting. And with her nomination-worthy work in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Oprah provides further evidence that if she had never hosted a single hour of daytime talk in her life, if she had never become one of the most powerful and beloved humans on the planet, she could have fashioned a stellar career as a full-time actress.
Wearing a whistle affixed to a “WWJD” cloth necklace, sporting close-cropped gray hair, moving about with great purpose and urgency despite having to use a cane, Winfrey is a force playing Deborah, the 50-something daughter of a woman whose cancerous cells were the basis for some of the most important medical discoveries of the 20th century.
A woman whose tissue was cultivated without her knowledge and consent. A woman whose name was almost forgotten by history.
Winfrey’s performance is the best thing in the HBO movie “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” an informative and competently executed but uneven drama about the woman whose cancerous cells based on journalist Rebecca Skloot’s non-fiction book about Henrietta’s legacy, both medical and familial.
As we’re told in an opening montage that combines black-and-white re-creations and newsreel-type footage accompanied by a jazzy score by Branford Marsalis, in 1951 doctors at Johns Hopkins removed a cancerous sample from Henrietta’s cervix — and made a remarkable discovery. Dubbed “HeLa,” the cells demonstrated a near-miraculous resiliency, and were integral in the creation of everything from Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine to medication to combat cancer and AIDS.
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” picks up the story some 40 years later, with journalist Rebecca working diligently to persuade Deborah (and Henrietta’s other grown children) to allow her to tell Henrietta’s story.
Through flashbacks, we learn the horrifying truth about Deborah’s sister, who died at 15. We hear about doctors cultivating the DNA of Deborah when she was a child, without explaining why. We see Henrietta herself (Renee Elise Goldsberry, doing fine work) in flashbacks, putting a human face on “HeLa” before she became a posthumous, nearly anonymous medical breakthrough.
As for Rebecca’s primary source, Deborah: She alternates between being a willing and enthusiastic partner, and an unpredictable, deeply skeptical obstacle.
Deborah faced physical and emotional challenges most of her life. She’s prone to spouting conspiracy theories to Rebecca — waving VHS copies of “Jurassic Park” and “The Clone” in Rebecca’s face and claiming these films are proof science is using her late mother’s cells for all kinds of crazy experiments.
“That’s just science fiction,” says Rebecca.
“It’s ALL science fiction!” retorts Deborah, who also interprets the cloning of her mother’s cells to mean there could be hundreds of people walking around London that look exactly like her mother.
Rose Byrne as Rebecca sometimes overplays it with the nervous laugh and the mannerisms — but she has a great moment when she finally stops coddling Deborah and stands up to her.
The great supporting cast includes Reg E. Cathey, Courtney B. Vance and Leslie Uggams. At times it feels as if director and co-writer George C. Wolfe has encouraged the actors to play to the rafters, as if they’re in a stage work. The number of scenes in which someone EXPLODES with rage or sorrow or resentment could have been cut in half.
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is a good movie with a great performance. Oprah Winfrey does honor to the memory of Deborah Lacks, who did honor to the memory of her mother Henrietta.
HBO Films presents a film directed by George C. Wolfe and written by Wolfe, Peter Landesman and Alexander Woo, based on the book by Rebecca Skloot. Running time: 95 minutes. Debuts at 7 p.m. Saturday on HBO.