August 21, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

STARRING Oprah Winfrey, Thandie Newton, Danny Glover, Kimberly Elise, Lisagay Hamilton

DIRECTED BY Jonathan Demme

Winfrey, who has been coddling Toni Morrison’s complex Pulitzer Prize-winning novel for 10 years, not only dressed up for the lead role but acted as producer and den mother during the production. ”The work on the set every day was so painful,” she says, ”I was up in the middle of the night looking for Advil and Aleve.” Elise (Set It Off) — who plays one of Winfrey’s daughters — found one scene so wrenching it left her ”physically sick. At the end of the film, it took me two weeks to get back on my feet.”

Popcorn fare it’s not. Winfrey stars as an escaped slave who’s haunted by a child she murdered; she familiarized herself with her character’s history by trekking across part of the Underground Railroad. But Richard LaGravenese (who gets screenplay credit with Adam Brooks and Akosua Busia) may have traveled the toughest road — teasing a straightforward plotline out of Morrison’s much-lauded but occasionally confounding narrative. Difficult adaptations are nothing new to him; he smartened up The Bridges of Madison County for director Clint Eastwood, but ”to me, this is literature,” he says. ”It was a structural challenge to tell the story because she goes in and out of time.”

A different kind of structural challenge was posed by the cast’s period costumes. ”They got a lot of authentic stuff,” says Elise. ”There’s one scene where I had to carry Beloved, and Thandie [Newton] is like a feather, but when she gave me all her weight, I had this antique jacket on and it just went kccch! They kept running in to sew it up and it would rip again … the costumers were sweating.”

Meanwhile, Oprah was sweating her first ever on-screen love scene. She prepared by sucking lemons, reasoning that mouthwash would be too ”obvious” to costar Glover, who plays another former slave. ”By the end of the day I was having a good old time,” she sighs, ”but it was difficult at first. There’s nothing like lying in bed in a G-string all day long.” (Oct. 16)

THE LOWDOWN Remember: This is the fall’s first obvious Oscar contender. Also remember: your Kleenex.

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