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SANTA BARBARA – The 29th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Montecito Award was presented on Wednesday evening to Montecito’s most celebrated resident, Oprah Winfrey, before a capacity crowd at Santa Barbara’s historic Arlington Theatre.
Almost immediately upon dancing onto the stage and taking her seat across from the moderator, Los Angeles Times columnist John Horn, Winfrey, who turned 60 last week, made light of the fact that she was receiving an award for her collective cinematic “body of work.” She openly acknowledged that it encompasses fewer than a half-dozen films over 29 years — The Color Purple (1985), Native Son (1986), Beloved (1998) and Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013), plus three animated films for which she voiced characters — and that she’s not entirely proud of all of those. Instead, she said, she saw the evening as a warm embrace from her neighbors — and one that will inspire her to do her best at whatever film-related endeavor comes next, be it “acting, producing — or maybe even directing,” she teased.
Being in the hot seat, as opposed to peppering others with questions, is something to which Winfrey is clearly not accustomed. She spent a lot of her time on stage facing — and playing to — the crowd, whom she had wrapped around her finger as she recounted the highlights and lowlights of her life and career, just as she did for 25 years on The Oprah Winfrey Show. But Horn did as nice a job as anyone probably could have, in terms of steering her thoughts in general directions that led into various clips that were interspersed throughout the conversation. (And Winfrey deserves credit for showing up at all, since a number of other people who agreed to attend before the Oscar nominations announcement on Jan. 16 and then got bad news, like Winfrey, did not honor their commitments to attend the fest.)
Winfrey cites landing her first film role, in The Color Purple, as the greatest moment — and miracle — of her remarkable life. Already a fast-rising talk show host in Chicago, she had never acted before in any capacity, but had loved Alice Walker‘s novel and dreamed of acting in a big-screen adaptation of it. Thanks to Quincy Jones, who caught her on the air during a visit to Chicago, she was given the chance to audition for the part of Sofia in front of Steven Spielberg and, to her shock, win it over the likes of Alfre Woodard.
Getting the job was one thing; doing it was another. “I hadn’t had an acting lesson,” she recalled. “I didn’t know what acting was!” (To that end, she confessed that she looked directly into the camera on the first take — “I did not have the skills!”) One night during the production, she was in the motel where the cast was staying and she was trying to force herself to cry in order to be able to do so on the set. (“I knew you’ve got to tell the truth, but how do you tell the truth and act?’) Her costar Adolph Caesar heard her through the wall, came into her room and said, “If the character wants to cry, she’ll cry. And if she doesn’t, not even Steven Spielberg can make her do it,” advice Winfrey found helpful and reassuring. “I have never been happier in my life than I was doing The Color Purple,” she emphasized.
But after the film, for which she received an Oscar nomination, she acted in only one other, Native Son (“I’m not proud of it at all”), before turning her attention almost entirely to her “day job” as a talk show host for more than a decade. “I learned I wasn’t gonna be able to do both,” she said.
But reading Toni Morrison‘s novel Beloved, Winfrey saw another role she had to play. She tracked down Morrison, acquired the rights and spent a decade trying to get it made in a way that would please its author. “I was very adamant about maintaining the integrity of the book,” Winfrey noted. “If I had it to do over again, I would do it differently.” As it played out, the film opened on a Friday and it was already clear by Saturday morning that it had bombed at the box office, losing out to Bride of Chucky to add insult to injury. “I went into sort of a depression — a numbing depression — about it,” she confessed. “I was devastated by it.”
Apart from voicing a few characters in animated films — she felt that she was miscast as the voice of a goat in Charlotte’s Web, noting, “I hate to say it; I’d have been a better cow” — she stayed away from filmmaking for 15 years before Lee Daniels finally convinced her to come back again in Lee Daniels’ The Butler. It wasn’t an ideal time for her, considering she was struggling to launch her TV network OWN, but she wanted to work with Daniels, whose Precious she had helped produce. He had previously expressed interest in her for the part of a terrible mother that Mo’Nique eventually played in Precious (he never followed up) and for the part of a killer that Melissa Leo eventually played in Prisoners (she told him, “Don’t ever send me anything even kind of like that again,” and told the audience, “I won’t kill people — I just have a personal thing about it”). But it wasn’t until she read the part of Gloria Gaines that she knew she had to adjust her busy schedule to do a film.
Acting as someone other than her “authentic self” didn’t come back right away. She recruited the acting coach Susan Batson to help her reconnect with her emotions, and eventually managed to; she found that thinking about an old boyfriend who had driven away as she hung on to the bumper of his car was an effective method. But she primarily credited Daniels and her leading man, Forest Whitaker. She said of her Color Purple and Beloved costar Danny Glover and Whitaker: “They make you better.”
Now, with her daily TV show behind her, her life is a little less hectic than it used to be, but she doesn’t feel obligated to say yes to everything, preferring instead to do “only things that matter.” She sees her purpose as trying “to help people see the light in themselves,” emphasizing, “I’m in the storytelling business. Everybody has a story, and your story is as important as the next person’s.” And while everyone’s story may, indeed, be equally important, hers is inordinately remarkable. Noting that she is the descendant of a maid who descended from a maid who descended from a slave, she asked the audience, as only Oprah can, “Is that not a miracle?!”
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