Oprah Winfrey has been recognized by the Oscars twice: once with a best supporting actress nomination for her astoundingly moving turn in 1985’s “The Color Purple” and once for being Oprah (she won an honorary Oscar in 2011 for her humanitarian work).
Unfortunately, in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” it’s the second Oprah — the OPRAH Oprah — who shows up.
Winfrey plays Gloria, the wife of the film’s lead character. Gloria is a great role, a complex, imperfect woman who turns to alcohol when her husband’s job as a White House butler winds up involving a lot more than either of them planned. She’s funny and flawed and smart and sexy and well within Winfrey’s range as an actor. It’s just that Oprah’s fame now limits her in unanticipated ways.
Once a week, I see Oprah’s face at the grocery store on the cover of her magazine; that doesn’t happen with any other actress working today. Even Angelina Jolie gets a break some months. Yes, Winfrey’s performance is a good one, but it’s become impossible for her to disappear into a role; it may be unfair, but some viewers will half expect Gloria to start handing out cars.
Plenty of other stars have had to deal with their instantly recognizable faces; often, they get awards when they cover their faces with prosthetics, lose or gain weight, or do something else to distract audiences into thinking that it’s not really Nicole Kidman or Christian Bale up on the screen.
Malleable actors such as Gary Oldman or Meryl Streep have something that lets them vanish rather easily. And, had she pursued acting as her sole career, Winfrey might have been one of them.
Instead, she chose a path where her ticket to fame was being herself — and that’s gotten in the way of her becoming someone else.