Oprah. Oscar. Oscar. Oprah.
Yes, it might be a bit early to riff on David Letterman’s ill-fated Uma-Oprah monologue bit from the 1995 Academy Awards. Then again, with Winfrey’s movie “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” sitting atop the box office for a third straight week, and Winfrey earning solid critical praise for her first acting turn since 1998’s “Beloved,” the conversation has already started, like it or not. And given the brand name in question, that debate will be spirited, intense and, to some extent, managed by Winfrey herself, as she has the built-in advantage of owning her own television channel and magazine.
“She’s an overpowering presence in our culture. You can’t pretend otherwise,” film critic Leonard Maltin says. “But that’s what makes her work in ‘The Butler’ impressive. She succeeds in making you forget that she’s Oprah Winfrey so you can accept and embrace the character she’s playing.”
That character, Gloria Gaines, is the conflicted, proud wife of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a White House butler who serves eight presidents. Gloria grows discontented by the long hours her husband’s job requires. “You and the White House can kiss my [expletive],” she tells Cecil at one point. “I don’t care what goes on in that White House. I care what goes on in this house.”
Though Gloria isn’t the title character, director Daniels affords her plenty of screen time — even when she isn’t speaking. Often in group scenes where she has little to say, Daniels keeps the shot tight on Winfrey, affording her the opportunity to reveal the inner life of her complicated character.
“Those eyes are mesmerizing,” Daniels says, while admitting that not everyone who saw the rough cut of the movie shared his enthusiasm for those long close-ups of Winfrey. “You know what it is? She’s got Bette Davis eyes. They were hypnotic, and I was seduced.”
Will Oscar voters be similarly beguiled? Academy members can be star-struck, too, particularly when the talent in question comes from outside the usual circle of filmmaking friends and acquaintances.
Musicians have been the most-rewarded interlopers over the years, with Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Eminem, Phil Collins and Melissa Etheridge winning Oscars for original song over the past two decades.
And though he didn’t technically win an Academy Award, Al Gore received a thunderous ovation when he took the stage after “An Inconvenient Truth,” the documentary about his campaign to educate the public on climate change, won the Oscar.
On the acting side, Jennifer Hudson jumped from “American Idol” to Oscar winner for her supporting turn in the 2006 musical “Dreamgirls.” Omnipresent music star Justin Timberlake received a for-your-consideration campaign for playing Napster founder Sean Parker in David Fincher’s 2010 drama “The Social Network,” though he didn’t get a nomination.
Winfrey has been to the dance before, earning a supporting-actress nomination for her high-spirited turn in Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple” in 1986. She further established her acting credentials by playing a former slave in Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved.” The movie, and Winfrey, received generally positive reviews, but the film was a commercial disaster, earning just $22.8 million at the box office.
Since then, Winfrey’s influence has continued to grow. She has used multiple platforms — the Oprah Winfrey Network; O, the Oprah Magazine; Oprah Radio on XM; Oprah.com — to promote “The Butler” and, in theory, could continue to use them to campaign for the movie and herself through the awards season.
Like any powerful figure whose name has become part of the pop-culture vernacular (Oprahfication, anyone?), Winfrey has her detractors, too.
All things being equal in a contest like the Oscars — in which voters’ personal tastes and biases enter the equation — envy sometimes plays a part. Several academy members last year privately said they wouldn’t vote for Spielberg or his movie “Lincoln” because, in the words of one balloter, “he already has enough recognition for three lifetimes.”
Daniels says he doesn’t understand that kind of thinking, but he does remember initial skepticism among some members of the movie’s cast and crew about Winfrey’s acting ability.
“I think some of the actors came to the set with eyebrows raised,” he says. “I didn’t care. I knew where we were going, and I knew she could deliver. And they found out, too, once they got in the room with her.”
Should Winfrey be nominated, the second-happiest group would probably be ABC network executives, knowing that Winfrey generally draws a crowd and would probably boost the show’s ratings.
Seventy-two percent of “The Butler’s” opening-weekend ticket-buyers said Winfrey increased the likelihood that they’d see the movie.
“She’s the most powerful woman on the planet,” Daniels says. “I don’t want people thinking I’m an Oprah psycho-fan, even though I happen to be one. Sometimes, I’m still amazed she’s in the movie.”