LOS ANGELES – Oprah. Oscar. Oscar. Oprah.
Yes, it might be a bit early to riff on David Letterman’s ill-fated, Uma-Oprah 1995 Academy Awards monologue bit. Then again, with Winfrey’s movie “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” sitting atop the box office for a second week with a 10-day take of $52 million, and Winfrey herself 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 said. “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 required by her husband’s job. “You and the White House can kiss my ...,” 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 said, while admitting, at the same time, that not everyone seeing 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 last two decades.
And though he didn’t technically win an Academy Award, Al Gore received a thunderous ovation when he took the stage after the documentary about his campaign to educate the public on climate change, “An Inconvenient Truth,” won the Oscar.
On the acting side, Jennifer Hudson jumped from “American Idol” to Oscar-winner for her supporting turn in the 2006 movie 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 fell short of 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, playing a former slave in Jonathan Demme’s 1998 film adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved.” The movie – and Winfrey – received generally positive reviews but was a commercial disaster, earning just $22.8 million at the box office.
Since then, Winfrey’s influence has continued to grow with multiple platforms – the Oprah Winfrey Network; O, The Oprah Magazine; Oprah Radio on XM; the Oprah.com website – which she has used to promote “The Butler” and, in theory, could continue to use to campaign for the movie and herself through the awards season.
As with any powerful figure whose name has become part of the pop culture vernacular (Oprahfication, anyone?), Winfrey has her detractors too.
All things equal in a contest like the Oscars where 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 really understand that kind of thinking, but does remember initial skepticism among some members of the movie’s cast and crew about Winfrey’s acting ability.
Should Winfrey end up nominated, the second happiest group would probably be ABC network executives, knowing Winfrey generally draws a crowd and would likely boost the show’s ratings.
Some 72 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.