The Oscar nominations were announced yesterday, and Oprah Winfrey didn’t receive a nod for her role in The Butler. This is a shame, because I thought that Oprah was terrific in the movie; she was funny and sexy and relaxed, and it looked like she was having a good time.
In honor of Ms. Winfrey, here’s the story of my one and only appearance on her late, great afternoon TV show.
My being asked to appear on Oprah didn’t make that much sense, but of course I was thrilled to be there. I was part of a panel on an episode entitled It’s Okay To Like High Culture.
Before I go any further, I should mention that the year was 1995. Oprah was taping two shows back-to-back. As I was sitting in the hair-and-make-up room, the verdict in the O.J. Simpson case was announced, on a nearby TV. Because of scheduling constraints, Oprah couldn’t discuss the verdict on the air. But there was a buzz, because this was one of the most racially divisive trials ever, and Oprah remains the most well-known and successful African-American woman in US history.
The first segment of the show had been pre-taped. It was a video of, if I remember correctly, Oprah taking a group of Chicago firefighters on a tour of a local art museum, to help them understand and appreciate all sorts of paintings and sculpture.
Then my segment began. When Oprah made her entrance, the audience went berserk. None of this was in any way phony or encouraged by the show’s staff. The love for Oprah was heartfelt, overpowering and impressive. For a moment, I realized that Oprah was in a very rare and at times difficult position: she had to both acknowledge this adoration and cut through it, so people would listen to her.
I know that at times, Oprah can seem regal, but that day she was warm and generous and charming. The panel consisted of the irresistible playwright Wendy Wasserstein; a woman who was then the style editor of Essence magazine; me and maybe a few other people – this was a while ago. Oprah knew all our names and resumes, and she was interested and encouraging. I’d already been a major Oprah fan, and now, well, I was in awe.
The panel discussed theater and dance and other cultural matters. The show’s final segment consisted of two amazing teenage Chinese contortionists, maybe from Cirque du Soleil, who could turn themselves into tables and boxes and God knows what else.
I’m still not sure what the contortionists had to do with high culture, but they were fun to watch. It would be easy to mock the show, but Oprah, as always, was coaxing her extremely mainstream audience along. Oprah was, and remains, invaluable, in educating and sometimes transforming America. I remember her having Klan members on her show, and she devoted many programs to gay lives, the AIDS crisis, transgendered people, her book club and, of course, every possible issue affecting women. She’s also used her wealth to do so much good, from opening her school in South Africa to helping the victims of Katrina and other natural disasters. Plus, she was very funny in her guest shot on 30 Rock, when Tina Fey over-shared with her on a plane.
I didn’t get to talk to Oprah about the O.J. verdict, but I saw that she was conferring with her staff, about planning an upcoming episode.
I wasn’t paid to be on the show, but I was flown to Chicago and I received an Oprah mug, which my Mom treasured, and used to hold pens and pencils.
The Butler is both a very entertaining movie and a fascinating cultural artifact. Oprah’s presence reverberates, in a story about racial discrimination and racial progress. Oprah is a gifted actress, and the film somehow includes an awareness of her stature, and her role in American history. And while I’m sure that Oprah wouldn’t turn down an Oscar nomination, she doesn’t really need one. She’s Oprah.