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Santa Barbara Film Fest: Oprah and the Light

Oprah’s appearance as honoree of the Montecito Award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival was planned before the Oscar nominations were handed out. There was a lot of drama, old-school Hollywood style, as to whether or not She would receive one. A lifetime dedicated to great literature, promoting worthy films, and inspiring millions had still meant only three films in thirty years. One of those, Lee Daniels’ The Butler maybe the worst casualty of Oscars 2013, according to a select few of us, certainly not according to majority of tastemakers who snickered and laughed at the film the whole way through, from conception to execution — how easy that is to do from behind the quiet safety of a dark room and a computer screen. It was obvious from the outset the film would get the snob treatment, none of this rave reviews stuff the King’s Speech had gotten, or even Forrest Gump. Also obvious from the many snide tweets about the film, Lee Daniels, the subject matter and it looking too much like an “Oscar movie.” Of course, that didn’t stop War Horse, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Blind Side or The Help.

The Butler was a worthy effort for Ms. Winfrey’s return, as it made $115 million at the box office and managed to entertain and move many people, just not the Academy apparently. But The Butler’s story will have an interesting place in Winfrey’s history. We’ll get to that later.

I’ve been attending the Santa Barbara Film Fest for a few years now. I’ve seen gala events for Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett, Martin Scorsese and more. I’ve never seen, and the festival has never seen, the kind of frenzy Oprah’s appearance here stir up. Part of that is because, as Winfrey said, she’s a “hometown girl.” Everyone knows Oprah lives in Montecito, a bit up the road from Santa Barbara. If Beverly Hills had its own Beverly Hills that would be Montecito. It’s the upper crust of the upper crust, a place where you can live if you are extremely wealthy. The world is then your oyster. Except when nature decides to have her way with you and starts a raging fire.

People lined the blocks to try to get in, hoards crowded outside the Arlington looking for a glimpse of the legendary Oprah Winfrey. That was the first hint that people believe who Oprah is and what she’s built, what she’s left behind, is so much bigger than an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. It is so much bigger than the schadenfreude so many experienced when she didn’t get that nomination — the reporters clucking around her at the SAG awards, gossip shows ruminating on how mad she would be. In fact, watching Oprah walk the red carpet, a burst of light in a black sweater and striped skirt, the last thing that’s on your mind is that pitiful Oscar nod.

Those of us who are older women will have grown up with Oprah as our teacher. Her absence every day at 3 O’Clock has left an enormous cultural void. That conversation we would have with Oprah every day mattered. It helped to balance the world of entertainment that has become consumed by the taste of young to middle-aged males — to them Oprah is a joke. But to us women, she was our lifeline to have that daily conversation with the elders. Oprah live and in person is unlike anything I’ve ever personally experienced. As an atheist I’ve never seen evidence of God, nor have looked for it. This is likely my own failing. Oprah is someone who, if she were my church leader, could probably make me a believer. Her energy fills up the room. You hang on every word because she is a master of commanding an audience. She reads the room instantly and gives it what it wants, finds exactly the right pitch and communicates outwardly. She is the only guest in any of the panels I’ve seen here that was more engaging than what was on my Twitter feed. In fact, I was shocked I barely glanced at my phone the entire two hours she was on stage.

Oprah’s light is so bright, in fact, it can’t really be contained. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone like her. Oprah’s conversation here to make light of what she playfully called her “body of work,” meaning the three films she’s done in thirty years. She said that after the Color Purple she got a lot of “You don’t know the trouble I’ve seen” roles — the downtrodden old woman beleaguered with sorrow. She would pass on all of those. Lee Daniels once sent her a script for what would eventually become Prisoners. He wanted her to play the villain but she told him never to send her scripts like that again. When he came to her with The Butler she said yes.

Part of her accepting it was Lee Daniels’ enthusiasm and perseverance. But another part of that was what motivated Daniels as well — to help remind audiences (not necessarily white ones) what the Civil Rights era was really like, what Mississippi was like, in fact, when the young Oprah was born into that world in 1954. There aren’t many who have Oprah’s story to tell. There aren’t any like her at all, but if there are they certainly weren’t born into the apartheid states — poor, raped at an early age, made pregnant but lost the baby before getting a real education and heading out to conquer the world. Turns out success has its own downside. There is an unsetttling element to Oprah: despite her success, her sheer magnificence, she has to continually prove herself again and again.

This happened on a grand scale when Jonathan Franzen made the mistake of dismissing and lamenting the Oprah Book Club sticker for his book The Corrections. Surely if you’re going to write the Great American Novel you want it to never ever become popular with the sort who watched Oprah. God forbid people actually buy your book. How much better to be passed from one pasty white male hand to the next at supper clubs and in libraries before eventually being hailed as the greatest book ever written by some professor at Harvard twenty years later. Franzen’s mistake cost him dearly, as it should have. What a plain fool he was.

But that incident dented Oprah’s dedication to promoting authors. She started promoting books that had been published long ago. She once asked Harper Lee why she never wrote another after To Kill a Mockingbird and Lee reportedly said, “Honey, I put everything into just the one.”

Oprah would later be tested with Beloved, a film she spent ten years of her life bringing to the big screen. Jonathan Demme would direct. The film would lose the top spot at the box office to The Bride of Chucky. That Beloved failed to make any money made it a failure in Hollywood’s eyes. Oprah said she was “devastated” by that but she also admitted that she probably should have listened to the studio heads who kept telling her to edit this out, make that cut — it wasn’t testing well. She admits she wanted to adhere to Toni Morrison’s intention and figured the rest would sort itself out. But alas, movies are a business and that business is dependent upon a certain kind of taste. Naturally, Lee Daniel’s The Butler seemed to have been shaped by what audiences might respond to. But that porridge was too cold. It sold at the box office but was shut out of the Oscar race.

Beloved’s reviews were mixed, with some getting the intent, but others not relating entirely. Remember: you have to make a movie that appeals to mostly white critics (Elvis Mitchell notwithstanding) in order to get into their club. The Butler’s reviews were slightly better than Beloved’s. But the idea is the same — black storytellers must make films that white critics like in order to get into the Oscar race. Beloved was nominated for one Oscar: Best Costume. Well, Vertigo was only nominated for two, honey. Sound and Art Direction. Beloved came out just a year before I started Oscar blogging but I wish I had been around then to make a point of celebrating Oprah’s ten-year dedication to the project at the very least.

That was the year Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture, Steven Spielberg won Best Director. The other Best Picture nominees were Elizabeth, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line and Life is Beautiful. Three WWII movies and two Elizabethan dramas. Oh, Academy.

One of the funniest things she said, among many, was that she was miscast as the Goose in the Princess and the Frog. “I couldn’t play a goose.” Many of her stories about the Color Purple were also great, how Spielberg called her when she was at a fat farm to lose weight at the request of Joan Rivers. “If you lose one pound you might lose this part,” he said to her. She also talked about looking straight into the camera on her first day of shooting. “What are you doing,” Spielberg said. She learned how to act on that movie.

Winfrey is clearly a high achiever. There were never the same obstacles in her mind that plague so many who came out of generation of segregation. Oprah learned early about breaking through the barriers between the black and the white here in the US. But every so often there is a reminder of those limitations. Even still, during her entire discussion not once did the word Oscar come up. Most want to assume that she was dented by her lack of a nomination, even though she’d just received an honorary Oscar the year before. You would know it from either her appearance in Santa Barbara or her demeanor which was like all of the light in the universe infused into one person.

I strolled into the VIP party afterwards where there is always too much to drink. After one of those I tapped Oprah on the shoulder. She turned around and I told her who I was. She immediately started talking Oscar with me, which she can do like a pro, of course. She loves the Oscars and always has. “Alfonso Cuaron is going to win,” she said. “Nope, Steve McQueen is.” A guy standing there taking her picture said, “No way, Cuaron has this by a mile,” then he started quoting stats. Thing is, DGA calls Best Picture more than it calls Best Director — but neither of them realized that. That puts Best Picture more in Gravity’s favor. I didn’t bother explaining this to her I was just happy all that light in a bottle was sharing a few words with me. She looks right at you when she speaks to you and listens to what you are saying. I told her my theory about how those three movies by black filmmakers (African American and African British) told the story of Civil Rights in America as a trilogy — 12 Years a Slave, The Butler and Fruitvale Station. She stopped and thought about it. “I wish I had said that,” she said, before walking away. “That would have been a good thing to say. I wish I had known before.”

That’s the thing about her — as smart as she is, as commanding, as stratospherically successful as she has become, there is humility there too.

At the end of her tribute, when she held her award and spoke to the crowd, she said she planned to do more films, to act and produce and maybe even direct some. No lack of an Oscar nomination is going to stop her, as it should never stop anyone. There aren’t many in this world who can say their presence in it has made it a better place, but Oprah is one of those who doesn’t even have to say it. It is as bright and clear as the Santa Barbara sun that wakes up the city and lights the way.