In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the new movie from HBO, Oprah Winfrey plays Deborah Lacks, the daughter of a medical miracle. She’s a Baltimorean who nearly suffers a stroke from the stress of trying to find out what happened to her mother, Henrietta. What she discovers, as reported by Rebecca Skloot in her 2010 book, is the story of how researchers at Johns Hopkins took some of her mother’s cervical cancer cells without her permission and found that they could be kept alive outside of her body, producing a research tool that helped lead to numerous medical advances, including the polio vaccine.
For Oprah, it’s a chance at a major TV-movie role that combines some of her greatest gifts as an actress: her tendency to choose roles that merge personal history with national conversations, her warm sense of humor, and her knack for familiar melodrama. Her performance succeeds where the movie, which pushes her toward its own antic ends, cannot. But it also feels like a summation of some of Oprah’s key film work so far — including behind the scenes.
Oprah, the Actor
Oprah didn’t so much arrive on the acting scene as crash-land into it — her opening moments in The Color Purple show her character Miss Sofia stomping brazenly up to her future father-in-law’s house. It’s a role Oprah has said she dreamed of getting, having been obsessed with the 1982 book by Alice Walker. "People were saying, ‘Somebody’s going to make a movie about that,’" she told Collider in 2014. "And I say, ‘God, you’ve got to get me in that movie.’ Now, I had never been in a movie. I didn’t know anything about movies. But, I started praying to be in the movie."
The experience changed her life. At the time of her audition, she was the host of A.M. Chicago, which had yet to become known as The Oprah Winfrey Show, but was well on its way. She was hosting 220 shows a year; she had to give up her vacation weeks to film the movie. She went to such lengths as to enroll at a "fat farm" to lose weight for the role until the director, Steven Spielberg, advised her against it. Ironically, everyone who’s seen The Color Purple remembers Miss Sofia for her indomitable spirit, which, as played by Oprah, is in part asserted by her size. She’s the character who, when hit by her husband, slugs him back — and whose defiance the story makes a point of punishing in order to prove her resilience.
It’s a role Oprah seemed to know inside out. "I knew the character so well," she says. "I had a journal for the character. I had based her on my aunt and my grandmother, and people that I knew. I could tell you her favorite color, and it wasn’t purple." She’ll of course go down in history for the best line in the movie: "All my life I had to fight." That phrase become shorthand for summing up one’s struggles: "All my life I had to fight" has jokingly become a slogan for a way of life. But what stands out now is how anti-glamorous the role is — even for Oprah, who specializes in downtrodden roles.
Her next major film role would come over 10 years later, in 1998. In an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Oprah starred as Sethe, a runaway slave who kills one of her children to prevent them returning to slavery, and who’s haunted by the ghost of her dead child thereafter. It’s the role that proved she was a genuine, versatile screen presence — and it was another trip into the historical past.
That trend would continue in 2013, with her role in Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Oprah plays Gloria Gaines, the wife of Cecil Gaines, who’s loosely based on the black White House butler Eugene Allen. In the movie, Cecil serves under multiple White House administrations, most notably that of President Kennedy, as his wife Gloria languishes at home. Well, that’s not entirely true: she does have a life of her own, to the tune of an affair with a neighbor and a drinking problem. The story of Gloria Gaines is the story of many women in movies about men and history. The main action is Cecil; Gloria is on the sidelines.
This doesn’t sound like it’d be a great role for Oprah, and indeed, The Butler is much less interesting or accomplished than Ava DuVernay’s Selma, in which Oprah had a significant role (as activist Annie Lee Cooper). But The Butler provides Oprah with a chance to make the role meatier than it would appear to be. It gives her a lot to chew on and play with — big wigs, red nail polish, and an attitude that extends to jealously interrogating her husband about how many shoes Jackie Kennedy has, since he never tells her anything. She feels left behind: As Cecil, working alongside the nation’s presidents for three decades, gets swept into the broader tides of history, Gloria anxiously tries to ride along.
Oprah’s performance understands that, even as Daniels’s direction seems not to. It doesn’t matter. The best Oprah roles give her a chance to play the radical opposite of who she is for the public: the humble woman she used to be, rather than the woman she currently is. Gloria Gaines is not, as written, a role worthy of a star, but Oprah is a star enough on her own that it doesn’t need to be.
Oprah, the Producer
Beloved is the first theatrical release Oprah produced herself. (She had to that point most prominently executive-produced the TV series The Women of Brewster Place, which she also starred in, and the 1998 Halle Berry TV movie The Wedding.) Oprah spent 10 years trying to get Beloved made. It was directed by Jonathan Demme without much regard for commercial demands. Oprah says she underestimated the utter unlikelihood that a faithful adaptation of Morrison’s novel would really make sense; she was trying to do the novel justice.
"I had the studios saying, ‘You should cut this. You should cut that. It’s not testing well,’" she told Collider. "I said, ‘I don’t care about that. What I care about is honoring the work, and honoring what Toni Morrison put on the page.’ But, I would do that differently now because I want millions of people to see it. That would be my intention. I learned, and it was a really expensive mistake."
Beloved opened the same weekend as Bride of Chucky. It tanked. But the lessons learned were valuable. Oprah’s later producing efforts for theatrical releases — Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters, the Helen Mirren vehicle The Hundred-Foot Journey, and, most notable of all, Ava DuVernay’s Selma — were all more successful mainstream projects, critically but especially commercially. Selma stands out as a difficult and slyly untraditional project, with its reorienting of the civil-rights movie away from figureheads toward understanding the movement as a tense grassroots operation. The movie nevertheless found a wide audience. And in between those projects, Oprah has continued a healthy run of executive-producing credits on TV — up to and including the book adaptations The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Even as a movie producer, Oprah has a taste for literary and historical narratives about black women. She’s opened a space in movies and television for those narratives as a creator, and not just as a star.
Oprah, the Fan
For all of her efforts in front of the camera and behind the scenes, it’s easy to forget Oprah’s primary relationship to movies: as a fan. It’s impossible to conjure memories of The Oprah Winfrey Show without remembering her on-air love affairs with the likes of Julia Roberts, George Clooney, and Tom Cruise — who could forget Tom Cruise?
I grew up watching Oprah’s movie specials, and hearing actors and directors dish souped-up but ultimately mundane details about moviemaking with giddy excitement on Oprah’s couch. I remember, distinctly, Kate Winslet dishing how many takes it took her to nail spitting at Billy Zane on Titanic, and Robin Williams and Nathan Lane taking the show hostage with their antics circa The Birdcage. Oprah’s was the show that made me fall in love with celebrity. Her celebrity interviews always felt like chats with dear friends — in fact, they were, making her movie specials gracefully toe the line between intimate conversation and persona overload. We recently had occasion to revisit Oprah’s interview with Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, in which the two women held forth about their tumultuous relationship, and Fisher’s battles with drugs and alcohol, with a frankness they’d rarely shown the public. The interview is exemplary.
Oprah’s own love of movies was a recurring theme throughout her show — and something I missed when the show ended. Her love of movies inflected the choices she made as an actress and producer; her love of stardom has affected her own flirtation with it. It’s what I can’t help but think of when I see Oprah onscreen. Oprah has star quality — and in the course of her career in movies, she’s made her own way.