While Oprah Winfrey’s acting career may not be voluminous, the legendary talk-show host revealed on Wednesday night at Santa Barbara’s Arlington Theatre that her film roles have triggered the most important turning points in her life.
From her miraculous landing of a part in 1985’s The Color Purple (which taught her about the “principle of surrender” and set the stage for her owning her own talk show) to her disappointment at the box-office failure of 1998’s Beloved (which made he realize the importance of “intention”) to her triumphant return to acting in last year’s The Butler (which is ushering her the next phase of the soon-to-be-60-year-old’s career), the Montecito resident’s big-screen efforts have opened her eyes both professionally and spiritually over the years. With unflinching honesty and a seemingly genuine care for the audience and humankind at large, Winfrey shared her inspirational, interesting, and often humorous insights during the onstage interview with Los Angeles Times film critic John Horn as part of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s tribute evening, which concluded with her receiving the fest’s Montecito Award.
The laughs started seconds after the black-and-white-clad Winfrey danced across the Arlington Theatre stage on Wednesday night and took her seat across from Horn, as she poked fun at herself for having such an unimpressive “body of work.”
“John,” she said to Horn, “when they said that you’re going to be interviewing me for my body of work, you looked and said …”
“Ten-minute conversation,” he quipped.
“Well,” laughed Winfrey, “I know how Santa Barbarans like to be home by 9:30. We’ll get you home!”
Then she started sharing all of the movie-related anecdotes she had, starting with her obsession over The Color Purple book and the quirky turns of events (Quincy Jones discovering her on Chicago morning TV, casting agents casting her aside, lots of praying, call to a fat farm from Steven Spielberg) that led to her getting the role. The two discussed the triumphs of African-American filmmakers in 2013, how Winfrey learned to act and cry on demand, the 10 years she spent getting Toni Morrison’s Beloved book made into a movie, and how she resolved, after that experience, to “only do the things that matter.”
As per the usual SBIFF tribute format, Winfrey’s anecdotes and Horn’s questions were interspersed with clips of her acting, including segments for each of the aforementioned films as well as for her role in 1986’s Native Son (which she disliked) and voice-overs as Mother Goose in Charlotte’s Web (in which she felt was miscast, seriously) and the seamstress in the The Princess and the Frog. The Montecito Award itself was presented by former SBIFF president and Winfrey’s friend, Jeffrey Barbakow, who was filling in for an ill Jane Fonda.
Upon accepting, Winfrey was effusive in her comments. “One of the greatest opportunities that I think we all have as human beings and actors is to stand in another person’s shoes,” she said. “To peer for a moment into someone else’s soul is really what true empathy and grace and what being a real human being is all about …. This award will keep me stepping in the right direction, whether that’s acting in film, producing film, or maybe even directing.”