Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Oprah's America

Oprah's America is one of the better Americas out there (just compare it with Bush's America -- a paranoid place of an imaginary "war on terror" covering up a stinking pile of lies).

Oh, Oprah, 20 Years of Talk, Causes and Self-Improvement -- by Alessandra Stanley

"Let's face it," Oprah Winfrey says about her start as a Chicago talk-show host in the mid-1980's, "there was nobody that looked like me."

Two decades later, there is still no one on television who looks as she did then: heavyset, black, female and sporting an Afro that made her look more like Angela Davis than Angelina Jolie.

Her looks have changed strikingly over the last two decades, but there is still no one quite like Ms. Winfrey on television, or in the entertainment business. Her talk show has inspired all kinds of imitations, but no other television personality has attained anything near Ms. Winfrey's wealth, fame, fans and influence. She is a media mogul who is to self-improvement what Martha Stewart is to home entertaining, but Ms. Winfrey's multiple personalities - celebrity confidante, self-help evangelist and benefactress to the needy - are unmatched. She is her own version of a United Nations educational and cultural organization: "O"-nesco.

It's easy - and sometimes fun - to mock her queenly stature and cult following. (A "Saturday Night Live" skit once portrayed her studio audience as madwomen who get so excited their heads explode.) Lèse-Oprah-majesté can also be a little dangerous - as the Texas cattle industry, the novelist Jonathan Franzen and the head of Hermès, the Parisian store that famously did not let Ms. Winfrey in at closing time, learned the hard way.

To observe the 20th anniversary of the debut of her nationally syndicated talk show, Ms. Winfrey has released a six-disc DVD collection of her greatest moments - a maudlin, self-congratulatory video memoir that is entirely deserved and mesmerizing to watch.

It's not just that her rise to fame turned into a uniquely satisfying parable of the American dream, though hers is a remarkable story. Ms. Winfrey was born into poverty in Mississippi and refers to herself as a "former colored girl." Like another prominent African-American, Condoleezza Rice, Ms. Winfrey owes her distinctive first name to a spelling error: she was supposed to be named Orpah, after a figure in the Book of Ruth, but someone transposed the letters at the registry.

Most significantly, she presents her triumph over adversity, discrimination and child abuse in positive terms that allow Americans to feel better about themselves - a quid pro quo that she shamelessly exploits for good, goading viewers to improve themselves and also give something back. Ms. Winfrey, who speaks in slow, emphatic phrases, can be deadly earnest at times, but she also brought fun to philanthropy. Hers is a frilly pulpit: the self-made billionaire appears to spend as freely and gleefully on friends, strangers and the needy as herself.

For every crass audience give-away (last year she gave a new car, donated by Pontiac, to each of her 276 audience members), her show matches it with a call to alms. Almost all talk shows raised money for tsunami and Katrina victims. Ms. Winfrey makes a point of also embracing less obvious causes. The collection includes snippets from several segments that Ms. Winfrey did on obstetric fistula in Ethiopia, where many young women who give birth too young are left with internal holes that leave them trickling bodily wastes and shunned by their families.

Ms. Winfrey interviewed an elderly Australian obstetrician-gynecologist, Dr. Catherine Hamlin, who has been performing fistula surgery on tens of thousands of young Ethiopian women for more than 30 years. Until Nicholas D. Kristof wrote a column in The New York Times about their fate in 2003, only Australian newspapers and European medical journals paid much attention to those women. Ms. Winfrey's show - and subsequent visit to the clinic in Addis Ababa - introduced the subject to millions of viewers, instantly raising public awareness as well as $2.2 million in donations to date. To her credit, Ms. Winfrey admits that she resisted doing the story until a stubborn producer told her she knew "in her soul" that this was a cause worthy of Oprah-giving. (Apparently, employees of her company invoke their souls when they want the boss's full attention.)

The DVD's serve as a kind of "This Is My Life" video memoir. The talk-show host reminisces in her living room, a polished narrative woven around old clips, everything from a 1983 audition tape to interviews with the likes of Nicole Kidman, Sidney Poitier and Lisa Marie Presley to theme shows about race, abuse and, of course, obesity.

The collection graphically illustrates Ms. Winfrey's lifelong battle with her weight - and her candor about it. In 1984 she confided to a studio audience that she once was so desperate for comfort food she ate two-year-old frozen hotdog buns smothered in syrup. Nowadays, size 4 actresses and television personalities routinely wail about their thighs to enlist audience sympathy. Ms. Winfrey earned it the hard way.

The DVD's also serve as a timeline of social change in the country, chronicling homophobia and AIDS in the mid-80's, the O. J. Simpson trial, and terrorism and Internet child pornography today.

When she began in 1984, the most successful talk-show hosts were like Phil Donahue, men who understood women. Ms. Winfrey was her audience, ennobling her viewers' struggles by sharing her own. And in doing so, she invented a new genre of television. Her light touch, funny asides delivered in a variety of accents, particularly black street talk, never concealed her messianic sense of purpose. She stayed above the Jerry Springer-esque trash TV of the early 90's, and revolutionized the publishing industry in 1996 with her book club; a selection almost automatically guarantees the sale of hundreds of thousands of copies. After briefly stopping her book club and then picking only classics, including novels by Faulkner and Tolstoy, she decided to open up the club to all types of books, recently choosing a contemporary memoir by James Frey, which has sold more than a million copies.

One of the highpoints of the collection is Oprah's 50th-birthday bash in January 2004, a live, fawning tribute worthy of an Ottoman potentate: on a stage hung with crystal chandeliers and giant Oprah Winfrey portraits framed in orchids, crystals and more than 2,000 roses, John Travolta and Jay Leno paid homage, as did Nelson Mandela, who in a taped message said she was "one of the most remarkable young ladies in the world." A boy on a respirator tells Ms. Winfrey, "I love you so much." Adorable African girls gave thanks to "Mama Oprah" in between serenades by Tina Turner and Stevie Wonder. The cake weighed 400 pounds and was decorated with sugar roses and edible, gold-trimmed, hand-painted portraits of Oprah.

The whole extravaganza is embarrassingly lavish and over the top, and not nearly enough.

2 Comments:

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