Unlike so many trumped-up celebrations of famous people, the three-day farewell to Oprah Winfrey taking place — where else? — on The Oprah Winfrey Show can scarcely be dismissed as self-congratulation or hype.
Well, it can be: You don’t throw yourself a “surprise” party, park yourself next to Tom Cruise in the audience to listen to Tom Hanks tell you you changed the course of literacy in America, and watch Beyonce shake her booty while singing, “Oprah, your persuasion/Can build a nation” without succumbing to a wee bit of hype. Winfrey may give off a queenly air much of the time, but she’s as susceptible as any of us regular folks to flattery by compliment or world-class rump-shaking.
Nonetheless, Winfrey has accomplished a helluva lot more than most TV personalities over the quarter century of her talk show.
On Monday’s Oprah salute, Hanks ventured the figure 30 million as the number of books “Oprah’s Book Club” has sold, and even if you take into account the fact that some of those volumes were written by Maya Angelou, that’s still an awful lot of literature that would not otherwise have been consumed by mass America.
Winfrey has encouraged more different sorts of people to feel better about themselves — to solve their problems in ways both practical and spiritual, with greater, demonstrable effectiveness — than any TV personality in the history of the medium this side of Ed Sullivan, and Sullivan did it on the backs of Elvis and the Beatles, not on the strength of his own personality.
When Winfrey started out of Chicago 25 years ago, her seemingly insurmountable competition was Phil Donahue, the silver-white-haired white man who was the class act of daytime television, his syndicated show a mixture of hot topics and serious social-issue discussions. Winfrey might have gone — did go, for a while — the tabloid/cheeseball route as a way of differentiating herself from Donahue. (Sample early show title: “How to Marry the Man/Woman of Your Choice.”)
But then she realized what others knew about her: that she was innately different, distinctive, original. She didn’t have to use Donahue or any other talk-show host as her model, or rebel against those models. All she had to do was understand herself (that is, figure out what it was she wanted from life and trust that those desires were also what millions of other Americans wanted, too) and then be herself. And being herself on camera is one of the greatest talents Winfrey possesses; she’s right up near the top of naturals when the red light goes on; Johnny Carson and Walter Cronkite were her equals, not her superiors.
There had never been anyone on TV like Winfrey before: a woman whose body shape didn’t conform to conventional notions of TV-personality attractiveness. A black woman whose interests, ideas, and curiosity cut across racial lines to appeal to the widest possible range of demographics. A star who pulled off a contradiction that is always at the heart of American stardom: being wealthy, powerful, and willful while coming through the TV screen as frequently humbled and always in touch with ordinary citizens’ lives and needs.
She used her show to express unabashed empathy. (Has any great TV performer shed more spontaneous tears than Oprah?) She used her show to enlighten viewers about American history. (In 1996, her reunion of seven of the Little Rock Nine, black students who had helped desegregate a high school in 1957, was shattering television.) She gave instruction on everything from diet to personal finance.
She used her intense interest in high culture to introduce or shame or charm those viewers, for whom non-pop culture was ignored, into its precincts. Some have rightly twitted her for her excessive awe and her instinct to bend every work of literature or art into therapy — a series of teachable moments — rather than opportunities to lose oneself in a healthily disturbing or rewardingly confusing immersion in stories and themes that should not be reduced to mere life-lessons.
Certainly, she could go over-the-top with her influence and her largesse. Unleashing Dr. Phil upon the world was initially an act designed to share common-sense wisdom she admired only to have the disciple become a king boor. (And don’t even get me started on Deepak Chopra [New Age alt-medicine guru] and Suze Orman [the Bride of Frankenfinance].) Winfrey’s giveaway stunts (“Everybody gets a car!”) were crass but never craven, and so gleefully executed, how can you hold them against her?
I don’t think Winfrey is either a saint or a model of transparency. You’re deluded if you actually think her OWN series Oprah: Behind the Scenes isn’t edited within an inch of its life, and filled with employees who know what to say and what not to say about the boss on camera. But let’s face it: Whose boss is a model of transparency?
Speaking of OWN, it’s Winfrey’s next act in life, as she might phrase it, and, typically, a risk. By removing herself from syndicated TV, she’s jettisoning her role as Mighty Culture-Maker. She’ll now be, unless or until she decides to return to broadcasting, a niche cult leader for goodness. Which is the next evolution of Oprah: She’s right-sizing herself at a time when she feels she needs it. Rarely has self-absorption had such an effect on TV, and come across as so benign — even, impossibly, self-sacrificing. Who among us does not wish her well?
In the early days of EW, I went on her show once as a guest. During a commercial break, she squeezed my arm, smiled, and said, “Honey, you gotta just loosen up!” To Oprah I now say: Honey, let The Oprah Winfrey Show go, and feel free to loosen up to your heart’s content.