I went to see Lee Daniels’ The Butler on opening weekend in the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles. The very fact that The Butler had been booked in a historic venue designed for Cinerama-like spectacles marked Daniels’ film as an event — a pretty remarkable thing for a history film headlined by not-conventionally-bankable black actors from a director whose last movie made less than a million dollars and was most remarked on for its scene of Nicole Kidman peeing on Zach Efron (PS: you should really see The Paperboy). The Butler is my favorite Lee Daniels film for John Cusack-as-Richard Nixon alone, but I also found Oprah Winfrey’s performance as the butler’s wife — a black American housewife whose not inconsiderable power is limited to the domestic sphere and who experiences the social evolutions of the twentieth century first as a passive spectator on television, and then through the ways in which they cause the men in her life to treat her — to be pretty mesmerizing. It’s not just the lack of vanity, the lack of self-consciousness. There’s a sense of freedom to the performance that could only come from an actor shrugging off all inhibitions and putting their total trust in their director.
Other actors have spoken of this phenomenon when working with Daniels, but it’s not something I expected from Oprah, whose dawning as a superstar happened just before the dawning of me as a sentient media watcher, and who I had never envisioned as anything but completely calculating about herself as a commodity, even if/when her brand epitomized vulnerability. To quote Roger Ebert — Oprah’s closest counterpart in Chicago media dominance, whom she briefly dated — “Her whole persona is about controlling her own destiny – owning herself.” If her performance in The Butler is special because of her surrender of ownership — her total submission to Daniels and his sometimes wacky but almost always emotionally true methods of forcing repressed desire out into the open — then what made her do it, and why is this happening now?
Ebert made his comment about Oprah’s persona in the context of interviewing her about Beloved, Oprah’s last feature film before The Butler, and perhaps the ultimate example of her self-determination going awry. The film adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel, directed by Jonathan Demme, came out fifteen years ago this month, after a decade-long struggle to the screen and months of hype, controversy, and hindsight-is-20-20 declarations that the Best Actress Oscar was Winfrey’s to lose. Widely considered to be Winfrey’s all-in bid to prove herself as a serious actress/vault herself onto equal or even higher footing with the celebrities she interviewed (although Oprah would describe her efforts in much loftier terms), Beloved underwhelmed at the box office, and disappeared from the conversation long before Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare in Love duked it out on Oscar night.1 Beloved‘s failure seems all the more stark when contrasted against the enormous success of The Butler. The only film this year to top the box office three weeks in a row prior to Gravity, The Butler has so far earned over $113 million, and if early buzz (and the presumed power of Harvey Weinstein) holds, it seems poised to play a role in the awards season zeitgeist — that is, if there’s room for it alongside 12 Years a Slave, which has already been anointed by some as the film to beat, and which shares with The Butler based-on-a-true story legitimacy. Given the history of the Oscars — one which Oprah has uniquely played a role in as both a nominee, and a journalist/merchant of hype — for two films dealing with black American history to be major players in the same Best Picture race would be kind of a big deal. To understand why this is happening now, I wanted to try to figure out why it didn’t happen then.
Journey to Beloved (and Journey to Beloved)
The first thing I did was flip through a number of quickie biographies published in the late 1980s-mid-1990s, apparently a kind halcyonic period for Oprah, when her star kept ascending without a misstep. I could fill pages with quotes from these books, hilariously overwritten testaments to Oprah’s unimpeachable perfection, excerpted without comment. Like: “Oprah Winfrey is the closest thing we have to an all-around, perfect entertainer,” writes J. Dooley on the first page of The Wonderful World of Oprah, published in 1988. “She is stunningly beautiful, larger than life, honest, and is as warm as your grandmother’s house.” Other common themes are Oprah’s incredible rags-to-riches backstory, (to Dooley, Winfrey’s Jaguar Xj-S was “a symbol of her triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds,” as was the fact that she “wears thousand-dollar outfits and wears hundred-dollar shoes [though she has pairs that cost more]”), and the branding of her critics as player-haters. In Oprah! Up Close and Down Home (1993), Nellie Bly defends Winfrey against the complaints of a critic who attacked The Color Purple for having “all the historical sense of Cinderella“: “Yes, Professor, that’s the point! Oprah is Cinderella! She’s no cartoon, she’s a flesh-and-blood woman who had come from poverty and abuse and was co-starring in a movie!” In fact, these books are interesting because of their role in the transformation of a “flesh-and-blood woman” into a folk hero.
Also, they work hard to dispel the popular notion that Oprah was a born talk-show host personality who came to movie acting as a dilettante. Give the girl some credit: she was a drama major at Tennessee State University when she was “discovered” by a local TV station and made the first black female TV news anchor in Nashville. The Oprah Winfrey Show was a local Chicago phenomena until 1986 when, at the urging of Ebert, she signed a syndication deal with King World. By that point, she had already co-starred in, and been nominated for an Oscar for, The Color Purple; most of her show’s national audience must have known her first as an actress. Still, Winfrey came to believe that she needed the celebrity provided by her talk show in order to open doors. “If I’d gone to Hollywood 12 years ago instead of going to Chicago to do The Oprah Winfrey Show, this movie wouldn’t have gotten made,” she told Newsweek when Beloved was released. “All my life I wanted to be an actress, and I’ve taken the biggest detour of anybody I know.”
That detour seems to have stemmed in part from her experience with The Color Purple. Winfrey has said that, while on set, she felt director Steven Spielberg treated her coldly. “I thought ‘he doesn’t like me, I’m going to get kicked off set,’ she said. According to Bly, Spielberg was in fact “engaging in a sophisticated directing technique.” The author says the director approached his actress at the film’s premiere and said, “I realized how terrified you were, and that was working for you. That’s why I never gave you any reassurance.”
“Sophisticated” or not, Spielberg’s admission of his emotional manipulation on set, ostensibly designed to boost his actress’ feelings, also in essence confirms Oprah’s anxiety that she was powerless within the production. (Winfrey recently said she was “scarred” from not being able to give Spielberg what he needed from her, including on-cue tears.) The bittersweet victories were just beginning. The movie was a hit with critics and a blockbuster at the box office, but it was also dogged by controversy. James Baldwin called it “a fantasy made to reassure whites,” and a group called the Coalition Against Black Exploitation organized boycotts and picketed outside Los Angeles screenings of the movie, on the grounds that its stereotypical depictions of black men as brutes was racist. The NAACP issued similar complaints and then, when the movie was nominated for 11 Oscars and won none, turned around and published a letter accusing the Academy of a “blackout.” For Winfrey, it was “a greater statement that it won no awards than if it had won one or two. It put the whole Oscar in perspective for me, which is not to say I wouldn’t want to win one now. It would be great, but it would never mean the same thing because for The Color Purple to be totally excluded says to me the Oscar isn’t what I thought it was.”
Over the next dozen years, Winfrey amassed enough wealth, money and power to not only write a personal check of $1 million to Toni Morrison for the film rights to her Pulitzer Prize winning novel Beloved, but also to be able to control the production of the film to the extent that she could hand pick a director, and cast herself in the leading role. “I’m 45 years old now so I will probably not be having children of my own,” she said in 1999, “but I do feel that Beloved, in many ways, was the child that I nurtured and carried. I don’t know if I will ever act again in a movie, but if I don’t, I did this one and this is the one I wanted to do.”
Oprah details the making of the movie (or, at least, her take on it) in a coffee table book called Journey to Beloved. A self-consciously revealing and yet monumentally un-self-aware vanity production, the book offers a few clues as to how Beloved went wrong.
Oprah describes bringing artifacts from her collection of “slave memorabilia” to the set, including receipts from slave auctions listing names and prices, and holding seances of sorts. She “would literally call out the names — Joe and Bess and Sara and Emily and Sue and Dara — from that list every morning, I lit a candle, spoke their names, and attempted to honor their spirits.” She describes hiring an expert to give her a “regression” simulacrum, to “create a day so I could feel what it would be like to go through [the] journey” of a black free-woman in 1861, who is kidnapped into slavery.2 “And what it felt like was death with no salvation…,” Winfrey writes. “That was my biggest connection to understanding why Sethe did what she did.” But elsewhere, Winfrey offers evidence of why she might need to be shocked out of her own worldview in order to adopt Sethe’s. “There isn’t a day in my life when somebody doesn’t tell me, ‘You’ve changed my life,'” she writes, without any apparent understanding that reiterating her fan notices actually dilutes her “I’m just like you” brand. She’s more on-message when it comes to self-improvement. Compelled to “lose five more pounds,” after her “daily prayer to the Ancestors…I run to the gym.”At about halfway through Journey to Beloved, I stopped reading. Beloved’s star and producer, in her desperation to impress on the reader the cataclysmic import of both the movie and of her own life, was turning this reader off. I felt hectored, and I thought I had better watch the movie before Winfrey had fatally colored my view of it.
Civil rights action or B-movie?
Beloved is the story of Sethe (Winfrey), an escaped slave living outside Cincinnati with her teenage daughter Denver (Kimberley Elise). In a prologue, we see that Sethe’s two sons were run out of the house a decade earlier by a ghost, whose kitchen-table-tumbling hauntings Sethe and Denver, by the film’s early 1870s, post-Civil War present day have learned to live with. Paul D. (Danny Glover), a fellow former slave who had worked with Sethe on the plantation Sweet Home, shows up at her house after years of traveling on foot, and the two middle-aged survivors shack up and start boning. Sethe, Paul D. and Denver’s tentatively-formed family idyll is soon interrupted by a young woman who appears — limbs flailing, eyes wild, spitting out syllables in a croaking baby talk — out of nowhere, calling herself Beloved (Thandie Newton). First Denver, and then Sethe, realize that this mysterious young lady is in fact the physical reincarnation of the daughter Sethe killed 18 years earlier, rather than allow her to be enslaved. Instead of expelling this visitor from beyond the grave, this manifestation of the nightmare they lived through and were driven mad by, the family embraces her. Once he learns the truth, Paul D. freaks out and books it, and eventually Sethe morphs into something like a zombie as Beloved’s dark spirit takes over the household. This macabre domestic drama tumbles towards something like a happy ending — Beloved vanishes, and Paul D. returns to deliver the very Oprah-esque affirmation that Sethe is her “own best thing” — without ever deviating from a vision of slavery and its reverberations as the stuff of darkest horror, a waking nightmare that cannot be fully recovered from.
Jonathan Demme, Winfrey’s hand-picked choice3 for Beloved‘s director, got his start working for b-movie legend Roger Corman, for whom he directed three low-budget 70’s genre films, like the women-in-prison melodrama Caged Heat. By the time he signed up with Oprah, Demme had won the Best Director Oscar for Silence of the Lambs (1991), which he followed with Philadelphia (1993). As the first feature film to cast a major movie star as a gay man dying of AIDS, Philadelphia was as much an earnest civil rights action as it was a blockbuster. Winfrey was no doubt hoping Demme would replicate that formula, which netted Tom Hanks an acting Oscar, for her.
But while all the elements from the Venn Diagram intersection of Important Social Issue Film and Blatant Acting Trophy Showcase are there in Beloved — the confessional monologues alternating between dramatized flashbacks and screen-filling close-ups; the glamorization of the star’s physical degradation — Demme’s exploitation movie roots show, too. There are mournful accountings of trauma, most of them extremely boxed-in and presented in too-tasteful filmed-for-TV play style, with fades to black between scenes as if Demme’s setting tracks for commercial breaks. There are also cartoonishly lurid glimpses into memory and the subconscious (some of them dissolve-heavy, super-grainy and yellow-saturated — not unlike the slavery flashbacks in Django Unchained), clumsy house-of-horrors special effects, projectile vomiting, highly metaphoric turtle humping, and the rape of a grown man by a barely-legal female ghost.
Beloved is not the total disaster I had feared it to be, based on its reputation; in fact, I was pleasantly surprised by how gloriously fucking weird it is. Beloved makes her entrance as swamp thing, crawling out of the water in Victorian funeral garb, croaking and crawling with bugs. When Sethe first spots her, she runs around the side of the house, squats in front of the camera, and lets loose a raging stream of pee. The juxtaposition of the extremely portentous with the stuff of midnight-movie schlock is actually pretty successful, when it’s balanced — nothing says “the past is not really past” like the image of Oprah strolling up to her home in a refined costume of bustle and parasol, only to be confronted with the embodiment of her grotesque history that refuses to stay buried. That said: this movie is three hours long, and between bouts of remarkable visual storytelling, there are lulls in which dialogue is asked to carry the day, and a lot of that is, frankly, boring, and/or tough to engage with. In an almost avant-garde touch, which was probably ill-advised for a movie blatantly hoping to pull Academy voter heartstrings, Demme refuses to give us a single protagonist to identify with. It’s one thing that, about two hours in, the basic point of view of the film switches from Sethe’s to Denver’s. It’s a bigger problem that Sethe is played in flashbacks by Lisa Gay Hamilton, an actress whose physical resemblance to Oprah is seamless, but whose acting style is quite different. Hamilton is radically present, while Winfrey is prone to over-selling. The character’s experience, as divided between the two performances, doesn’t feel seamless.
Too many feels
Winfrey spoke frequently — and perhaps a little too candidly — about her struggles to separate Oprah’s experience from Sethe’s. As Demme diplomatically described the problem in the LA Times, “If Oprah had any work to do it was not to confuse her empathy with how Sethe feels.” To Ebert, she admitted that in one scene, in which Sethe describes what freedom feels like, she had to be shot around. “Finally Jonathan Demme said to me, ‘We’re gonna turn the camera around on Danny and let you come back and try again tomorrow.’ I felt like a failure. I’m blowing it. But I really needed to come back because I was so emotional about it I had lost touch with Sethe.” A bigger disruption occurred the day Toni Morrison came to set. The Beloved author watched a scene and asked Winfrey, “Why did you play Sethe angry there? Sethe doesn’t get angry.” Then Morrison approached Demme and said, “Oprah Winfrey is emotional. Sethe is not.” Winfrey was, she said, “shattered” by the criticism, and she spent the next day in her trailer bawling “because Toni hated me.” Demme had to come in and console her — and he ultimately told her to ignore the criticism of her Nobel Prize-winning personal hero. Oprah, Demme said, should keep doing it her way.
A version of this — a director ceding to a performer after delay-inducing emotional tailspin — probably happens on movie sets every day. But this was somewhat different, because Oprah wasn’t just Demme’s actress; as producer and guiding force behind the film, she was his boss. He was hired to make the movie that Oprah wanted to make, and as he told Premiere, he was happy to be deferential: “I felt that if we got to situations where I felt very strongly A and she felt very strongly B, then I didn’t think it was going to be hard for me to buy B…I believed that the movie would only benefit from my respecting her side of things.”
Later, after the film was released, Oprah admitted, “Toni was right. My biggest problem was being emotional.” In fact, if there is a noticeable problem with her performance in the finished film, it’s not so much that Winfrey shows emotions that Sethe wouldn’t, but that it’s clear that Winfrey understands the portent of each individual line and event in a way that Sethe — living it, in shock from it — maybe wouldn’t be able to. Most people aren’t aware that history is happening to them while it’s happening.
Oprah’s openness about her on-set struggles fit in with the transparency that had been part of her personal narrative at least as far back as 1985 when, while interviewing a victim of childhood sexual abuse on her show, she spontaneously blurted out, “The same thing happened to me.” Her no-secrets philosophy is very likely one reason she was so drawn to Morrison’s story of the return of the repressed. Ironically, Beloved‘s release was dogged by another woman who refused to be silent: Akosua Busia, Winfrey’s co-star in The Color Purple, who told anyone who would listen that she had written the first script for Beloved and who successfully lobbied the Writers Guild for first-placement credit on the film, over Hollywood stalwarts Richard LaGravenese and Adam Brooks. Even after her credit was secure, Busia gave numerous interviews about having been slighted. Most stories excerpted a letter to Winfrey claiming that her situation was analogous to Sethe’s, who fought “for freedom for herself and her children from their white oppressors. And here I am, a black female writer from Africa, writing the script, and then being left in a position to battle alone against Disney, who recommends that two white, male writers…be credited instead of me!”
There’s no way to measure what impact Busia’s personal press tour had on the perception of Beloved, but it must have been troubling to Winfrey that her extremely well-intentioned black historical passion project was already following in the footsteps of The Color Purple, in that its attempt to crossover to mainstream success was haunted by a black person’s claim that the production was inherently racist. When Beloved went on to spectacularly underperform at the box office, the very title of the film soon transformed into a code word for Oprah’s failure. Two years ago, when OWN was struggling, Fox News gleefully reported that anonymous sources were whispering, “the big fear is that OWN is the new Beloved.” (As of July 2013, OWN is reportedly “cash-flow positive.”) Winfrey herself has described the period following its release as “the only time in my life I was ever depressed,” and claimed she dosed that depression with “about 30 pounds” of macaroni and cheese.
Making slavery fun
Most movies that bomb simply disappear; Beloved‘s failure was compounded by the fact that the media kept talking about it for months, hashing over both the whys and the socio-racial implications. As Bernard Weinraub explained in one of several articles in the New York Times tracking the film’s anemic performance, “Beloved had been seen as almost a test case of whether an expensive and serious film that dealt with the black experience would appeal to mainstream audiences. The box office results will almost certainly make it even more difficult for filmmakers to find studio support for large-budget movies involving racial themes, many longtime movie executives said.” He quoted a box office analysts were deploring Beloved‘s inability to “crossover,” and claimed that unnamed rival studio execs were sniping that even the black audience was limited to women over 30. The big killer? It “was performing poorly at suburban malls.”
More than one article positioned Beloved‘s failure against the success of another Disney picture released that season, The Waterboy. Jonathan Demme, while acknowledging that his was “a difficult picture” because of the length and “demanding” subject matter, added, “The big surprise for me is how prematurely the death of the movie has been foretold.” He would later claim that Disney had prematurely pulled Beloved off of screens in order to have more real estate for the Adam Sandler comedy. Joe Roth, then chairman of Disney, at least paid lip service to being on Beloved‘s side: “All there is is pain,” grumbled Roth to Weinraub. “You try to do something good, artistic, adult. It’s like barking in the wind.”
It wasn’t that the buzz on Beloved was bad — it was non-existent. Weinraub quoted media analyst Larry Gerbrandt: ”There are some classic word-of-mouth movies that succeed like There’s Something About Mary, where people tell each other that you have to see it. Then there are movies where people say, ‘I saw it and hated it’ and ‘Don’t waste your time.’ And then there’s movies that no one really talks about. And Beloved is sort of in that category. It hasn’t generated any heat.”
“I think the reason why the film has not been received as well in America as I expected is because people in America are afraid of race and any discussion about race,” Oprah mused in February 1999, when the film opened in England. If that was true then, it feels less accurate today. The process of electing a black president (twice, the first time beginning less than a decade after Beloved) has brought “discussion about race” into not just politics, but pop culture and everyday life. In fact, race, particularly within the context of slave, servant and/or subordinate narratives, has been one of the most discussed topic of the past year’s worth of pop cultural phenomena. There are the enormously popular black superhero fantasies of Django Unchained and, on a different but no less potent wavelength, Scandal. Pop music in 2013 is defined on one end by Yeezus, with all its direct invocations of slavery (from sampling “Strange Fruit” to equate lynching to baby mama drama, to West using a cotton-picking pun to rap about his frustrations in the fashion industry); and Miley Cyrus’s “we’ve come a long way from I’m A Slave 4 U, baby” appropriations on the other.
But changing times are only part of it. Aside from forcing race into the conversation, what’s the one thing that the provocations of Kanye and Miley, and the pulp dramas of Django and Scandal, have in common? To one extent or another, they’re all super fun. Beloved is not. Even Oprah admitted, “This isn’t like Saturday afternoon with some popcorn.” It’s ludicrous to suggest that it had to be The Waterboy or There’s Something About Mary; but it also didn’t have to feel like school.
Still, Beloved‘s inherent un-fun-ness wasn’t necessarily an impediment to winning Oscars. The Academy has historically liked to prove that they care about something other than profits by bestowing favor on social-issue dramas, sometimes elevating films that would otherwise have been little-seen in the process. And even (actually, especially) Beloved‘s less-than-kind reviews made note of its awards season inevitability. “Marilyn Monroe returned from the grave invested with Meryl Streep’s chops and Barbra Streisand’s will in a movie bigger than Titanic wouldn’t stand a chance of wresting away Oprah’s Oscar,” wrote J. Hoberman in the Village Voice. “It’s the performance of her life. She has made herself her own best guest.”
But it’s hard to imagine any film overcoming the onslaught directed at Beloved in the major papers, once it opened soft. The tone of much of it was not, “Why aren’t people going to see this good film?” It was, “This movie’s justifiably dead, so let’s line up to piss on its grave.” Two weeks into Beloved‘s release, the Los Angeles Times ran an article essentially bashing both the movie and its marketing for being such a drag. An unnamed “studio marketing executive” snarked that Beloved, like Amistad before it, was promoted with a campaign that “sold the movies like they were medicine. Audiences were told it was good for them. It makes no sense in a film with entertainment value to sell the message first.” At least New Line’s Mike DeLuca went on the record, telling the New York Times, “I don’t think it’s about black films or black audiences…You go to the movies to be entertained. It’s hard to market a so-called serious film that looks like you might not have such a great time sitting through it.”
Is Beloved‘s true impact that it taught Hollywood that if you want to sell “so-called serious” films about race, you better dilute the educational value with undeniable entertainment? 12 Years a Slave is no walk in the park — if Beloved’s almost wacky horror movie flourishes are often jaw-dropping, the precision of the cruelty in McQueen’s movie, propelled by a tastefully mournful score, turns the stomach into ever tighter knots as it goes on. That said, the film, in its final act, plays on the audience’s knowledge that It Gets Better. Brad Pitt comes in to serve as both the promise of salvation to the main character, and as a symbol of the enlightened white man of the future. That’s not a spoiler — it’s just short of heralded in the trailer, which promises both a harrowing journey into the darkest heart of America’s most devastating moral catastrophe, and a reprieve from that ordeal in the blond and bearded face, and encouragingly gruff but reliably liberal voice, of the most charismatic white man on the planet. Who, also, just happened to co-produce the movie, saving the day in real life by guaranteeing 12 Years‘ viability.
If the lightening of 12 Years a Slave via the presence of Pitt feels somewhat artificial — and, really, disingenuous, as if to say “all that’s over, now that there are white dudes like Brad Pitt” — the same cannot be said for the weird flourishes of earthy joy running through The Butler. Maybe that’s because, to Daniels, a fully un-fun treatment of black experience wouldn’t be authentic. “Black people laugh a lot when they’re in pain, and it comes from slavery,” he told the LA Times last year. “It’s almost generational, it’s been passed on. And during some very difficult times you’ll find that black people will laugh when they’re broke, when they’re homeless, when death occurs. They try to put on a happy face. And so, in some weird way, how that seeps into my work is that I don’t take anything seriously.”
Watching Oprah in The Butler, it’s clear that at least some of Daniel’s insouciance rubbed off on his actress. It’s just too bad Daniels wasn’t around 15 years ago when she really needed him. But presumably, Winfrey still owns the rights to Morrison’s source, right? So let’s hope that Lee Daniels’ Beloved could someday be a reality.