Touched by Oprah's "Vulnerable Spaces": 2014 Montecito Honoree Wows in Santa Barbara

 

by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent

 

It took Oprah Winfrey "two hours to get ready" to receive the Montecito Award from the Santa Barbara International Film Festival last night, even though her house is just minutes away from the Arlington Theater.

"When I told my Gale, Gale called me this afternoon, she said, 'You're getting some kind of award? For the Oprah show?' No, for my body of work.  'Body of work?' I've done like three films. She didn't laugh, she said rolled on the floor howling."

To those three major films, The Color Purple (1985), Native Son (1986), and Lee Daniels': The Butler (2013), add animation projects, including Charlotte's Web - but her 'body of work' in the entertainment industry also consists of an astounding 4,560 episodes of The Oprah Winfrey Show. It's a number that hardly seems possible, sometimes doing 220 shows in 365 days, as well as acting, producing, and her charity work with the Angel Network, the school for girls in South Africa, and many guest and private appearances in a fund raising capacity.

A literal wall of sound follows Oprah Winfrey wherever she goes.

And the moment this year's Montecito Award recipient stepped onto the pavement, swinging around for the cameras in a black-and-white pleated full length skirt and black cowl-neck knit top, the crowd outside roars. Loud. In synch, on key.

Senior reporter John Horn from the Los Angeles Times is tasked with the formal Q & A inside the Santa Barbara International, but outside on the red carpet, Oprah let it all hang out. "I'm 60 and a week," she said. "Don't be timid about asking."

"At 60, you are chill. Knowing you are who you are," she added later.

When she recounts getting a call from Steven Spielberg to be part of The Color Purple, the chatshow legend admits "that phone call changed my life. Changed me, because it led to me owning my own show."

The short story is that Alfre Woodard was supposed to be cast in the part she would later get; casting told her "we have real actresses who have auditioned." The project was code-named 'Moonsong,' since Spielberg is notoriously private about his casting and development.

"I get off the phone, I'm crying. I decide it must be because I am fat. Because the fat has finally caught up with me. I go to a fat farm. I need to lose 15 lbs. So I have a last meal. I have that last meal for a couple of weeks. By the time I got to the fat farm, I haven't lost 15 lbs. I've gained 12. I pray to God."

Oprah recalls that she was running on the track at the "fat farm," and, she prayed to herself, "God, I can't believe you let me get this close. But if I am not to have it, help me let it go. I surrendered."

"Then a lady comes running out and tells me 'It's Steven Spielberg on the phone.' I said 'Steven Spielberg, you've got to be kidding?' She said 'well, he is saying his name is Steven Spielberg."

"True story, Steven gets on the phone and he says 'I hear you are at a fat farm.' I say, 'it's not a fat farm, it's a health retreat.' And he tells me he wants to see me at Amblin (his office). I don't even know what Amblin is. And he says if I lose even one pound, I may not get the part... So I stop by Dairy Queen, get three scoops, in case I lost anything."

Just based on this one tale - "I am a storyteller, first," she reveals, "we all have a story to tell, that's why we are here" - it is clear to see how beloved she is worldwide. When told she follows Daniel Day-Lewis as last year's Montecito honoree, she literally throws her head back and shouts "That's a hoot!"

In 2013, her role in The Butler opposite Forrest Whitaker was a return to acting, she admits, and film itself, "maybe directing?"

"I still have those vulnerable spaces, you know," the places where visceral acting comes from.

Then, on the spur of the moment, Oprah Winfrey grabs your arm, and you, like all those screaming audience members are caught up in an "O" moment, connected to her without realizing how she does it. This is a woman of many firsts: African-American with her own TV show, female Billionaire media magnet, only person to spend a decade (2004-2014) on the Top 100 Most Influential People Lists, won 45 EMMY Awards and even withdrew her show for consideration to let others have a chance. Perennial People's Choice Favorite, Presidential pal, woman with her own book club, O Network...

Oprah's appearance was sponsored by UGG Australia. SBIFF 2014 continues tomorrow night with Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese. "I can barely speak the two names of the people appearing tomorrow," because they are "real actors."

"I believe in energy, things being energetic, life is all about energy," Oprah notes. "I want you to remember one thing: Do Only What Matters. Add to the light in the world."

 

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