There are myriad ways to measure fame in Hollywood: a pile of trophies, the size of an office, the number of zeros on a paycheck. And then there are those who are known by only one name.
Oprah Winfrey has a mile-long list of titles: Producer. Actor. Author. Philanthropist. But whatever project she lends to her immense talents to, she’s known worldwide simply as Oprah.
It’s for all of those unparalleled efforts that the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. chose her as the recipient of this year’s Cecil B. DeMille Award. Calling her “one of the most influential women of our time,” HFPA president Meher Tatna praised the entrepreneur for her leadership.
“For generations, Oprah has celebrated strong female characters on and off screen, and has been a role model for women and young girls for decades,” Tatna said.
The highly esteemed award, which will be presented at the 75th Annual Golden Globes on Jan. 7, is given annually to someone who has made an outsized impact on entertainment. Past recipients include Steven Spielberg, Jodie Foster, Lucille Ball, Robert De Niro — and last year, Meryl Streep, whose speech became a rallying cry.
“Disrespect invites disrespect; violence incites violence,” Streep said. “And when the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.”
There’s little doubt that Winfrey’s acceptance speech will be equally memorable. Few are as comfortable — and as confident — speaking their minds, speaking truth to power.
Winfrey’s unprecedented success is even more remarkable given her humble beginnings, growing up with a single mother in rural Mississippi. But her passion for learning was ignited early on — she’s spoken often about being inspired by her fourth-grade teacher.
“Everything I’ve ever done is about my learning and the teaching of other people because at my heart, at my core, I am a teacher,” said Winfrey recently. “I realize now that the thing I wanted to be when I was in the fourth grade and loved Miss Duncan so much has really come to its fullest fruition because I do it now with storytelling — whether it’s through ‘Super Soul Sundays,’ the magazine, or ‘Queen Sugar,’ I’m always trying to get people to see a way into the best of themselves.”
Winfrey’s career aspirations led her to Chicago, which she would make her home for the next several decades. She was recruited from a local talk show to launch what would become her syndicated talk show — and propel her onto the national stage. Now she stands atop an unrivaled empire that includes her own network, a magazine, a TV and film production company and an imprint at a publishing house.
As a producer, she’s choosy about which projects she lends her name to — putting her considerable muscle behind films and TV series that deliver a message, from “Precious” and “Selma” to “Queen Sugar” and “Greenleaf.” She’s just as selective when it comes to acting roles of her own. It all began with “The Color Purple” in 1985 — a role that earned her a Golden Globe nomination, as well as an Oscar nom.
“I never wanted anything more in my life than I wanted to be in ‘The Color Purple,’ and have never allowed myself to want anything as much again,” she said during Variety’s recent “Actors on Actors” filming. “I told everyone in the world, ‘I want to be in that movie. I’ll carry water for Steven Spielberg. I’ll hold a script. I’ll do anything.’”
Last year, she starred in the HBO film “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” because she wanted to work with director George C. Wolfe. “George was able to take the Henrietta Lacks script, which several other people had attempted, and find the way in,” she said. “He was able to find a way in with the story of a daughter’s search for the identity of her mother, which is what it became for me. And I learned so much.”
That role, she says, gave her not only appreciation of what Henrietta contributed to society as a whole, but her own life as well.
Winfrey starred in “Selma” (clockwise from top), “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and “The Color Purple.”
A role is worth it, she says, “when I feel that, at the end of the film or work, the character would have had something to say that would have left you with enough meaning and import that it was worthy of your time.”
That’s a formula she used, too, when choosing books for her book club. “If I can read the book and I am moved by that story, I know I can get at least a million other people to be interested in that story. I know that there’s a commonality in the human experience.”
Next up is Disney’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” directed by her frequent collaborator Ava DuVernay, due in March. “This feels to me like something bigger than life,” says Winfrey, who’ll play “Mrs. Which.” “I know it’s a film, but it feels like how they must have felt when they were doing ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ when you’re doing something that is beloved. ‘Wrinkle in Time’ is not a franchise, but it’s a book that people had grown up with for years.”
It’s been 25 years since “Beloved,” which didn’t succeed as well as she had hoped. But she learned from the experience. “Do not, ever, do any work that you don’t love enough to also release it. I look at every piece of work I have done since, and I love it. I release it. And however it is received, I’m OK with that.”
That commitment to storytelling is what drives the projects she greenlights at OWN, the network she launched in 2011.
“I wanted this idea of taking our stories, African-American stories, and putting them on-screen in a way that people could see themselves,” she says.
DuVernay’s “Queen Sugar” has been renewed for a third season, as has “Greenleaf,” about an African-American megachurch. But another fixture on the OWN schedule is Winfrey’s interview series, “Super Soul Sundays,” which features her conversations with such thought-leaders as Elie Wiesel, Maya Angelou, T.D. Jakes, Sheryl Sandberg and Eckhart Tolle. Her latest book, “Wisdom of Sundays,” emerged from those penetrating interviews.
“It’s sharing wisdom in a way that opens people up to the best of themselves, to the heart of themselves, to a more purposeful life, a life that allows you to literally get woke and stay woke,” she said at a book party she held at her home to celebrate its publication. “I wanted to be able to offer that to the world.”
True to form, Winfrey took no proceeds from the book, donating her share of the profits to charity, as part of her lifelong mission to help girls around the world get educated.
“Everything in this book comes from the spirit of what I’ve been trying to do here on the planet earth since I recognized that I had a calling,” she said. “And everyone else also has a calling, too.”
Ten years ago she created the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa to further the education of girls from disadvantaged backgrounds. Graduates have gone on to higher education at universities around the world.
Winfrey now makes her home on a spacious estate in Montecito, where she’s especially attuned to the nature around her. “There are nights that are so still you can only hear the frogs in the pond,” she says. And as she listens to them she remembers a “moment of standing on my grandmother’s shotgun house on the porch. How did I get from there to here?
“I know that it’s part of why I came to the planet is to deliver this message, that you are enough. That’s my goal, to get people to see that for themselves. It’s miraculous when you can do it.”