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SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — After dancing across the stage at the Arlington Theatre to start a two-hour salute to her work on the big screen, Oprah Winfrey sat down across from moderator John Horn of the LA Times and made it clear from the outset that she was under "no illusion" about her "body of work," as she playfully referred to her scant work as a film actress throughout the evening. "God bless the editor who put that together," she said of the typical introductory clip package that kicked off the Montecito Award tribute off.
Yes, Winfrey has only starred in four films ("The Color Purple," "Native Son," "Beloved" and "Lee Daniels' The Butler") and has offered her voice to a handful of others ("Charlotte's Web," "The Princess and the Frog"). But volume isn't important, Horn said. Quality is. That, among many things throughout the evening, drew applause from the hometown crowd, as indeed, this year's Montecito Award recipient at the 29th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival is a resident of, well, Montecito, just a few clicks up the 101 freeway.
Winfrey worked the room like it was a Chicago studio audience, often seemingly forgetting that the tables were turned on the legendary TV interviewer, as Horn had to force a number of questions to the fore before the charismatic icon got ahead of herself. Unlike a number of other honorees at this year's festival that happened to miss out on Oscar nominations a few weeks ago — Emma Thompson, Oscar Isaac, Daniel Brühl and Adèle Exarchopoulos among them — Winfrey threw on her game face and delighted a capacity crowd.
Discussion naturally began with Steven Spielberg's 1985 film "The Color Purple," which Winfrey made it a point of saying a number of times changed her life entirely. "'The Color Purple' was a seminal moment in my life," she said, recounting how she woke up one morning and read the local paper's review of Alice Walker's book and didn't even bother to get dressed before throwing a coat over her pajamas and heading down to the book store to pick up a copy and read it cover to cover.
It became an obsession. She would purchase multiple copies and just hand them out to people, she said. She knew all of the characters inside and out — particular Sofia, who she would ultimately portray — and when news came that a film adaptation was in the works, that obsession turned into an intense drive to be a part of the production.
But Winfrey wasn't an actress. She was the host of a tiny local Chicago talk show and she had a weight problem, which she surmised probably kept her away from the top of casting agents' lists when it came to these parts. She turned up for an audition of "Moon Song," the secretive working title of Spielberg's adaptation, and waited two months before calling the casting agent back. She was crushed by a dismissive person on the other end of the phone who told her, "You don't call us, we call you. You know who I just had in my office? Alfre Woodard. A real actress."
Winfrey retreated to a "fat farm" in Wisconsin, she said. She wanted to get her weight under control, but more than anything, she wanted to be okay with not landing a role in a project she said she prayed intensely for. "I wanted to let it go," she said. And the moment she thought it would be alright, the moment she finally found herself at ease with potentially seeing someone of Woodard's caliber in the role she so desperately wanted, she got a call from Spielberg.
"I hear you're in a fat farm," he said, before conveying to her that not only did he want to cast her in the part of Sofia, but that if she lost one pound, she might lose the role. "Honey, I packed my bags in seven minutes, stopped at the Dairy Queen and went to audition," she said. "I learned the principle of surrender" from that experience, she went on. "The principle of surrender is after you've done all you can do, you have to release it. I have used that principle about a millions times in my life."
Despite the fact that she was very green — so much so that she thought she should look at the camera during takes, because that's what she did as a TV host — Winfrey said that, to this day, she has never been happier in her life than when she worked on that film. And she learned so much, particularly the secrets of the craft of acting that she couldn't seem to uncover in the countless Stanislavski books she had been reading.
She recalled a scene where Spielberg wanted her to cry, but she didn't have the skill to find that moment. It wasn't until she clued into, again, the idea of release, of surrendering herself to the character — and that if Sofia was going to cry, she was going to cry, and if not, then not even Steven Spielberg could make her — that she was able to fully grasp the paradoxical concept of telling the truth through acting.
She didn't even attempt to conceal embarrassment over her work in Jerrold Freedman's 1986 Richard Wright adaptation "Native Son," which she called one of a long line of "nobody knows the trouble I've seen" roles she was offered in the wake of "The Color Purple," but about a year later she read and loved Toni Morrison's novel "Beloved." She was very interested in adapting it for the screen, but even calling up the author didn't do much to move the needle, as Morrison was skeptical over whether her work could be translated to film.
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