Once in A great while, every 14 years if one does the math, Oprah Winfrey gets around to making an appearance on the big screen. So Halley’s Comet-like is this great media occurrence that the last time Winfrey flexed her acting chops in a feature-length film, 1998’s “Beloved,” she had not yet paired her brand to Hearst Corp. for the magazine that now bears her name. Back then, Hearst Tower — where O, The Oprah Magazine hosted a premiere for Winfrey’s forthcoming third movie, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” — was still eight years away from completion. (She also still had quite the daytime megaphone with which to promote such ventures in 1998, but that is for another column altogether.)
On Wednesday, the building’s vast atrium filled with media and political types for a cocktail party before the movie, a sweeping historical drama loosely based on the life of the late White House butler Eugene Allen. Gloria Steinem and Kathy Najimy chatted at the top of an escalator near a pair of waiters in butler attire passing trays of black-and-white cookies remixed for a red, white and blue theme. Former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley and his companion Betty Sue Flowers chatted with Fern Mallis.
“I’m a big admirer of Oprah,” Bradley said. When asked to elaborate, he noted “her authenticity.”
“I hear that it’s a wonderful film,” Barbara Walters said after walking the red carpet. “Anything that Oprah does, I know, is going to be wonderful, interesting and classy and I’m happy to be seeing it….She’s had a wonderful career. She’s handled herself with such grace and intelligence. I love Oprah. Let’s leave it at that. OK?”
WWD wanted to ask Walters about any parallels between her own long career and that of Allen, who served from Eisenhower to Reagan, but the soon-to-retire Walters left it at that.
Allen’s real-life son, Charles, was more eager to talk.
“No, no, no, come on,” the younger Allen said when asked if his late parents could have ever imagined having a story based on their lives portrayed by Forest Whitaker and Winfrey on screen. “It’s the same way they could never have — people have asked me this also — they’ve asked, ‘How would your father feel about Barack Obama becoming President?’… In my father’s vernacular, he’d say ‘A colored boy? No.’ He knew that we were fully capable of fulfilling that, but he just didn’t see that everything would happen. None of us could conceive of that. So I think my father’s feeling would be exactly the same now.”
Daniels, whose previous work has included “Precious” and “The Paperboy,” looked like he had just stepped off the beach in light green khakis and flip-flops as he greeted well wishers.
“It was intimidating to me at first until I realized it could possibly be something that I don’t want,” the soft-spoken Daniels said of directing Winfrey. “I had to man up and say, ‘OK, I’m the director. This is what I want. Hit your mark. Do it again. And again. And again. OK, good.’… I mean, it’s Oprah Winfrey, so I don’t know how to tell her ‘no’ … It was a process.”
As the film began to roll, Winfrey BFF Gayle King was leading an overflow crowd to another screening room on the building’s 44th floor. King had already seen the film twice, and was going back for more. Devoting six hours of one’s summer to one movie seemed a little excessive.
“But, as you said, Oprah doesn’t do a movie that often,” she said.