"I'M AN actress, it's my passion," said Sophia Loren
AFTER ATTENDING a screening of "The Butler" the other night, I can only mourn the fact that media empress Oprah Winfrey didn't make acting her passion. Yes, she began in Oscar-nominated glory in "The Color Purple," but she was still an unknown quantity to many Americans. Shortly after "The Color Purple" opened, her popular talk show in Chicago became syndicated and the rest is history.
She acted here and there, on TV, but they weren't roles that stretched or challenged her. And one could sense her heart wasn't in it. She was too busy saving our souls, and revealing hers.
In "The Butler," however, Oprah is a revelation -- a complex character that drinks, contemplates cheating on her loving husband and bristles at the restrictions placed on him (and her) as he toils for decades in the White House as the top butler to a series of U.S. presidents.
The role is an actor's dream. She is given every emotion -- from elation to devastation, from snarky banter to tender regret. Throughout the Lee Daniels-directed movie, one searches in vain for the familiar TV Oprah.
Oprah sheds her affectations, or what some might see as affectations, after more than 30 years as one of the richest and most powerful women in the world. She seems not "one of us" anymore and hasn't been for decades. But she can still recall tougher, realer times, and she puts that sense memory (as they say in The Method) to superlative effect. This is a powerful, moving performance. And yes, Oscar could definitely come knocking.
AND WHAT of "The Butler" itself? Well, if "The Help" was the Sermon on the Mount of white racism in America, "The Butler" is The Ascension. If you know your American history, you'll be sadly reminded and maybe it will make you feel guilty. If you don't, you'll still be shocked. In either case, you won't feel a lot has really changed. Not underneath all of the political correctness, not even having a man of color in the White House.
So, I'd say "The Butler" is a distinct morality play and there is so much terrible, unfair, unbelievable history covered in it that it occasionally lapses into what feels overwrought and even manipulative. But timely, man! Is it ever!
I am trying not to overvalue the contrasting themes of the film's all-important message (the difference in getting along by going along and revolution vs. resignation) while I am also thinking of the movie itself. It seemed too long to me and in need of judicious cutting, but maybe that had to be. The years after slavery have indeed been long!
I'll leave analytical criticism to the experts, but I do want to mention a few actors beyond my rave for Oprah. Cuba Gooding Jr. in his best outing since he won the Oscar for "Jerry Maguire," Jane Fonda, sharp and perfect as Nancy Reagan, Liev Schreiber, a funny and absurd LBJ, the great Vanessa Redgrave, who guiltily gives our protagonist a job inside the house in the beginning, and Forest Whitaker. One always loves Whitaker whether he is a half-mad African dictator or the conflicted servant. And I want to mention Minka Kelly, who is an exact ringer here for the blood-smeared Jackie Kennedy. No lines, but she portrayed the most real moment by just sitting there.
You'll still be talking about this movie when the Oscars roll around in 2014. It is the big movie moment for fairness and justice in our still-troubled times.
ANOTHER GREAT, gutsy lady left us the other day -- Eydie Gorme. For so many years, Eydie and her hubby, Steve Lawrence, had become fixtures on the entertainment circuit around the world. When patrons saw those names, they knew they were in for a superlatively professional, marvelously performed evening.
But the "Steve and Eydie" thing somewhat obscured Miss Gorme's early success as a solo singer; she was an evocative powerhouse. Remember "Blame it on the Bossa Nova"? In fact, her version of "What Did I Have That I Don't Have" from the Broadway musical "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever," was so strongly performed, so popular, that when Barbra Streisand made the movie version, her rendition was compared unfavorably to Eydie's.
The entertainment world is darker today without the vibrant, vivacious and super-talented Eydie Gorme. And she was a genuinely nice, loving human being.
(E-mail Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com.)