Montecito resident, actress and former talk-show host Oprah Winfrey received the Santa Barbara International Film Festival's Montecito Award on Wednesday night for her role in the movie Lee Daniels’ The Butler, in front of a sold-out crowd buzzing with excitement at an opportunity to see the local celebrity.
Santa Barbara's historic Arlington Theatre provided a majestic backdrop for Winfrey, who was honored for her accomplishments as a media mogul, philanthropist and more, as well as her role as Gloria Gains, the wife of a White House butler played by Forest Whitaker, who received the Kirk Douglas Award earlier this year at SBIFF’s fundraising gala.
“In my 11 years, this is definitely one of the most exciting evenings ever,” SBIFF Executive Director Roger Durling said. “How excited are you guys? It’s overwhelming.”
Durling told the crowd that this is one of the best years in film, because “Oprah Winfrey came back to the movies and did one of the best performances,” pleading with her to “please come back and do more movies.”
A free-spirited Winfrey danced her way onto the stage and was welcomed by loud applause and a standing ovation before taking a seat onstage beside moderator and Los Angeles Times columnist John Horn, proclaiming, “Oh, my people — fantastic. John, these are my peeps.”
She shared with the crowd a gracious attitude for the opportunity to be a part of the film festival, saying, “This is the most amazing invitation. I can’t believe it.”
She acknowledged that the invitation may have come due to the fact that “I think I have friends in this town,” which received big applause, and that as a local she knew the night would be quick since “people in Santa Barbara like to be home by 9:30.”
Asked why her involvement with SBIFF had not happened sooner, she said it was because “I had that day job,” referring to the 25-year run of The Oprah Winfrey Show.
In a year of thought-provoking films, such as 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station, The Butler also addresses issues of racism and discrimination in America that is made more vivid with the first black president, Barack Obama, serving in the White House that The Butler prominently features.
Before starting the conversation of Winfrey’s films, Horn emphasized this point, saying, “I want to talk about the body of work done by black filmmakers this year, which I think is a landmark.”
Winfrey followed the montage with a level of humility that ingratiated her to the crowd.
“I am under no illusion that I have a body of work," she said. "God bless the editor who was able to piece that together.”
Horn replied, “It’s not about the volume, it’s about the quality.”
Winfrey shared the story of how she became attached to The Color Purple, and how after reading a New York Times book review in her pajamas that she dressed and headed to the nearest bookstore, reading the book cover to cover in one day. She then went back to the bookstore, where she purchased all eight copies and handed them out to friends and co-workers.
For Winfrey, The Color Purple was a “seminal moment in my life,” and she recounted the entire process of how she secured the part in her first-ever movie.
After hearing no reply to her audition for two months, she had resolved herself to the fact that she had lost the part to Alfre Woodard, and it was at that moment that Steven Spielberg called to offer her the role.
Following the story, Winfrey shared a key life lesson that she carries today.
“After you’ve done all you can do, you have to release it," Winfrey said. "And whatever is supposed to happen happens.”
When asked by Noozhawk on the red carpet how she prepared for the role of Gloria in The Butler, Winfrey shared that the role pulled from memories of her family and upbringing.
“I know Gloria and so do you," she said. "I’ve grown up with her. She was my aunts, my relatives and my friends in the family, and you know, I grew up a student of African-American history and born at the right times to go to a segregated school in Mississippi just in time. And so I know what that’s like to want your children to have a better life than you can have.
“I spent a lot of time with myself, going in to dig those pieces about myself that related to her.”
Horn posed the question of the challenges that Winfrey must feel with acting since her life work concerns finding and becoming your authentic self, but an actor loses the authentic self during a role.
“Acting is a way to give yourself over,” Winfrey said. “I surrender all.”
Winfrey shared how after reading Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved that she was able to get Morrison’s phone with a little bit of fibbing from the local fire station because, “After reading a book, you want to talk to somebody about it. Nobody better than the author.”
Winfrey’s credits also include Lee Daniels’ film Precious, which was nominated for six Academy Awards and won two.
The honoree was the host and producer of The Oprah Winfrey Show, and her latest project is chairman and CEO of a network channel, OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network.
Born into poverty in rural Mississippi in 1954, her net worth of $2.9 billion, according to Forbes in September 2013, makes her not only the first black woman billionaire in world history, but also the richest self-made woman in the United States.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Winfrey with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2011 for her efforts that promote hope around the world and goodwill for the film industry.
Winfrey told the audience that the intention of her show and her belief in life was that she could “inspire, encourage, uplift and let people see the light inside themselves,” and from the elated reaction of the crowd, she succeeded again inside the Arlington Theatre.
The Montecito Award was created in recognition of a performer who has given a series of classic performances throughout their career and whose style has been a contribution to film. Previous recipients include Annette Bening, Naomi Watts, Javier Bardem, Kate Winslet, Julianne Moore, Geoffrey Rush and Daniel Day-Lewis.
The impressive list of awards continues later this week at the Arlington Theatre, with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo Dicaprio on Thursday night, Robert Redford on Friday and Bruce Dern closing out the tributes on Saturday night.
Click here for more information about the Santa Barbara International Film Festival schedule and for tickets.
— Noozhawk iSociety columnist Melissa Walker can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkSociety, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.