On March 2, 2014, our humble nation could be in for the treat of a lifetime. For on that date, there is a very real chance that we could see Oprah Winfrey accept an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
That’s right: Oscar for Oprah. It could happen. It should happen.
We are, at this juncture, just barely four months from the end of the Oscars eligibility period and, though we have seen strong candidates emerge in a handful of categories (Fruitvale Station’s Michael B. Jordan in Best Actor, Blue Jasmine’s Cate Blanchett in Best Actress), Winfrey is the first serious contender for Best Supporting Actress for her stirring, decades-spanning performance in Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
And you know what? Queen O deserves it.
The Butler takes a very Oscar-bait-y, Forrest Gump–like approach to chronicling the civil-rights movement, portraying how each major moment in the movement affects the lives of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a White House butler who served eight consecutive presidents, and his family, including his wife, Gloria, played by Winfrey. Calling Winfrey’s part juicy is akin to calling Winfrey a little bit famous.
Gloria is a role as succulent, meaty, and challenging as they come. She battles an alcohol addiction. She has an affair. She loses one son to the Vietnam War and the other to political activism. Most harrowing, she dances along to Soul Train while wearing a glittery black-and-white unitard and rocking a sky-high afro.
The scenery is prime for chewing—and Winfrey gamely devours—but it’s not all histrionics. Sure, she’s big when she needs to be—the scene in which she slaps her son before sternly delivering the line, “Everything you are and everything you have is because of that butler,” seems written for the express purpose of introducing her nomination during the Oscar telecast—but she’s also the quiet heart of the film.
Characters make decisions that move the plot, but it’s the pain and, sometimes, unconditional love in Winfrey’s eyes that move you. After watching her character age four decades throughout the movie, it’s a wordless scene near the end, when she stands brimming with pride at the White House, attending her first state dinner as the guest of the president, that produces one of the teariest moments. Or, as Winfrey would call it, the “ugly cry.” It’s the kind of supporting role that the Academy loves to reward, as both Winfrey’s performance and the character’s status as a plot device are reminiscent of past winners Jennifer Connelly for A Beautiful Mind, Marcia Gay Harden for Pollock, and Rachel Weisz for The Constant Gardner.
It certainly helps the Oscar-for-Oprah movement that the film strikes the perfect balance between crowd-pleaser and critical darling. The Butler dominated its opening weekend at the box office, grossing a solid $25 million. Beyond that, it received an A CinemaScore from audiences after screenings, and 90 percent of ticket buyers said they would recommend the film. By those metrics, the film could easily produce a box office comparable to The Help’s in 2011.
Then there are the film’s surprisingly positive reviews, including a love letter from New York Times critic A.O. Scott and near-uniform praise for Winfrey’s performance. In a rave of the film’s actors, The Village Voice’s Stephanie Zacharek says, “Winfrey may be the finest of them all.” The Associated Press’s Jocelyn Noveck singles out the single greatest feat of Oprah’s performance: managing to get the audience to forget that she’s Oprah. She’s “often restrained and quite moving,” Noveck writes. “To her credit, you’re not thinking ‘Wow, Oprah!’ in every scene; that in itself is no small triumph.”
Now it is far too easy to assume that Winfrey will definitely be on that Oscar stage in March, delighting A-listers like George Clooney and Reese Witherspoon with the news that “You get a car! And you get a car!” It’s very early in the race, and there are still performances with loads of early buzz to come from Cameron Diaz in The Counselor, Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle, and, especially, Meryl Streep in August: Osage County.
But a nomination seems so inevitable that when Jimmy Kimmel filmed a segment called “Lie Witness News,” in which he asked people on the street about Winfrey’s Oscar nomination for The Butler, it seemed like such a logical thing to say that no one realized they were being fooled.
Another reason an Oprah nomination looks like a sure bet: it’s obvious that, along with the rest of the universe, the Academy is in love with her. They nominated for her first major big-screen performance in 1985’s The Color Purple (anyone questioning Winfrey’s skills as an actress would be wise to revisit that shattering performance) and awarded her the prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2012.
Plus, the supporting-actress race, perhaps more than any other, is the one in which voters have proven particularly gleeful in rewarding actresses one would hardly ever expect to be associated with the Oscar statues for their surprisingly strong work. Lee Daniels directed one such actress, Mo’Nique, to a win in the category just three years ago for her work in Precious, while Dreamgirls’ Jennifer Hudson, Mighty Aphrodite’s Mira Sorvino, and My Cousin Vinny’s Marisa Tomei saw themselves become not only the unlikeliest of Oscar contenders but eventual winners.
The Butler marks Oprah’s first appearance in a film in 15 years, a milestone that’s helped accomplish the first hurdle on the way to an Oscar nomination: getting your film on voters’ radar. She deliver a knockout performance, helping her clear the second big hurdle: living up to expectations. There’s still a lot of race to run, but with such an early lead already, expect Oprah to finish as she does so often: in first place.
And then set your TiVos for what will likely be one of the most memorable acceptance speeches of all time.