'The Butler' Proves that Oprah Should Forget 'OWN' and Go Back to Acting
While there's much to love about Lee Daniels' The Butler, which is receiving raves from critics and doing impressively at the box office, one giant flaw — the film's stunt casting — takes away some of the effectiveness the movie could otherwise have had. Practically every scene features a new famous face, and constant realizations of "that's Snape as Ronald Reagan!" and "Lyla Garrity's playing Jackie Kennedy!" are fun, but distracting. The actors are good, and it's understandable that Daniels wanted to have a star-studded cast, but having unknowns fill the ensemble would have been much more beneficial. One piece of casting, though, should be praised, not criticized: As Gloria, the complicated, alcoholic wife of the film's lead (Forest Whitaker), Oprah Winfrey gives a career-changing performance.
That statement seems ridiculous to say, considering that Winfrey is an A-list celebrity who became a billionaire thanks to a massive empire and her flagship talk show. Yet her strong, passionate performance in The Butler showcases a side of her — Oprah, the actor — that many forgot she had. She hasn't led a film since 1998's Beloved, choosing instead to focus on the hugely successful Oprah Winfrey Show and, when that ended, went on to create her own network, OWN. Thanks in large part to must-watch interviews with scandal-ridden stars like Lance Armstrong and Lindsay Lohan, OWN, which, for years, struggled to find ratings, is finally turning a profit. The show's newfound success, along with charming stints on talk shows and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, have allowed for Winfrey to begin a new stage of her life, a post-Oprah era where she's more frequently seen promoting a product than appearing on screen herself. While any future with Oprah in it is a good one, her great performance in The Butler makes us wish she'd go in a different direction, choosing acting, solely, as her new career.
In The Butler, Winfrey is so striking not because her performance makes viewers forget that it's Oprah Winfrey they're watching, but because it is Oprah Winfrey. She could've taken a smaller, quieter role, one that would require a physical transformation that would make her unrecognizable, but instead, she chose to make her acting comeback in a loud, in-your-face role that required no physical change except for a few ugly tracksuits and a '70s-era hairdo. Viewers never forget that it's Winfrey in the role, but that's exactly the point. She reminds us that she's a face you'll always remember, and for good reason: She's a major talent.
If Winfrey chooses to continue her acting career, she could easily earn herself a second Oscar nomination (the first was for 1985's The Color Purple) before long. The Butler proved that her prominence off-screen is an aide to her acting ability, not a deterrent. She can be transformative in a role without having to wear a drop of makeup, all because of natural talent — something many other actors, including those with many more films on their resumes than Winfrey, struggle to do. Still, it'd be understandable if Winfrey chose to forgo much more acting in favor of staying with OWN, as running talk shows is more familiar, and thus safer, territory. It'd be disappointing, though, if The Butler is the last we see of Oprah, the actor. She has too much talent to waste.