I came to The Oprah Winfrey Show that first nationally syndicated episode in 1986 because I loved her acting in THE COLOR PURPLE. That trailer and this photo really struck me. ‘This is some good / authentic casting’. This still photo of Oprah as Sofia I looked at a lot before I saw the film. Something about that look in her eyes I related to. That far-away gaze had a mixture of being present, but also being somewhere far, far away. Then I saw the film and became even more impressed with Whoopi Goldberg's range of talents and began my long love affair with Oprah Winfrey. Unfortunately, her acting career took a backseat to that other career. You know, that changing of the world thing that she was doing.
When an actor gives a great performance I always want to know more, know them off camera a little bit. Get a sense of the differences (between them and the character) or the similarities. How did they do it?, how did they connect, how did they do those big emotional scenes. Oprah had a few of them in The Color Purple. The cornfield scene, the Christmas ‘thank you’ to Celie, and the big transformation Thanksgiving scene at the end where Sofia finds her voice and power again.
I remember an acting teacher took issue with her performance. I instantly wanted out of the class. ‘What are you talking about !!! She knows how to personalize and the ‘girl’ can deliver on those close-ups – what else is there?’
Sofia (Oprah Winfrey) is arguably the most tragic figure of the entire narrative because her self-assured and daring personality — a refusal to submit to anyone — is ironically her downfall. One single mistake made from an instinctive reaction transforms a strong-willed person to a quietly submissive individual. Her act of self-defense serves as part of a larger leitmotif — depictions of how hands are used throughout the film. We see her often with hands swinging at her side or with clinched fists. But after her prison release, those same hands are hidden in her lap or pretty much useless for the simplest tasks like picking groceries.
She does some amazing acting with her tight close-ups. It’s a full thrust and commanding achievement for a debut film performance. From the punch, (with that brilliant half squint after she is slapped) that got her in trouble in the street, to her prison scene, to her closing celebration moments with Harpo as Celie’s sister comes home. You are with Sofia to the very core of her being. Oprah completely lets you in with the smallest of moments. A quick sweep of the camera and you know exactly where she is at and you feel it as she does. Now we know that her trademark compassion, humanity and empathy as a person - those are exactly the true blue qualities of a good actor. Her selflessness and ability to identify with the oppressed. She believes in the material with the depths of her soul, commits fully with every fiber and it shows. I always say the best actors are the best citizens in life. They listen, they truly do care about something bigger than themselves. Sean Penn, Blythe Danner, Meryl Streep – when they see an injustice going on in the world, the good ones, aren’t afraid to act quick, speak out and do something. It’s not just PC Hollywood humanitarianism for copy – but real concern.
Lesson with Oprah for actors is that you can’t separate person with actor – they are intertwined. It's best to personalize. You can’t fake it. It has to really happen. Oprah Winfrey is THE COLOR PURPLE is a master class in commitment, ‘it has to happen for realzies’, and for the love of God... listen, and love thy scene partner and thy neighbor.