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Oprah: The Billionaire Everywoman

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Oprah: The Billionaire Everywoman

Oprah: The Billionaire Everywoman

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And finally, a word about a household name. Shes such a diva, she needs only one name, maybe just an initial - like the name of her magazine: O. Of course, we're talking about Oprah Winfrey. She's been described as one of the most influential women in the world. But her impact on television and radio is only one aspect of her amazing career. As our Divas on Screen series continues, movie critic Mia Mask tells us about Oprah Winfreys work in film and how it has helped shape modern cinema.

Professor MIA MASK (Film, Vassar College; Author, Movie Critic): Oprah Winfrey is the most powerful woman in film and television. Together, her talk show, magazine and TV network have made her the wealthiest female entertainer in the world, the first female African-American billionaire.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Oprah Winfrey Show")

Ms. OPRAH WINFREY (Television Host, Producer, Actor): Have you been able to take it all in, all the things that people have said, all the accolades?

That scene that we were just looking at, about looking in the mirror, have you done that yourself?

So youre saying now that the reason why you had the responses to Katie Couric is because you were annoyed with her?

Prof. MASK: In the early years of her success, some critics said she evoked the plantation stereotype of the black mammy. But her media mogul status has since quieted those critics. Born in Kosciusko, Mississippi in 1954, she experienced hardship from an early age. Her parents separated when she was still very young. They sent her to live with her grandparents, but in poor surroundings until the age of six. Then she moved to Milwaukee to live with her mother, but was sexually molested by male relatives. At age 14, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee with her father. As an adolescent, she struggled with drugs, rebellious behavior and lost a baby after giving birth prematurely.

Always a good student, her life turned around when she earned a college scholarship. She studied at Tennessee State University, where she received a degree in Speech and Performing Arts. This helped her become a successful news anchor. In 1986, Winfrey started taping "The Oprah Winfrey Show," a Chicago-based daytime talk show.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Oprah Winfrey Show")

Ms. WINFREY: Welcome to the very first episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

(Soundbite of cheering)

Prof. MASK: Over the last 20 years, her televised counseling and willingness to be counseled made her the first billionaire-everywoman.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Oprah Winfrey Show")

Ms. WINFREY: Well, I have to say this: For so many years, I was just like everybody else. I was just happy to have a job on TV and feeling - you know, my dads like, you know, don't - you need to save all your money because that TV job's not going to last forever. And I will have to say that up until maybe about five or six years ago, I still had that syndrome that, I dont know. I dont know what'll happen.

Unidentified Man: Right.

Ms. WINFREY: But if I lose this job, I dont feel that anymore. But I do feel that...

Unidentified Man: Youve been pretty good with your money, haven't you?

Ms. WINFREY: Ive been pretty good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: Yeah. Thats good, you know.

Ms. WINFREY: Ive been pretty good. I do feel that it is more than just a show.

Prof. MASK: In 1985, Winfrey costarred in Steven Spielbergs film adaptation of Alice Walkers Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Color Purple."

(Soundbite of movie, "The Color Purple")

Ms. WINFREY: (As Sofia) Sat in that jail, I sat in that jail till I near about done rot to death. I know what it like to wanna go somewhere and cant. I know what it like to wanna sing and have it beat out you.

Prof. MASK: "The Color Purple" went on to become a Broadway musical and opened in late 2005, with Winfrey credited as a producer.

(Soundbite of stage play, "The Color Purple")

(Soundbite of song, "Our Prayer")

Ms. RENEE ELISE GOLDSBERRY (Actor, Singer): (as Nettie) (Singing) Aint no need to discuss.

Ms. JEANNETTE BAYARDELLE (Actor, Singer): (as Celie) (Singing) It aint worth a big fuss.

Ms. GOLDSBERRY and Ms. BAYARDELLE: (as Nettie and Celie) (Singing) Whatever come to us is in Gods hands. When I lay me down to sleep, I will say my prayer that God love me so deep, he will promise our souls to keep together. Ill say a prayer.

Prof. MASK: Winfrey has also produced made-for-TV movies and theatrical pictures like "The Wedding" and "Their Eyes Were Watching God." In doing so, Winfrey helped bring celebrated black literature to the screen that would have otherwise been passed over by Hollywood. But even super-powerful, media mogul Oprah Winfrey was unable to turn the film "Beloved" - with its A-list director, Pulitzer Prize-winning source material, skilled cast, healthy production budget and broad advertising campaign - into a commercial success at the box office.

(Soundbite of movie, "Beloved")

Ms. WINFREY: (as Sethe) It aint my job to know whats worse, Paul D. Its my job to know what it is and to keep my children from it. Because I'd rather know theyre at peace in heaven than living a hell here on Earth, so help me, Jesus.

Prof. MASK: Over the years, Oprah Winfrey has used her storehouse of assets and resources to make progressive motion pictures, which havent always been commercially successful. By producing movies like "Beloved," Oprah Winfrey has held up a mirror and shown us exactly where we are as a national movie-going community. If she does retire from daytime talk television in 2011, as announced last year, she will leave behind a legacy of quality television programming and perhaps move into another challenging arena.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Mia Mask is an associate professor of film at Vassar College. She is the author of "Divas on Screen: Black Women in American Film." To read more about Oprah Winfrey and see video clips from her film classics "The Color Purple" and "Beloved," please go to the Program page of and select TELL ME MORE. Tune in tomorrow, when Mia wraps up our Divas on Screen series by telling us about the first black Academy-Award winner for best actress, the dazzling Halle Berry.

And thats our program for today. Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Lets talk more tomorrow.

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