O.C. REVIEW : Oprah Show Wows Some but Not All


No wonder Oprah Winfrey's people didn't want The Times to cover her appearance Sunday afternoon at the Celebrity Theatre.

We'll spare you the gory details of the labyrinthine misadventure involved in just getting in to review the show. Let's just say there was much buck-passing and breaking of promises--we're still waiting for the call from Oprah's publicist that was definitely coming Friday.

And after being told that "no still photographers are allowed," it turned out that we were among the dozen or so people in the sold-out, 2,500-strong crowd without a camera. Flashbulbs popped throughout the presentation; afterwards, Oprah actually spent several minutes posing for the shutterbugs.

No one likes what, charitably, might be called a bum steer, but it kinda makes sense that we practically had to sneak in, that the Powers That Be wanted to keep the press out. They probably knew this thing wouldn't stand up to critical scrutiny any more than her tabloid talk show does.

But, heck, we wouldn't have missed it for anything.

Sunday's 100-minute extravaganza was not only deeply, deeply moving, but highly illuminating--probably never more so than when Oprah confided: "The fact that I can wear Hanes panty hose every day has nothing to do with the kind of person I am."

Probably a close second, though, was when she offered some spiritual-cum-aeronautical advice: "In order to fly, you've got to clean the garbage out of your wings." Uh, right.

Not that Oprah was the only one who shared some very special thoughts. Indeed, in the 45-minute audience-participation segment, numerous fans lined up at microphones to toss out compliments, relate weight-loss success stories and ask meaningful questions. This yielded some award-winning moments. Among them:

* Our Groucho Marx Non Sequitur Award, to the woman who said to Oprah, "Thank you for enriching my soul daily. And tell me about the dog and animals in your life."

* The Miss Congeniality Award to the lean blonde, who demonstrated supreme sensitivity, following all of Oprah's comments about her ongoing struggle with weight loss, by saying "I want to show you how good you can look." As she stepped toward the stage to give Oprah a better look at her svelte physique, the theater became so silent you could hear a pound drop. This was quickly interrupted with catcalls and shouts of "Throw her out!"

* The Sing Oprah's Praises Award was won, hands down, by the dark-haired woman who allowed that Oprah had been a significant influence and inspiration, then began singing " You . . . are . . . so . . . beautiful . . . to . . . me . . ."

This was hardly the first time that Sunday's "show" felt like a "Saturday Night Live" sketch gone haywire. Much earlier in the afternoon, the rather amorphous presentation had crossed into such surreal territory that a befuddled-looking woman--apparently noticing our note-taking--leaned over and asked, "Do you think this is still the warm-up, or is this the show?"

A reasonable question, even though at that point Oprah had been on stage for 40 minutes. Heading into the show, it was something of a mystery just what Oprah was going to do and that mystery wasn't cleared up right away.

So what was going on? Well, it started out in fairly straightforward fashion. After being greeted by a thunderous ovation, she thanked the crowd, saying: "I'm really thrilled that you all are here, and you don't even know what you're here for."

That's a textbook example of blind faith, but well-placed as it turns out--at least monetarily--because Oprah announced that "all of the money that will be raised here today will be used to do what I call 'empowering' people.' " She said that half will go to a new home for battered women and half will go to the Brotherhood Crusade, which, she explained, is an organization of men that go "into the community and confront drug dealers."

From there, Oprah moved into details about her formative years ("I remember the first night I saw Diana Ross; I just wanted to be Diana Ross or somebody Supreme.") . . .

. . .early broadcasting jobs, including a detailed account of her stint in Baltimore, where the news director had qualms about her hair and looks, sending her to New York to be "made over"; after she had a permanent, all her hair fell out ("You can learn a lot about yourself when you are bald and black and supposedly an anchorwoman") . . .

. . . horror stories about her younger days as a romantic wimp who, on the one hand, would never allow a man to strike her but on the other "would sit and wait by the phone for 17 hours" for a call from her boyfriend--and was so desperate to prevent him from leaving her place after a visit that she would run outside and hold onto the bumper of his Lincoln Continental as he was trying to drive away. . . .

But these first few anecdotes, and the ones that followed, were ultimately in service of her key theme: "I'm here today, really, to talk to you all about grace ," she said. "What I believe is that the law of grace is always working in the universe--and I will call it grace today, so as not to try to preach religion to you. But power of God, power of grace, power of the universe--it really doesn't matter, because any power that is omnipotent doesn't get (ticked) off at what you call it."

And so it went, Oprah espousing the virtue of "backing up, getting out of the way and letting the grace move in" in various ways, interspersed with more tales (including the one about being applauded by three women upon emerging from a bathroom stall at La Guardia airport), and a fistful of overwrought poetry recitations. The poems weren't hers.

Of course, she was largely preaching to the converted--and making a big, audible impact. Those who weren't members of her congregation might have been nonplussed by some of the evangelical fervor and odd occurrences.

But there's no denying that Oprah is an enormously charismatic, very sharp cookie who comes off as relatively down-to-earth--or tries to, anyway--and is, clearly, immensely inspiring to many women.

Even if the magic of her appeal doesn't speak to us all personally, it is tangible, it is recognizable. For instance, it's not hard to see why this show was sold-out for weeks, or why there's been frenzied demand for tickets to the Los Angeles taping this week of Oprah's ABC talk show.

As one young woman--who initially was scolding Oprah because she was unable to secure any tickets to the taping--put it: "You're the best--you're more popular than the Rolling Stones!"

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