Technically Oprah already has an Oscar. She didn't pick it up after her nomination for The Color Purple in 1986, but-- maybe as a consolation prize-- she was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2011, despite being a much bigger part of the TV industry than film world. Even the Academy isn't immune to her blinding celebrity. And that may become even more important this year, as Oprah has thrown herself into the thick of the Oscar conversation with her performance in Lee Daniels' The Butler, the weekend's big box office hit that, despite its non-traditional August release date, now has awards buzz inevitably swirling around it.
No, I'm not really ready to start the Oscar speculation in earnest either, but The Butler has gone and forced our hand, particularly since plenty of the film's praise has revolved around Oprah's performance as Gloria Gaines, the wife to Forest Whitaker's Cecil Gaines, the titular butler who worked in the White House for more than 40 years. In the New York Times rave review A.O. Scott called her a "fine character actor." The Village Voice praised her openness, calling Oprah's performance "the opposite of great-lady acting—it's something much better, more vibrant and alive." Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the world's most famous women is getting all the attention in her new movie-- and given that The Butler is distributed by the awards-savvy Weinstein Company, and that Lee Daniels directed another TV star to a Best Supporting Actress Oscar only three years ago, the buzz for Oprah is premature but well-deserved. Even in the trailer for The Butler, you can tell the woman, who could have comfortably retired decades ago to an outlandish mountaintop mansion, is really putting her all into the performance.
So should you listen to the people who are shouting that Oprah has her Oscar locked up and the rest of the category should go home? Duh, of course not. It's August! The vast majority of Oprah's competition has yet to be seen by anybody, and there's absolutely no counting on an Oscar campaign until movies have screened for a paying audience-- no matter how good your performance is in a flop, you're going to have a hard time mopping up awards for it. The Butler has an obvious edge in that it's already a hit, but there are plenty of other potential big ones coming down the pike, and many of them with Supporting Actress contenders of their own. Sites like The Film Experience have already started sizing up the competition, and it's looking pretty fierce, starting with Meryl Streep in August: Osage County. Streep has to be considered a force no matter what the role or the movie-- she won her third statue for the largely unloved The Iron Lady, after all-- and the August part is one that earned a Tony for Deanna Dunagan, who originated the role on Broadway.
The Weinstein Company, who is distributing both August: Osage County and The Butler, confirmed last week that both Meryl and Oprah will be competing in the Best Supporting Actress category, which has some speculating that August might be a dud-- why else would you bump down Streep in a role that seemed like an easy Best Actress contender? Either way, the move ought to generate endless headlines, with two of the most famous women in America now competing in the same category, and both as salty-tongued mothers with addiction issues, no less. And that's just one of the foes Oprah will be facing-- there's Cameron Diaz in Ridley Scott's The Counselor, Carey Mulligan in Inside Llewyn Davis, Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle, Amy Adams in Her, Octavia Spencer in this summer's Fruitvale Station... This early on, when we can cross our fingers that all of these movies will turn out to be good and the performances meaty, there's a lot of competition in sight.
And, as we've seen happen over and over again, a frontrunner can easily become her own worst enemy. In 2007 Cate Blanchett had all the buzz for months for her transformative performance as Bob Dylan in I'm Not There, only to lose steam in the end and get edged out by Tilda Swinton for Michael Clayton Two years ago Viola Davis was a strong Best Actress contender for August release The Help, only to get beaten at the last minute by-- uh-oh-- Meryl Streep. The Best Supporting Actress category has been friendlier than most to long-running frontrunners for the last few years-- Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Melissa Leo and Mo'Nique all seemed locked-in for wins for months before the ceremony-- but when you're already hugely famous, rich and successful like Oprah, riding "it's her time to win" buzz through February is no small feat.
Later this week the entire CB staff will go a little crazy and start predicting Best Picture winners, but it will still be a few more weeks until we start talking about the Oscar race-- and the chances for the rest of The Butler-- in earnest. In the meantime, Oprah supporters may want to don their disco suits and buckle up for a long, long Oscar season. The queen of all media may have a jump start on the season, but she's got a lot of fighting to do before a second statue is hers.