Countdown to the last 'Oprah Winfrey Show': Oprah's circus of the stars
When I was a girl, there was a yearly televised event called “Circus of the Stars” in which an assortment of celebrities — stars often just past their peaks — would assemble and perform light feats of circus-style derring-do. No one watched “Circus of the Stars” for the tightrope walking or trapeze. The whole point of the show was to gather a mind-bendingly random assortment of people from film, television, comedy and music together for a single project. The effect -– think Phyllis Diller, Nell Carter and Shannen Doherty (1985) — or Carol Channing, Juliet Prowse and Bronson Pinchot (1987) — was an annual snapshot of a certain stratum of pop culture, together as it had just been …a minute ago.
I couldn’t help but think of “Circus of the Stars” today as the final three episodes of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” began its countdown with the first of a two-part star-studded celebration of … well, of Oprah.
“Oprah has no idea” went the voice-over at the start of the show. The premise was that the whole extravaganza had been kept top secret from Winfrey, who just showed up at Chicago’s United Center stadium not knowing what to expect! But if you’d asked me, sitting in Brooklyn with two cats, an 8-week-old baby and a piece of pizza, what Oprah’s staff might cook up for her farewell bash, I’d probably say “A parade of the most high-wattage celebrities Oprah’s ever hosted offering testimonials and singing songs about how much they love Oprah?” So let’s do away with the notion that Oprah was shocked by every guest who trotted out, This-Is-Your-Life Style, to the delight of thousands of her most loyal fans (no explanation was offered with regard to how loyalty was tested and ranked).
Tom Hanks kicked off emcee duties, quoting “an English playwright” who once said, “There is no surprise more magical than the surprise of being loved.” (For everyone who assumed that any reference to an unnamed “English playwright” was a winking nod to Shakespeare: Nope! Hanks seriously just meant “an English playwright” — the little-remembered Charles Morgan. I looked it up.)
Noting that her viewers have totaled billions over the generations, Hanks said, “as you’ve said over and over and over again, ‘It’s all about them.' ” This foregrounded clips of three Winfrey viewers offering their stories of how the Oprah show had changed their lives. Kevin said that the show “has helped shape me as a man” and taught him to let his daughters know “you are enough just as you are,” and Becky spoke of how Oprah helped her get past her anger after her mother and friend were killed by a drunk driver. There were multiple other mentions of viewers throughout the show. But come on. This was not “all about them.” This was “all about Oprah.”
Hanks was soon introducing Tom Cruise, who bounded out with his floppy hair and crazy, crazy, crazypants grin; the audience practically levitated. It was clear the crowd realized it was getting the celebrity equivalent of an Oprah’s Favorite Things Giveaway. And it was, except with awkward variety-show interludes!
“OH-PRAH! OH-PRAH!” chanted the crowd.
But wait — there’s more! Hanks was telling Oprah, “Another one of your ultimate viewers just flew in from New York City. This hard-working mother of four says the Oprah show means the world to her. Come out, hardworking mother of four! Madonnnnnnaaaaaaaa!”
“Get out!” shouted Oprah. “What!?!?” At home, I knew just how she felt. I had no idea that Madonna had four children. And here she was, at the United Center, explaining how inspired she was by Oprah, whom she summed up in a way that just coincidentally might also apply to Madonna herself: “She’s a self-made woman who’s been at the top of her game for over 25 years and she is still kicking ...!”
Former child actress and “lifelong” Oprah viewer Dakota Fanning was up next. Heading a group of young women she called “Oprah show babies,” Fanning said “your voice has been the soundtrack of our lives,” before the young women behind her offered up their testimony: “Because of you, Oprah, I love to read books”; “I’ve learned to take better care of myself; I’m 13 and I just lost 20 pounds”; “You helped me lift the shame of being abused and taught me that it wasn’t my fault”; “Oprah, I learned from you that I can be anything I want to be … like president of the United States.”
“We’ve learned from the Oprah show that we are enough,” said Fanning. “That we matter, that our lives have value.” As this actually-moving segment wrapped up, Fanning grinned and said, “Because of 'The Oprah Winfrey Show,' we believe that girls can run the world!” Which was less of a feminist statement than it was a setup for Beyonce, who emerged to sing her new single, “Run the World (Girls),” which would have been more of a feminist statement if her backup dancers, pantomiming running the world, were wearing pants.
There was another powerful interlude, about how in tribute to Winfrey, thousands of books had been donated to a New Orleans school library left devastated first by Katrina and then by a tornado. And then Diane Sawyer appeared to spout some ridiculousness about how Oprah’s like a tree — roots, branches, extending, yadda yadda — and how in honor of her 25 years, 25,000 oak trees would be planted in her honor across the country. Then Halle Berry, Queen Latifah and Katie Holmes showed up, offering more stories of Oprah viewers whose lives had been changed.
Holmes stuck around to join her husband, Cruise, in a naked plug for OWN, Winfrey’s struggling cable network, playing on all this viewer-recognition stuff by saying, “You never let go of us, your viewers, and we will never let go of you.”
But the thing is, of course we will. If we weren’t letting go of Oprah, we wouldn’t be watching this two-part special, which ended today with a performance by Rascal Flatts, during which all earlier guests came out to sway awkwardly. Madonna looked the most put out by this, Sawyer the most into it.
Which is how I got to thinking about Circus of the Stars and the weirdness/greatness of these invented televised get-togethers, in which an era’s stars (or at least some of them) gather to present a stilted tableau of what America’s pop culture looked like … just a minute ago.
Yeah, Oprah’s guests today (and Tuesday) are way more high-wattage, way buzzier than the crowd that smeared on the CBS greasepaint in the '70s and '80s. (Look for Maria Shriver on Tuesday — did you think Oprah would leave without securing one last exclusive?!) But the fact is, today’s crowd was a relic of the last quarter century, a snapshot of who we’ve been — or who we’ve worshiped — under Oprah’s reign, not who we’re going to worship without her guidance.
And that’s not nothing. In fact, there’s something historically substantive in watching this assemblage of people, because in truth, we’ll probably never see another group of cultural touchstones like them again. The world just doesn’t work this way anymore.
Oprah presided over the last period of our pop cultural history during which many of us could be counted on to be looking, regularly, in the same direction at the same time. When she started, the entertainment world was still divided into four networks; it was a world in which, whether we liked it or not, most people knew who both Phyllis Diller and Nell Carter were.
She preceded the thousand channels of cable, the multiple diversions of technology, the diffuse possibilities offered by the Internet, the splintered entertainment universe that encompasses everything from high-definition opera screened in movie theaters to watching Snooki from an episode of "Jersey Shore" we DVR’d last season.
Winfrey talked to stars like Cruise and Hanks and Madonna before we saw every drunken stumble thanks to TMZ and had PDFs of their court documents thanks to the Smoking Gun. This was back when celebrities were still relatively protected, mysterious commodities and when an hour on Winfrey’s couch allowed viewers to feel like they were getting to know them.
That pace and rhythm of celebrity life is fading fast. In fact, I think it’s ending in front our eyes, maybe at the United Center, with a random collection of this era’s celebrities gathered to walk a tightrope in honor of Oprah Winfrey.
“Twenty-five years have come and gone so fast,” Hanks said at the start of today’s episode. Twenty-five years the likes of which will not come again.
— Rebecca Traister
Photo: Oprah surrounded by Patti LaBelle, left, Beyoncé, Madonna, Dakota Fanning and Halle Berry. Credit: Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press.