Media mogul Oprah Winfrey knows a winner when she sees it. That’s why she approached 1993 Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, asking if she could buy the film rights to one of Morrison’s books adapted into a movie. The legendary author passed away on Monday at the age of 88, according to the New York Times.
Winfrey’s hunt for Morrison’s phone number
Vanity Fair reported that Winfrey went to unorthodox measures to contact Morrison regarding her 1987 book “Beloved.” The story of Sethe, a former slave haunted by her late daughter, the novel made a connection with Winfrey that inspired the talk show host to bring it to the silver screen. First, she needed Morrison to be willing to sell the rights. After unsuccessfully trying to find the author’s number, Winfrey took a creative route.
Winfrey called the fire department in the New Jersey town where Morrison lived, asking them to “call Toni and tell her Oprah called,” according to Vanity Fair. Morrison didn’t hesitate – she spoke to Winfrey that evening and named her price. Winfrey agreed immediately. “Happy to do it,” Winfrey told the Chicago Tribune in 1998. “From one black woman to another. I thought, ‘I can give you exactly what you ask for.’”
From pages to screen
Famed director Jonathan Demme signed on to head the film depiction of Beloved after reading the script in 1996, and also hearing that Oprah was spearheading the project. “Oprah is taken very seriously in Hollywood,” Demme told the Chicago Tribune. “She’s not another shlepper taking meetings.”
Demme articulated Winfrey’s ability to connect with the character of Sethe. “She would literally channel the spirit of Margaret Garner, the inspiration for Sethe, into her performance,” he said. “I’d never seen anything like it before. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. She would commune with her. There’d be times she would close her eyes and sway a little and I’d say to myself, ‘She’s channeling again.’”
Winfrey fervently campaigned for the film when it was released in 1998. “It’s my Schindler’s List and my Sophie’s Choice and my Dances With Wolves in the way that it is able to take a period of history that has a big institutional label to it—slavery—and bring humanity to it and a sense of lives lived day in, day out,” she said, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Disappointment, depression, and lessons learned
Despite the clout of Winfrey and Demme heading the project, Beloved was a box office disappointment. With a reported budget of $55 million, the film brought in only $21 million in the first month. According to Vanity Fair, Winfrey felt the movie may have been “ahead of its time.” The talk show legend spoke to British Vogue in 2017 about how the commercial letdown of the film impacted her. “I shall never forget Saturday morning, October 17,” says Oprah, referring to the day after Beloved opened in 1998. “I got a call from someone at the studio, and they said, ‘It’s over. You got beat by Chucky.’ And I said, ‘Who’s Chucky? What do you mean it’s over? It’s just Saturday morning!’ I knew nothing about box-office projections or weekend openings. It was ten o’clock in the morning, and I said to Art, ‘I would like macaroni and cheese for breakfast’ … And soooo began my long plunge into food and depression and suppressing all my feelings.”
Winfrey described sinking into a depression that was hard to shake. “I actually started to think, Maybe I really am depressed. Because it’s more than ‘I feel bad about this.’ I felt like I was behind a veil. I felt like what many people had described over the years on my show, and I could never imagine it. What’s depression? Why don’t you just pick yourself up?” she shared with Vogue. After six weeks, Winfrey purposely began to shift her focus. “That’s when the gratitude practice became really strong for me, because it’s hard to remain sad if you’re focused on what you have instead of what you don’t have.”
Despite the commercial letdown, Winfrey was able to glean some valuable wisdom regarding any future film endeavors.”It taught me to never again – never again, ever – put all your hopes, expectations, eggs in the basket of box office,” she told British Vogue. “Do the work as an offering, and then whatever happens, happens.”
Winfrey recently posted a tribute to Morrison on her Instagram. “In the beginning was the Word. Toni Morrison took the word and turned it into a Song…of Solomon, of Sula, Beloved, Mercy, Paradise Love, and more,” Winfrey wrote, referring to Morrison’s many books. “She was our conscience. Our seer. Our truth-teller. She was a magician with language, who understood the Power of words. She used them to roil us, to wake us, to educate us and help us grapple with our deepest wounds and try to comprehend them. It is exhilarating and life-enhancing every time I read and share her work.This pic was her first appearance on the Oprah Show.
She was Empress-Supreme among writers. Long may her WORDS reign!”
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