This isn’t work. This is a blowout. They’re staging a block party at Universal Studios—a central scene in The Women of Brewster Place, an ABC movie scheduled to air next season. For the past four hours 150 cast members and extras have been boogying through the twist, the jerk and line dances, savoring barbecued ribs and chicken, jumping double dutch and slapping patty-cake. Now, as Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley stops by to honor the film’s executive producer-cum-leading lady—a matronly woman with graying hair bundled into a knot, paisley dress and industrial-strength orthopedic shoes—the crowd pays homage to their boss with a chant of “O-prah!!”
That’s right. Underneath the bird’s nest of a wig is Oprah Winfrey, the reigning queen of daytime talkies. And the cast chant isn’t just a sign of affection for her; it’s also a symbol of her emergence as a Hollywood power. Having swallowed up Phil Donahue and all other competitors in the ratings, Winfrey, 34, is after bigger game—producing her first movie and playing her first starring role. If there’s any doubt that this means clout, try to imagine Geraldo Rivera or Regis Philbin producing and starring in a major TV movie.
Winfrey’s vehicle for her ascent into higher showbiz strata is Gloria Naylor’s 1982 American Book Award-winning novel, The Women of Brewster Place. Chronicling the ghetto lives of seven black women, it’s a story of broken dreams, betrayal, bitterness and survival. The themes cut close to Winfrey, an illegitimate child and teen runaway who was raped by relatives. The book, she says, makes “a great statement for maintaining your dignity in a world that tries to strip you of it.”
To film the novel, Winfrey helped gather one of the most distinguished casts of black actresses ever assembled—Cicely (Roots) Tyson, Robin (Head of the Class) Givens, Jackee (227) Harry and Lonette (‘Round Midnight) McKee, among others. And she has brought these name performers together with an egalitarian spirit that’s as rare in Hollywood as lucidity is in Washington. “She’s a democratic person,” says the film’s director, Donna (Desert Hearts) Deitch. “Oprah treats everyone the same. When she walks on the set, she greets the dolly grip the same as she’d greet a producer.”
Are you listening, Barbra Streisand?
“She actually expects you to upstage her,” Jackee Harry notes with some amazement. Robin Givens contrasts the Brewster experience with her earlier movie, Beverly Hills Madam, starring Faye Dunaway. “There’s a big difference,” says Givens. “We’re not waiting for her to come out of her trailer to do a scene. We’re all there on the same level trying to get the job done.”
For Winfrey, getting that job done has proved considerably more difficult than her usual duties, like interviewing women who stay married to men who try to harm them. By the time she’d started pushing Brewster Place, the idea had already been turned down by all three networks. “They said it was too womanish,” says Winfrey, who went to see ABC executives herself with five copies of the book in her bag. “I passed them around and said, ‘Look, I know you are very wise and perceptive men, and the only reason you have turned down this project is because you haven’t read the book. You could not read it and turn it down. I’ll be calling by Tuesday to see who’s read it.’ We’re going to have a book report, fellas.” Only one wise, perceptive executive had read the book by the deadline, but he was sold. “We went from there,” says Winfrey.
Then, “I worked my butt off,” Oprah says, taping four weeks of shows in advance before flying from Chicago to L.A. and starting filming. Six weeks into 41 the seven-week schedule, she had only had a day-and-a-half off. Between playing Mattie Michael, the all-wise Earth Mother who helps her Brewster Place neighbors heal their wounds, Winfrey has had to ponder decisions on everything from how to make up for rained-out scenes to whether the grips have to pay for their own breakfast.
They don’t. The grips are eating well and so, alas, is Oprah. Whenever she gets edgy on the set, she grabs for a bowl of corn chips. “I have a corn chip obsession,” says Winfrey, who has gained back the 15 pounds she lost before filming started. “Chips calm me down. If I was just doing my show—you see, dieting is my hobby—I could maintain some control. But here, in the middle of a scene, I’ll say, ‘Corn chips!’ ”
At the moment, corn chips are more of a constant in Winfrey’s life than her boyfriend of two years, Stedman Graham, 37, a public relations exec based in Chicago. At best the busy pair often manage only three meetings a week if they’re both at home. “But he’s in different cities all the time,” says Winfrey. “I tell him, ‘I’ll meet you at the American Airlines counter.’ ” Now they’re relying solely on telecommunications.
While marriage plans aren’t even lightly penciled in on Winfrey’s calendar, they are on her mind. That became apparent when Robin Givens’ husband, heavyweight boxing champ Mike Tyson, the raging prince of pugilism, visited the set one day. All Oprah talked about, says Givens, “was marriage—why we chose each other, if it was good, if she should get married. Michael said to me, ‘I feel like we’re being interviewed.’ We wanted to kid her and ask, ‘Is it okay if we go on with our marriage?’ ”
Winfrey says she feels “no pressure to get married. But my friends tell me, ‘Three years into a relationship, you have to decide.’ And I’m getting that ol’ biological-clock pressure too.”
Meanwhile, the Brewster Place clock is still ticking. Oprah wraps her final week of shooting with an Amazonian effort, working under a rain machine from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. Saturday to film the climax, in which the women tear down a brick wall that has symbolized their dead-end life in the ghetto. Winfrey has much at stake in this movie—her goal, she says, is to make a classic. “Years from now, this film will be remembered,” she promises. But Winfrey never forgets where it all started. As a Universal tour bus stops by the set, she jumps, waves and shouts, “Watch Oprahat3!”
—By Joanne Kaufman, with Jacqueline Savaiano in Los Angeles