Remember when Winfrey easily could have been chosen to announce Best Picture at the Academy Awards with Jack Nicholson, and it would have seemed like a perfectly natural thing for her to do? It wouldn't have mattered that she rarely acts, or that it's the most prestigious Oscar gig next to hosting the show. Just a few years ago, nobody in Hollywood was bigger than Winfrey. Part of what made her celebrity interviews so intriguing was that not only was Winfrey just as famous as any star she happened to be interrogating, but many of us were far more interested in knowing the details of her still-mysterious private life. Madonna might have been speaking for all of us when she once name-dropped Steadman (as in "What's up with him?") during an appearance on Winfrey's talk show.
Though she can still command top-of-the-line interview subjects and make headlines because of them (as she did recently by getting Lance Armstrong to admit to drug use), Winfrey is beginning to feel more like one of us mere mortals, only a billion times richer. For the first time since her mid-'80s rise to prominence and so far beyond, her level of relevance depends largely on whatever A-list company she's keeping. She's only as big and influential as her last celebrity interview, which is a bold statement I never would have considered making a few years ago when Whitney Houston was telling Winfrey about the time Bobby Brown spat on her during a domestic dispute.
It's hard to pinpoint the exact cause of Winfrey's decline. Maybe it's just the normal trajectory of any major superstar. What goes up must eventually go south. Or it could be the 2011 end of her talk show, which took away her platform to be in our public consciousness 52 weeks a year. Or maybe it's the emergence of Michelle Obama onto the national scene. Is there really room for two inspirational, aspirational black women on the A-plus list? (And did the end of The Oprah Winfrey Show create the vacuum that made Michelle Obama possible in the first place?)
When I think of Winfrey, I still think of Essence, the once-leading national magazine for black women that now feels so 1995. That was the year that I attended a 25th-anniversary party for Essence at Madison Square Garden, a New York City venue normally reserved for concerts by the biggest music superstars on the planet. The place was packed, and the keynote speaker was Winfrey, who gave a rousing "I am..." speech during which she roll called all of the prominent black women of the time, punctuated by the line "I am Essence, and I am 25 years old."
There were so many prominent names to list, all of whom were recognized by the audience (which included a significant number of non-blacks and non-women) and were celebrated across color lines and age demos. Flashback to 1995 and consider the bulging black female A-list: Winfrey, Halle Berry, Whoopi Goldberg, Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett, Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton, Janet Jackson, and, representing the old school, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner and Patti Labelle, who was mid-career resurgence at the time.
Meanwhile, En Vogue, Salt-N-Pepa, SWV and TLC weren't sisters who were doing it for themselves (they got by with more than a little help from their male producers), but they nonetheless achieved star status as strong black women in music, both in spite of and due to their professional co-dependencies. They were women, and we all heard them roar.
The previous year, Whoopi Goldberg had scored the ultimate Hollywood gig -- solo Oscar host -- and would land the job three more times in the next six years. Halle Berry was seven years away from becoming the first black woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress, and Angela Bassett was fresh off her Best Actress Oscar nomination for portraying a black icon, Tina Turner, in What's Love Got to Do with It. In music, Brandy, Monica and Aaliyah were teen queens, Lil' Kim and Eve were still to come, and the rise and disappearance of Lauryn Hill were still several years away.
Eighteen years later, so much has changed. Whitney Houston, Aaliyah and one-third of TLC are gone. Toni Braxton and Janet Jackson haven't had a hit in more than a decade. Mary J. Blige's multi-platinum heat has cooled considerably. And her 2002 stint as a Bond girl in Die Another Day aside, Halle Berry hasn't had a significant screen role since her Oscar win for Monster's Ball.
Nia Long and Jada Pinkett were about to take off in 1995, but neither ever really happened, a fate they share with Kimberly Elise and Thandie Newton (despite her BAFTA win for Crash), both of whom played Winfrey's daughters in 1999's Beloved. I wonder where Pinkett would be if she hadn't married Will Smith in 1997. Would she be completely off the radar or skirting the periphery of stardom, or would she have focused on her career instead of motherhood and being Mrs. Smith and become the big star she seemed on track to be in the mid '90s? Judging from what became of so many of her peers, the former scenarios seem more likely.
In light of the declining fortunes for black female celebrities, it's not hard to see why Essence is struggling. There's no common interest, no common denominator among thirtysomething and fortysomething black women. As a magazine editor, how do you appeal to a demo like that?
The two biggest black female stars of the moment, Rihanna and Beyoncé, both skew a bit younger, and although women in their 30s and above might want to get their look, there's nothing aspirational about either of them. Rihanna is apparently back together with the ex (Chris Brown) who physically assaulted her, and Beyoncé seems to get more coverage for manufactured controversies these days than for her talent (possibly partly because, like her one-time duet partner Alicia Keys, her commercial power is slipping). As for hardcore rapper-turned-American Idol judge Nicki Minaj, who is further down the celebrity chain, she remains a slightly aloof cartoon, one whose humanity is hiding underneath tons of make-up and fake contact lenses. Who wants to be her?
Things are just as bad elsewhere on TV, where one of the few prominently employed black women is The View's Sherri Shepherd, whose particular talent continues to elude me. The New Normal's NeNe Leakes comes from reality TV, and the black female actresses on shows like Grey's Anatomy and the now-cancelled Private Practice and Desperate Housewives have been members of ensembles. I've recently noticed a disturbing trend in daytime soaps where prominent black TV actresses from the '90s are being cast in throwaway walk-on roles as doctors and therapists: A Different World's Dawnn Lewis and In the Heat of the Night's Anne-Marie Johnson on Days of Our Lives and Any Day Now's Lorraine Toussaint on The Young and the Restless. Is that what black TV actresses today have to look forward to circa 2030?
The few black actresses who anchor TV series -- Kerry Washington in Scandal, Regina King in Southland -- are hardly household names among black or white viewers, despite having been kicking around the industry for years. If we see them on the big screen, it's usually as the love interest of a much bigger black male star, like Jamie Foxx (Washington's above-the-title costar in Django Unchained and both of theirs in Ray).
In the space of a few years, the ridiculously talented Tichina Arnold, who deserves to be an Emmy winner every bit as much as ex-Everybody Loves Raymond wife/mom Patricia Heaton, went from being a wife/mom lead on Everybody Hates Chris to being Fran Drescher's one-scene-an-episode sidekick on Happily Divorced. And why can't Hollywood find anything significant for Vivica A. Fox to do? Is a guest appearance on Raising Hope really as good as it gets now for the Kill Bill star? Will Angela Bassett ever be cast as the lead in a big-screen vehicle that showcases both her enduring talent and beauty? The cable networks can't be bothered to build a TV series around her? Madeleine Stowe, who was born two days after Bassett, could use some formidable competition her own age on Revenge, no? (Think Joan Collins vs. Diahann Carroll on Dynasty.)
All of which begs another question: Where are the black female versions of Jamie Foxx, Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson and Morgan Freeman? In the past several years, we've had three black women win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar -- Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls, Mo'Nique for Precious, Octavia Spencer for The Help -- yet not one of them has followed her Academy triumph with a significant screen role.
Last year, all the buzz was around Viola Davis, who was supposed to snatch Best Actress from Meryl Streep, but Hollywood doesn't really seem interested in making her a leading-lady star. Gabourey Sidibe was a Best Actress nominee for 2009's Precious, but her fellow twentysomething nominee that year, An Education's Carey Mulligan, is the one with the hot career. (And before you start thinking that size matters, take another look at Melissa McCarthy!) It'll be interesting to see what Hollywood does with Quvenzhané Wallis. Her upcoming role as the big screen's first black Annie is promising, but does her future lie in all-black productions, or is integration with white Hollywood part of her career plan?
In the years since Monster's Ball, we've seen a number of white female stars rise in Hollywood: from new Oscar winners Jennifer Lawrence and Anne Hathaway to frequent nominees Michelle Williams and Amy Adams to the highly employable Rachel McAdams, Amanda Seyfried, Katherine Heigl and Emily Blunt. They've all been touted as the America's new sweetheart or the next Julia Roberts/Sandra Bullock. In that time period, Hollywood hasn't launched a single black female star. The next Halle Berry is still Halle Berry.
I once read an interview with Marcia Gay Harden in which she said that since winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Pollock in 2001, she'd actually had a harder time getting good parts in film. Indeed, later that year, she was playing a supporting role in The Education of Max Bixford, a TV drama series starring Richard Dreyfuss, who had to wait 23 years after winning his Best Actor Oscar to be demoted to TV star.
When Halle Berry won her Oscar the year after Harden did, things seemed to be improving for black women in Hollywood, but that may just have been wishful thinking. In the 11 years since, the onscreen presence of black women has dwindled, which hardly reflects their drawing power. Despite the recent big-screen failures of For Colored Girls and Sparkle, the success last year of Lifetime's all-black remake of the 1989 film Steel Magnolias indicates that there's a sizable audience for quality projects showcasing black female talent. According to the Los Angeles Times, it was Lifetime's third-most-watched program ever, delivering the network's best ratings since a 2006 biopic about Fantasia Barrino, the first black female American Idol winner.
Now it's time for black actresses to once again break out of the ensembles and take the prominent lead roles that so seldom go to them. It says so much (none of it good) that Zoe Saldana, an actress who is hardly a household name and one who is Latina, was cast as Nina Simone, last century's epitome of black womanhood, in the upcoming Simone biopic. What's next: What's Love Got to Do with It: The Musical, starring Eva Mendes as Tina Turner?
Black icons, black actresses, black women in general, deserve better.