Hometown Heroine Oprah Winfrey, Montecito Award Recipient, Lend Us Your Ear

Photographed by: Gary Lambert
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"It was the best invitation ever," Oprah remarked, dancing her way into the Arlington Theatre on Wednesday evening at 29th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Fest. Looking out to a sold-out audience, she joked, "I appreciate you all coming out, but really, you could have just come over to my house."

Oprah is Oprah. She could be anywhere. But on this spectacular night, all she did was drive a few miles down East Valley Rd. into the warm hometown welcome of the Arlington Theatre.


Indeed, the evening felt like a living room gathering, as Montecito resident Oprah snuggled onto a plush chair to receive the Montecito Award for her prolific "body of work." Sitting opposite LA Times columnist John Horn, Oprah conducted the interview as much as she responded to John, consistently emphasizing she had no magnitude in her "body of work." On the contrary, she cited her acting career as minimal, including 3 films in 30 years, plus a badly-cast cameo as a goose.

Yet, dear Oprah, we disagree. We know you love to talk -- you ran a rather grandiose talk show for your "day job" -- but on this elegant Wednesday night, allow us to speak to you. Sure, it's challenging to converse with the greatest talk show host of all time, so forgive us if we still end up quoting you. Our inspiring words may just be your words, when you say, "Never be in a place where you have to negotiate your heart's desire." And you didn't. So we won't.

Your "body of work" precedes you as does your trail of perseverance. We honor you, Oprah, because, as you rightly remind us this evening, you were a black woman born in 1954 Mississippi, and your mother was a maid, and her mother was a maid, and her mother was a slave. You have a story. We celebrate you, Oprah, not merely for your brilliance in your Academy Awarded performance in The Color Purple, but for your tale behind that original audition -- how you carried the Alice Walker book around in your backpack, dreaming of a starring role, praying for a part as though you would die without it, convinced that you would be disqualified because of your waistline.

As we, too, carry dreams in our backpacks doubting our own qualifications.

You remind us not to negotiate those dreams unless it's the kind of surrender where you fully "give yourself over to the character," just like the old hymn I Surrender All, the prayer you sang the night you released your acting dream to God -- who called you micro-moments later in the voice of Stephen Spielberg, inviting you into the role that changed your life.

Back then, in 1985, you told directors to put your name on a poster because you were going to be famous. No one listened except you. And years later, everyone listens to you, and tonight we have put your name on our poster, in hopes you will tell us again how to believe.

We believe you, Oprah, because your story could be anyone's. We believed you then and believe you this evening, watching clips of you in Jonathan Demme's adaptation of Toni Morrison's Beloved. We believe you --not just because you walked blindfolded through the Underground Railroad to get into character -- but because you beckon us all how to lay down our chains. "Freeing yourself is a process of finding truth north, even if you've never been beyond the front gate," you advise.

You remind us that life is a series of brave experiments, like when you yourself stalked Toni Morrison after reading her book, determined to speak to the source. We laugh at you because we, too, have stalked celebrities, finding them in outlandish ways, as you did, through the Yellow Pages of the fire department. "When you are brave, it doesn't matter what other people think," you tell us. And so, we try to live wildly. We trust you, as you have made your life goal the sharing of other's stories, which is the bravest experiment of all.

Oprah, you asked us again this evening, "What is the story you want to tell and the light you want to bring?"Our story is simple. We, too, are dreamers with Martin Luther King's words in our resounding ears, as we remember that, "Not everybody can be famous, but everybody can be great."

But you, Oprah, are famous, and so we ask you, "What is greatness?" For you were more than great in Lee Daniels' The Butler, yet you assure that greatness begins by honoring the greats before us. So, dear honoree, let us quote and honor you again. When you say, "Your work speaks for itself and your art defines you," we hold up a mirror and ask you to trust the same for your "body of work." With your genius, you champion people and situations history overlooks. You highlight lives of the underserved, the forgotten, the troubled, the black woman, and the outcast. Yet while you inspire the downtrodden and fortunate alike, you speak deeply to each common heart in America. Tonight, you ask us to take those dreams out of our backpacks. And whether those dreams come in shapes of becoming actors, people of influence, people of everyday generosity, mothers who educate their children, or writers whose books you champion (for which I, and most writers, shamelessly dream), we promise to continue to persevere. To trust. And to surrender.

You tell us, "I can not tell you what it means to be honored in your hometown," so allow us to tell you in our own words. You, our hometown heroine, are truly one of our "favorite things."

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