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Jeff Simon: Oprah's newest version of her best self comes to HBO

It happened on May 25, 2011. America still hasn't completely recovered.

The highest-rated talk show in TV history ended its 25-year run. But it was so much bigger than raw numbers.

That was the date Oprah Winfrey vacated her throne as the presiding CEO of the American Zeitgeist -- the woman whose influence was, more than anyone's, responsible for the first American black president, for a primal change in how books were sold and for an America where unearthing uncomfortable secrets became the crucial first step toward "living your best life."

It's still Oprah's America. But no on knows how to run it anymore. Without her in our faces daily, no one else does. We're screwing it up -- a lot. Not least in our elevation of noisy anti-Oprahs. Women, at the very least, can't learn how to keep the ship steady every afternoon at 4 p.m.

Oprah thought her own cable network OWN would take the commanding place of her syndicated TV show. Not a chance. It became just another cable channel like Spike or Chill.

The closest thing to Oprah now is her producer and old pal Gayle King every morning on the CBS Morning News, but King doesn't begin to have Oprah's personal force, charisma or vision of life as constant self-improvement from cradle to grave. Comparing her to Oprah is like comparing vinegar to Opus One Cabernet.

King is merely a well-informed teacher.

Oprah was a transformer and an ecstatic. She was an inspiration to people and a decisive life influence. A universal life coach to America.

For six years now, we've largely lived without a sense of how extraordinary a figure she was and can be.

On Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO, she makes a small comeback in a new role: actress. She'll star for the first time in the "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," George C. Wolfe's adaptation of the Rebecca Skloot book that spent six years on bestseller lists.

Winfrey is one of the executive producers as is Skloot. But it's in her starring role as Henrietta Lacks' deeply unstable daughter Deborah that she gives us something we haven't seen before: an actress so good and so powerful that she's able to go over the top with all the confidence of a Shakespearean ham.

Or Rod Steiger.

It's a great performance for most of the way. Even when it goes off the rails, you can only admire it for presenting an Oprah we've never really seen before.

We've seen her act constantly, heaven knows. She was, as Steven Spielberg often said, a secret weapon of his version of Alice Walker's book "The Color Purple."

But she's never played a woman like this before, a chaotic one who, had she lived later, might have been described as "bipolar" but was, among many other emotional maladies, manic depressive. Whether she was a paranoid schizophrenic or merely the victim of a severe personality disorder as we watch would need a psychiatrist to diagnose. Whatever she is, she is wretchedly disturbed. Her moods turn on a dime, from violently suspicious to generous and folksy and charming.

She is Henrietta Lacks' grown daughter, a woman whose mother died when she was very young before she could ever know her. She is the woman whom author Rebecca Skloot has to deal with in trying for find out the story of Henrietta Lacks.

Which was, though so long hidden, one of the cardinal medical stories of our time -- virtually unknown until Skloot's book.

Lacks lived on a farm in Virginia and was a married mother of five when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer at 31. Without her knowledge or that of anyone in her family, her malignant tumor cells were "harvested" for laboratory use.

They became the one incredible thing scientists had spent fruitless years searching for: cells that could not just live outside a human body but multiply. Their uses, then, in offshoots and laboratories, helped make possible drugs for polio, Parkinson's disease and leukemia. They were used in cloning and genetic mapping and God only knows what else in the most advanced medical research and pharmacology (the latter leading to immense profits for drug companies, none of which made their way to her family).

A story as basic to our understanding of race in the '50s and how medical advancements work in our society becomes more than a detective story as we watch the young writer try to navigate the minefield of Lacks' family. It becomes a portrait of black life in American society in '40s and '50s Virginia, as seen by their descendants in the next generation.

And that's where Oprah, the executive producer, could attract a formidable cast under director George C. Wolfe, a man known usually as a playwright, theater director and co-honcho of New York's Public Theater.

Playing Skloot is Rose Byrne, bumbling sweetly until it comes time for her to fight fire with fire. Renee Elise Goldsberry plays young Henrietta in flashback. Relatives are played by Rocky Carroll and Leslie Uggams. Lackawanna's Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Reg E. Cathey are prominent.

The cast is formidable but the commanding performance here is by Winfrey playing the part of a woman whose instincts are good but whose self-control is frequently minimal if not nonexistent.

We might argue that millions of Americans saw Oprah Winfrey's "best self" every day for 25 years when it transformed this country in ways no one could have predicted.

If she is now content with being the actress she is in "Henrietta Lacks," you can't argue with her for the time that that the HBO TV movie takes up your television screen.

It's when she's off your screen and the rest of America has no Oprah or would-be facsimile that the discussion opens up.








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