Oprah enlarges her empire Preview: Daytime's czarina moves into prime time with the first of six made-for-TV movies.

November 01, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

You have to hand it to Oprah Winfrey. She's taken what was just another syndicated talk show struggling to hold an audience a few years back and used it to become aczarina of popular culture.

She so dominates the afternoon airwaves with "Oprah" that a lead-in from her virtually guarantees a first-place finish for any early evening newscast that follows. And who hasn't heard of her book club, the little on-air get-together with readers that has more impact on the best seller list than 10,000 rave reviews from the high priests of print culture? (Don't choke on your bile, boys.)

Now comes another Oprah Winfrey cultural franchise -- this one to prime time -- "Oprah Winfrey Presents," premiering tomorrow night on ABC with "Before Women Had Wings." It is the first of six made-for-television movies that will fly under the Winfrey banner on ABC this year.

Before the film starts, viewers will hear a few words from their host: "I love a movie that makes you feel so deeply that you want to open your heart just a little bit wider. And that's why I chose 'Wings' as our premiere movie," Winfrey says.

" 'Before Women Had Wings' is the story of a young girl trying to love a mother who continues to abuse her," Winfrey continues. "It shows us that no matter how victimized you may feel in your own life, if there is someone who is willing to show that they love you, it can give you wings. So, tonight, I hope what you're about to see will affect you as much as it did me."

There it is, the Winfrey aesthetic: That which makes you feel is good. The stronger the feeling, the better the film.

In terms of feelings, you can give "Before Women Had Wings" three and half buckets of tears. There is so much weeping on-screen in the last few minutes, you fear the entire cast is going to float away. And I guarantee you will get that old "Mommie Dearest" feeling when you see the mother beating her children with belts, hair brushes and a coffee cup.

It is always questionable when a male critic labels a production as a "woman's film," but I think I am on fairly solid ground in saying this film is aimed at women. The only man of any significance in it is a wife-beating alcoholic who blows his brains out, leaving behind a wife and two kids in desperate poverty.

The man is played by John Savage, a splendid actor who once lit up the big screen in films like "The Deer Hunter," but so it goes in the brave new world where Oprah rules. Savage fails to get even third billing in "Wings."

Second and third billing go to Ellen Barkin and Tina Majorino, who are terrific as the faded beauty who carries the cycle of abuse started by her husband into the next generation and the 9-year-old daughter she abuses.

Top billing, of course, goes to Winfrey, who plays a kind-hearted neighbor who steps in and offers the child and her teen-age sister a way to escape the abuse of their alcoholic mother. Winfrey is OK as an actress, but she is definitely not in the league of Savage, Barkin and Majorino.

Despite the fine acting, this is not a great film. Winfrey, the executive producer, let Connie May Fowler adapt the screenplay from her novel of the same title. One huge mistake Fowler makes is in telling much of the story in a voice-over by the 9-year-old girl whouses the words and has the insights of an adult. A better screenwriter would have either had the girl telling us the story as an adult or changed her language from the novel to words and thoughts appropriate for a child.

"Wings" will be a great test for Winfrey. Her film is up against huge sweeps competition at 9 tomorrow night. Fox has the season premiere of "The X-Files," CBS, the return of Jessica Fletcher in a "Murder, She Wrote" movie titled "South by Southwest"; NBC has "The House of Frankenstein 1997" and ESPN has the Green Bay Packers against the Detroit Lions.

Winfrey failed commercially in prime time on ABC several years ago with her miniseries "The Women of Brewster Place." But that was before the book club and the dominance she now enjoys in daytime television. If she can make it in this Sunday's prime time on ABC, won't she be a power? Not only can she make the most obscure book a best seller, she can take it to millions of viewers on the screen.

Pub Date: 11/01/97

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