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From the moment the first commercial aired, I looked forward to Oprah’s Legends Ball with a finely tuned mix of anticipation and nausea. The very idea set my heart aflutter: Oprah. Gayle. Maya Angelou. Soft focus. A weepy John Travolta. Diane Sawyer. It was clear this thing had enormous camp potential. Fortunately, I was in L.A. visiting B-Side and J-Unit last weekend, so we decided to sit down and watch this estrogen-tastic extravaganza at the TVgasm offices. And boy am I glad we did. A photo-laden, play-by-play account of this thoroughly enjoyable catastrophe after the jump.As the hour opens, Oprah sets the mood right away, greeting us from the enormous lawn of her estate in Santa Barbara, wearing a milkmaid’s dress of the finest chintz. She welcomes us warmly, asserting that this will indeed be a Very Special Evening. After all, she’s always wanted to honor the many African-American women whose bravery paved the way for people such as herself to start eponymous lifestyle magazines and give away Pontiacs on national television. We learn that the Legends Ball is no mere one-night affair but actually an ENTIRE WEEKEND OF LEGEND, encompassing an outdoor luncheon, a “glamorous white-tie gala,” and finally a “heart-bursting Sunday brunch”—which I imagine means it’s catered by Paula Deen.
Oprah fills us in on the backstory of the Legends Ball. She says the whole idea came about when… wait for it… wait for it… she forgot to invite Cicely Tyson to her birthday party. Great, way to lay the responsibility for this disaster on ACADEMY AWARD NOMINEE CICELY TYSON. What are you gonna blame her for next? Watergate? The missing WMDs? The HOLOCAUST? Oprah then laments that she also failed to invite Ruby Dee to to her birthday. Ooh, the dreaded Ruby Dee snub. Is there no limit to Oprah’s social blundering?
Anyway, as a gesture of appreciation, Oprah resolves to invite both Cicely Tyson and Ruby Dee to lunch. And dinner. And apÃ©ritifs. And a heart-bursting Sunday brunch. And a soul-crushing tea and biscuits Sunday afternoon. Along with Kofi Annan. And Miss Cleo. And the whole cast of 227. B-Side points out that Cicely Tyson is renowned for her ensemble of ridiculous hats, so we may be treated to some of these later on. As it turns out, this prediction proves devastatingly accurate.
In the end, Oprah decides to invite a whole list of women who have influenced her. We’re treated to a montage of these invitees, including such luminaries as Lena Horne, Toni Morrison, Aretha Franklin, and Alice Walker. Ironically, as we soon find out, none of these women, you know, actually show up. Fortunately, some women later on the list—Diana Ross, Diahann Carroll, Tina Turner, Dr. Maya Angelou, Leontyne Price, Coretta Scott King, Della Reese, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, and others—do in fact decide to attend. Oprah dubs this group of women “Legends.”
But Oprah promptly draws a LINE IN THE SAND and divides the landscape of black female luminaries into two camps: the aforementioned Legends, and then the “Young’uns”—those who followed in the Legends’ footsteps. The term “Young’un” apparently has nothing to do with age: after all, Oprah throws Phylicia Rashad into this group, and god knows Clair Huxtable is no spring chicken. Anyway, Oprah invites all these so-called Young’uns—Halle Berry, Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys, Janet Jackson, Iman, Ashanti, Tyra Banks, Angela Bassett, and many others—to the party too.
For those hoping we’d get at least ten minutes’ respite before any appearance by Oprah’s best friend, Gayle, or the mightily obnoxious “lifestyle guru” Colin Cowie, it was not to be. These two show up and obsess with Oprah over the minutiae of the party, repeatedly invoking Oprah’s mantra that “love is in the details.” Oprah wants party gifts. Oprah wants handmade invitations. Oprah wants napkin rings of the highest order. Oprah wants buttermilk chicken breast. Oprah wants a gazebo. Oprah wants champagne. Or are champagne and Naomi Campbell too dangerous a combination? These are the kinds of life-and-death issues we’re dealing with here. So this merry trio samples all sorts of sumptuous foodstuffs, peruses the finest silk tablecloths from the bazaars of Marrakech, and so on—apparently for an entire year, since that’s how long Oprah says the planning took.
Finally, we reach T-minus 24 hours until Das Legendsfest is supposed to begin. At this point, Oprah reveals her piÃ¨ce de rÃ©sistance of excess—a full-fledged trolley between her main house and the lawn/gazebo complex where the first luncheon will occur. Oprah is VERY excited about this trolley, standing up in it and screaming “I GOT A TROLLEY!!” like she’s auditioning for Rosie O’Donnell’s next TV movie. Ostensibly this trolley is meant to shuttle guests back and forth across the limitless acreage of Oprah’s fiefdom. But B-Side, J-Unit, and I concur that the trolley is probably just a contingency plan for transporting Aretha Franklin to and from the bathroom.
At long last, the afternoon of the luncheon arrives, and Oprah stands in the foyer of her manor house to await her supplicants. She confides that the secret is to have a glass of champagne ten minutes before the guests show up, just to calm your nerves so you’re not bowled over by the tsunami of Legendness. Oprah protests that the party’s opulence and attention to detail are so excessive simply becuse she wants her invitees to “feel the love,” so to speak: “It was a lavish party. But it wasn’t about the party. It was about [ME]… a living celebration of [ME]… a thank you to [ME].” Noble indeed!
As the guests begin to arrive, we see that Oprah truly has pulled out all the stops. She’s wearing all the medieval-wench apparel she owns and even has built a nice vaginal waterfall next to the gazebo/bridge complex she set up in the back yard. She says she constructed the decorative bridge to symbolize all the legendary women who had become a bridge to her. Because, as we know, ALL ROADS LEAD TO OPRAH.
One cool thing about the luncheon is that none of the invitees know who else will be coming. So when they all show up, there’s a cacophony of surprised and delighted shrieking. “OMG is that HALLE?!?!?” “AAAAAAAALFRE!!” “That’s DOCTOR Angelou to you, MARIAH.” “Lil’ KIM! Glad you made it but girl you gotta cover those nipples.” Well, Lil’ Kim isn’t actually there, what with prison and all, but you get the picture.
By far, the highlight of the arrivals is—just as B-Side predicted—Cicely Tyson’s hat. We were torn: Ms. Tyson either 1) ran across some leftover costumes from the Lillehammer ’94 opening ceremonies; 2) had an unfortunate run-in with Anne Geddes; or 3) consummated a three-way love affair with a snapdragon and the Flying Nun. Who the hell knows. In any case, the hat is a doozy. Ms. Tyson mentions that she feels “like a nymph in fairyland,” and she certainly is dressed for such an occasion.
As more and more women arrive, the sight of all these Legends in one room becomes nearly too much to bear. Particularly for Ashanti, who confesses, “It was a little overwhelming to walk into this room, what with me being the only one with no talent.” Oprah herself nearly succumbs to a tide of Oprahness and says there is “CRAZY LOVE” in the room. She gets very emotional.
They keep streaming in: Naomi Campbell, Alfre Woodard, Missy Elliot, Phylicia Rashad, and more. But where’s Star Jones? Where’s Pam Grier? (Admittedly, I doubt that Oprah is a fan of the ’70s blaxploitation genre. DO NOT BLAXPLOIT THE OPRAH.) Anyway, after greetings and drinks, they all board the Oprah Excess Express down to the luncheon spread in the back yard. Iman, in particular, is thrilled to be on the trolley: “I haven’t had such an enchanting trolley ride since my childhood in Mogadishu.”
Interspersed throughout the footage of the event are intimate, often teary interviews. Mary J. Blige in particular seems to view these interviews as therapy sessions, because she starts bawling in every. last. one of them. Mariah Carey, for her part, is simply honored to be part of this “historic quilt” of women. And with Mariah in attendance it’s a rich quilt indeed, seeing as she looks like Marcia Cross next to most of the other invitees.
Inevitably, they do a group photo. When it’s time for the actual luncheon, they all walk across Oprah’s fake bridge to the gazebo. Mariah and Janet are very cliquey, remaining side-by-side the whole time and seemingly ignoring everyone else. Perhaps they’re discussing Janet’s wardrobe: she apparently didn’t get the “Classy Semiformal with Optional Eclectic Headwear” memo, because she has her blouse unbuttoned so far down you can see the bottoms of her boobs from a mile away. Is this really necessary? I know Missy Elliott is here, but it seems like there might be classier ways to pick people up.
As the women get seated at the banquet table, anticipation builds. Oprah has chosen Cicely Tyson and and Maya Angelou to sit at her side. As the food is served, we see that there’s one waiter per attendee, which seems like a little much, but Oprah again insists that the opulence is ABSOLUTELY REQUIRED. Phylicia Rashad in particular is swept off her feet by the wait staff: “There were all these people on cue. Carrying trays. Lifting on cue. Placing the most delicious item in front of you for your consumption and enjoyment.” PHYLICIA. RELAX. It’s called TABLE SERVICE.
After a performance by inaptly named singer John Legend, the Young’uns get up onstage to recite a poem that one attendee has prepared in honor of the Legends. Sadly, we are not treated to a booming, authoritative reading of this poem by Maya Angelou. Instead, Halle Berry, Angela Bassett, and others shout/sob the poem, which is entitled “We Speak Your Names” and consists of, well, basically everybody reading all the Legends’ names in unison. “Diana Ross. Tina Turner. WE SPEAK YOUR NAMES. Della Reese. Patti LaBelle. MANDELBAUM! MANDELBAUM! MANDELBAUM!” Although the poem seems a little repetitive, Oprah insists that it is the “central force of the weekend.” Indeed, Cicely Tyson LOVES the poem. It so overwhelms her synapses that she’s able to speak about it at a rate of only four words per minute. “I don’t need to tell you how the poem… affected… every… single… nymph… in… fairyland.”
At long last, Maya Angelou deigns to speak. Bellowing iconically, she addresses her comments to the Young’uns: “In twenty years young black women will be doing something like this for you. Saying thank you. There is nothing greater than thank you. That’s what you say to God. Therefore, by the transitive property of thank you, basically, I’m God.”
But enough with the talk—Oprah says it’s time for the all-important PARTY GIFTS. For several minutes, she builds anticipation, going on at length about how much she struggled to come up with presents that would be meaningful, capture the moment, and express her appreciation. My mind starts racing: what could the gifts be? Beautiful first editions of a Zora Neale Hurston novel? Lovingly framed, sepia-toned photos of Rosa Parks? Oprah gets giddier and giddier, saying that she’s lost her appetite because she’s so excited about what her guests’ reaction will be when they see these presents.
After what seems like four commercial breaks, we finally get to the gift presentation. The waiters line up behind the attendees and all at once—Phylicia can hardly contain herself—unveil beautifully wrapped gift boxes. Oprah instructs everyone to open their boxes on the count of three. The women open the boxes and shriek in delight. So what’s inside? Vintage recordings by Billie Holiday? Keys to a fleet of special Lorraine Hansberry Edition Pontiacs? Nope—JEWELRY. GODDAMN EARRINGS. And now for something completely material…
As the lunch concludes, Oprah says she knows the jewelry is extravagant, but it’s STILL NOT ENOUGH. So the next event is the evening’s white-tie ball for 400 guests. We jump back in time to see Oprah and Gayle sampling the proposed menu items by celebrity chef Jean Georges. Oprah is back in Beloved apparel and, frankly, looks awful. LADY. Beloved came out in 1998. The moment has passed. Hilariously, we see Oprah get shitfaced, as she and Gayle sample glass after glass of champagne and fancy cocktails.
They plan the banquet to have a 1940s ballroom theme. Great! Way to hearken back to the ERA OF SEGREGATION. To create this look, Oprah and her fleet of engineers and decorators overhaul the ballroom completely, floor to ceiling. Stage, lights, balloons, velvet wall coverings, a FULL ORCHESTRA—this is starting to get a little excessive. The main problem is that, at the end, the “1940s ballroom” looks more like the space-age Encounters restaurant at LAX meets the prom scene from the Grey’s Anatomy season finale. It’s not good.
Gayle, meanwhile, WILL NOT SHUT UP about how difficult it is to plan seating. People reply and say they’re coming! And then they aren’t coming! And then they change their mind again! And then some other people say they aren’t coming and then they decide to come anyway! HONEY. IT’S NOT THAT BAD. If you think this seating is tough, wait til Sunday morning’s GENIUS BRUNCH when everybody is hung over.
As the evening of the gala arrives, the guests start streaming in. Aha, Barbara Walters is here! That explains Star Jones’s absence—Ms. Walters clearly engineered her exclusion. And Diane Sawyer! She WOULD insinuate herself into this. Many others arrive: Sidney Poitier, Maria Shriver, and John Travolta, as well as Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes kissing each other not on the mouth. Oprah, now tiara-clad and floating on a giant lagoon of champagne and bonbons, keeps insisting that the party “has nothing to do with glamour.”
Once everyone is seated, Oprah welcomes all to the Legends Ball. On a nice morbid note, she says that since people “too often pass away,” she basically wanted to thank all the Legends before they kick the bucket. She then invites some of the Young’uns up onstage to repeat the “We Speak Your Names” poem in unison once again. Angela Bassett gets CRAZY into the poem this time, and Halle Berry pulls a repeat of her hysterical podium performance from the 2002 Oscars. Oprah is quite pleased with this result. The moment is simply too much for John Travolta, who starts bawling as if it’s the second coming of L. Ron Hubbard.
The post-dinner dancing is a spirited affair, with Diane Sawyer proving remarkably sassy on the dance floor, Maria Shriver looking vaguely like an intoxicated vampire, Barack Obama “busting a move” jerkily, and Cicely Tyson making interview comments so over the top that she sounds like Will Ferrell doing James Lipton on SNL.
At long last, we have the gospel brunch on Sunday morning. Maria Shriver clearly is still tanked. Oprah announces that she wants to end the weekend by “lifting everyone’s voices in praise.” There’s no scheduled musical program for the service; instead, they just pass the microphone around the group—given that Patti LaBelle, Tina Turner, and other belters are in the audience, Oprah figures that the fireworks will start soon enough. And indeed they do. First to grab the microphone is Shirley Caesar, who goes GOSPEL KRAZY. After several minutes of artery-popping vocals, Dionne Warwick takes the microphone.
Throughout this portion, Barbara Walters is DYING to jump up, seize the microphone, and switch the cameras to soft focus, but she remains thwarted. Maria Shriver, meanwhile, prays that the microphone doesn’t reach her, since the Advil hasn’t kicked in yet and she’s still vomiting discreetly into her handbag. At last, to top things off, Patti LaBelle grabs the microphone and goes apeshit. Afterward, in a delicately condescending interview clip, Diane Sawyer says this gospel service was the most transcendently spiritual moment she’s ever experienced—second only to the moment they offered her the anchor’s chair at World News Tonight. Oh wait…
And with the end of the gospel brunch, the Legend-load is officially shot, and the weekend-long Oprahgasm comes to a close. Tears are shed, eyes are dabbed winsomely, and goodbyes are exchanged as the nymphs are expelled from fairyland. But all is now right in the world, as everyone goes forth glowing with Oprahosity and laden with showy earrings and $10,000 bejeweled brooches. In a word, Oprah is SPENT.
Did anybody else see this? We had a blast watching it in the TVgasm offices. It was win-win, really: an admirable intent, an impressive roster of guests, and then the thorough over-the-topness and batshit headwear that only Oprah can provide. A true delight.