The United Center sendoff for Oprah Winfrey has been the most moving celebration of good works and selflessness since the star-studded two-part televised special that Gandhi threw for himself. And if the first day of the special was celebritastic, then the second was positively celeborgasmic. Will Smith! Jamie Foxx! Rosie O’Donnell! Alicia Keys! Jerry Seinfeld! Aretha! Stevie!
Oprah’s farewell is a hard artifact to review, because on the one hand, it’s a bit like critiquing a private party. Oprah’s had incredible success, she’s done genuine good, and why shouldn’t she enjoy her curtain call? On the other hand, it wasn’t private—it was a televised spectacle, complete with commercials, to be shared with the world. And watching it, as guest after guest appeared to Oprah’s delighted screams, was a little like going to Oprah’s birthday party and spending the entire time watching her unwrap her presents.
For a regular fan of the show, of course, it was more—it was a reminder of the effect Oprah has had on the world, and suggested to viewers that they had part ownership in the career of a woman who built a billion-dollar empire out of little more than self-belief, determination and a microphone. There was also, like in the first half of the special Monday, attention to Oprah’s various charitable works over the years—especially when recipients of Oprah’s Morehouse College scholarships took the stage to thank her, a truly moving moment that brought Oprah’s biggest tears of the night.
But the tributes to Oprah herself came even faster and thicker on Tuesday’s show: Foxx serenaded her with “Isn’t She Lovely,” followed by Stevie Wonder joining in on his own song. (He thought he wrote it for his baby! It took decades before he realized it was about Oprah.) Michael Jordan returned to the United Center to salute her, while Jerry Seinfeld delivered customized standup (saying that going to the United Center and have it turn out yo be an Oprah show, not a Bulls game, was like a dream a man would tell his therapist). Maya Angelou read her a poem.
The mark of a professional: being able to sit on camera and have a poem read about you—”Then the universe had an a-ha moment / And said ‘Oprah’”—while maintaining proper composure.
The most inadvertently eye-popping celebrity appearance, though, was that of Maria Shriver, who came to the taping just as the news about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s love child was breaking last week. “You’ve given me love, support, wisdom,” Shriver said, “and most of all, the truth.” Oprah raised Shriver’s hand in the air and said—with just enough subtextual emphasis—”Here’s to the truth!” as Maria smiled. It was like a mini-Oprah episode—drama! betrayal! truth! catharsis!—in about ten seconds.
The focus quickly returned to the guest of honor, though, as longtime fella Stedman Graham got up and read a personal tribute—”I can’t believe that a colored girl from the backwoods of Mississippi has done all you have done”—and noted that Oprah brings her own lunch to work. I assume in a large paper bag that contains a personal chef.
Finally, the celebration turned musical, as Aretha Franklin delivered a barn-burning gospel “Amazing Grace,” followed by Usher singing “Oh Happy Day.” (Which, no offense, but wouldn’t you open with Usher and close with Aretha?) Oprah’s final show of all was taped Tuesday to air Wednesday, and I would assume it will be a more intimate studio show focused on the host and her fans. But in its own way, the United Center gala was also in the spirit of Oprah’s daily show, which has been about appearing in people’s living rooms every day with the promise that amazing surprises might happen.
Next comes the goodbye to the fans. For now, Oprah—like Walt Whitman, that other boisterous celebrator of American life—left us with a song of herself.