At the outset of the greatest TV interview of the 21st century, Oprah Winfrey reaches out at her frenzied audience of middle-aged fangirls and chastises them. “You’ve got to calm yourselves. You’ve got. To calm. Yourselves.”
While she waits for the class to quiet down, she reaches over to the biggest movie star on planet Earth and begins roughly patting down his hair, like he’s a five-year-old she’d just taken out of his snowsuit.
Over the 40 minutes that followed, that star, Tom Cruise, would disassemble a career it’d taken the Hollywood machine 25 years to build. He shouted like a maniac. He jumped on the couch. He tried wrestling the host (this was the only time Winfrey got a “Maybe I am toying with forces I do not understand” look in her eye).
Even now, it’s unbearable to watch.
Sitting in the midst of it in real time, Winfrey never flustered. She must have understood how bad it was for Cruise (and how good it was for her), but she never turned into the skid, nor did she try to rescue him from himself. Like God, she let history play out.
May 23rd, 2005 – the day Cruise blew everything up. What’s he got now? Mission Impossible, a bunch of ex-wives and the vague impression he runs a cult.
Few people saw the Cruise interview happen when it aired. But by the end of the day, the clip was everywhere. It was your mom’s first viral internet experience.
It was also a new sub-species of entertainment. We had seen the tough interview (Mike Wallace), the tear-jerking interview (Barbara Walters) and the empathic interview (Phil Donahue), but this was the first A-list auto-da-fe. Oscar-adjacent box-office giants were not yet in the habit of going on daytime TV to act like clowns.
There is a straight line from Cruise to every celebrity who gets in front of a camera to recite a laundry list of all that has, is and will go wrong in their lives. Self-abasement is the new bragging.
Why did Cruise do this to himself? Ostensibly, because he was newly in love. That was the headline the next day.
Looking back now you realize the real reason: because he wanted Winfrey to like him. He was the biggest thing going, but when he got in front of her he felt a primal urge to roll over and show her his belly.
You saw this power at work during last Sunday night’s sit-down with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry.
Winfrey hasn’t done daily TV in a decade. Apparently, she’s spent the time since in cryogenic deep freeze. The woman hasn’t aged. But it’s more than that. She is just as we remember her. Like top couturiers and leaders of world religions, Winfrey’s fashion sense is so highly developed it is impossible to pin her in time through her wardrobe.
Somehow, her interviewing chops have sharpened through disuse. Most interviewers talk too much. They double-barrel their questions, or ramble in the lead-up. It seems like a simple skill to master, but it isn’t. I’ve watched a lot of people do it up close and maybe two of them were okay at it.
Winfrey hardly talks at all. She lets her own celebrity do the hard work. Often, she muses on an idea (“Would it be fair to say …”) and waits for the vacuum that follows to be filled.
Interviewing is a game of competing wills. The person who talks first has cracked. After a while in front of Winfrey, people lose their manners and begin to talk over her, desperate to win her approval with their secrets.
You could see this effect taking hold when Prince Harry was dropped into the mise en scène halfway through. He comes intending to walk a careful line that roughs up the status quo but doesn’t put it in the hospital.
That plan is out the window after five minutes. You can see the surrender play out in his posture. He’s straight up and down to begin with. By the end, he’s pouring out of his seat, legs splayed. He’s done what you should never do in front of a television camera – he’s relaxed.
Ten minutes in, he is completely under Winfrey’s power. A raise of her eyebrow and he’s telling her how he’s at war with everyone in his family except his grandmother, and she’s the sort of jerk who cancels plans at the last minute.
This isn’t an interviewing masterclass, because what Winfrey does can’t be learned. It is God-given, like perfect pitch. After two hours, her cozy chat has done more to harm the British monarchy than the Hundred Years’ War.
To appreciate Winfrey’s gift for interviewing, you have to take in the totality of what she’s done with it. She used it to create a new way for Americans to talk in public about their lives. Then she took that concept, built a media empire around it, and exported its tenets around the world.
Henry Ford created the assembly line. Oprah Winfrey vertically integrated the self-exploration of the human psyche.
Ford gave you all the junk in your home. Winfrey gave you the means to express how unhappy all that junk makes you. The two of them together forged the 21st-century’s collective ego.
In 10 years, we had forgotten about the extent of Winfrey’s power of communication. She exercised just a little of it last weekend, and the world shook. It’s still trembling.
In the end, the easiest way to understand how this works is to look at the winners and losers in that interview. All the main players, on or off the stage, to larger and lesser extents, lost.
Only Winfrey won.
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