Oprah Winfrey – Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award

For efforts that promote hope around the world and goodwill for the film industry

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Oprah Winfrey
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Though she is often called "America’s best friend," in truth Oprah Winfrey is a friend to those in need all over the world. With her legendary generosity she reaches across borders to touch the lives of millions by marshaling resources, building awareness and giving hope to those in need. Rather than championing a single cause or campaign, Winfrey has shone a spotlight on a host of social issues including education, basic rights, child abuse and disaster relief.

Oprah WinfreyIn the years since she earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her debut performance in Steven Spielberg’s "The Color Purple" (1985), Winfrey has become a force in the film world as a producer or executive producer of acclaimed, socially conscious films such as "Beloved" (1998), "The Great Debaters" (2007) and "Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire" (2009). Directed by Lee Daniels, "Precious" was nominated for six Academy Awards®, including Best Picture, and won two.

Winfrey spent the first six years of her life in abject poverty. Born in rural Mississippi, she lived with her grandmother in a house without indoor plumbing. Extremely bright and encouraged by her grandmother, Winfrey could read at age three and began reciting poems and Bible verses in church.

Winning the Nashville Miss Fire Prevention pageant and the Miss Black Tennessee title in 1971 helped Winfrey gain a foothold in local broadcasting. At just 19, she was the first African-American news anchor on Nashville television. She co-hosted a Baltimore morning show for six years before making her way to the Windy City, where in 1984 she hit the airwaves as co-host of "A.M. Chicago." In 1986 she launched "The Oprah Winfrey Show" into national syndication and it went to the top of the ratings immediately.

From her modest beginnings through her ascent to the pinnacle of cultural influence, Winfrey has always expressed compassion for others and the desire to make a difference. In the 1990s, Winfrey devoted increasing amounts of airtime to promoting self-empowerment, social justice and charitable giving. She invited viewers to get involved in worthy causes, inspiring thousands to donate their time and money in support of organizations that had earned her trust.

In 1987, Oprah established a private foundation to provide grants to nonprofits aiding needy women, children and families. Over the years, The Oprah Winfrey Foundation also has supported the training of educators around the world. Winfrey has personally committed hundreds of millions of dollars to charitable causes centered on education.

Herself a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, Winfrey proposed legislation to Congress that established a national database of convicted child abusers and other felons. The National Child Protection Act, informally known as "The Oprah Bill," was signed into law in 1993. The database has proven to be a valuable resource for law enforcement agencies and child care providers.

Winfrey established Oprah’s Angel Network in 1998. She raised donations from viewers, sponsors and entertainers to support numerous charities. Among its other charitable endeavors, the Network built more than 60 schools in 13 countries and replaced homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. It also introduced the "Use Your Life Award," which entrusted 54 grants to individuals making a difference in the lives of others.

Winfrey’s commitment to improving educational opportunities in South Africa began during a meeting with Nelson Mandela in 2000.  In 2007, she opened the doors at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls - South Africa, with the mission to transform gifted but impoverished children into the country’s future leaders.

During a trip in 2002, she distributed food, clothing, school supplies and toys to 50,000 children and encountered the Seven Fountains Primary School, which Oprah’s Angel Network rebuilt to accommodate more than 1,000 boys and girls.  The school reopened in 2007.

Winfrey’s motion picture career began with her unforgettable Oscar®-nominated performance as Sofia in "The Color Purple," playing a seemingly indomitable woman whose spirit is tragically broken. Though she also received favorable reviews for her performance in "Native Son" (1986) and was dubbed a natural actress, Winfrey soon shifted her focus to producing. She combined her love of producing with acting when she returned to the screen in the lead role of Sethe in "Beloved," based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Toni Morrison. Winfrey spent a decade developing the film, which was directed by Jonathan Demme.

While the final episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" aired on May 25, 2011, Winfrey has already launched a new eponymous cable network, OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, and there’s no question that she will continue to change lives around the world.

Selected Filmography

  • "Precious: Based on the novel 'Push' by Sapphire" (2009) (executive producer)
  • "The Princess and the Frog" (2009) (voice)
  • "The Great Debaters" (2007) (producer)
  • "Bee Movie" (2007) (voice)
  • "Charlotte's Web" (2006) (voice)
  • "Beloved" (1998) (producer, actress)
  • "Native Son" (1986) (actress)
  • "The Color Purple" (1985) (actress)