A Look Back On Ellen DeGeneres's Career

Mar 16, 2014
Originally published on February 28, 2014 3:30 pm

This year, Ellen DeGeneres has been tapped to host the Academy Awards.

As she busily writes her final Oscars jokes and practices her musical numbers, NPR Arts Correspondent Lynn Neary takes a look back at her career and how she shaped the conversation around coming out.

This piece originally aired in March 2013.

Reporter

Copyright 2014 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

And if you're tuning in to the Academy Awards on Sunday, you may be watching to see the performance of the host, Ellen DeGeneres. The critics of the hosts can be tough. Last year, Seth MacFarlane was called everything from unfunny to smarmy. The year before, Billy Crystal's return to the Oscar stage was considered a flop. But Ellen is returning to familiar territory. She first hosted the show back in 2007.

(SOUNDBITE OF ACADEMY AWARDS SHOW)

ELLEN DEGENERES: Let's be honest. It's not that we don't have time for long speeches. It's that we don't have time for boring speeches. So if you don't have anything interesting to say, I suggest that you make something up, like, you know, I remember when I was kid growing up in the Bronx, even if you weren't from there, people love it when you come from the Bronx. They told me I'll never be an actor because I couldn't read, even if you could, you know? Tell them you lived in your car. Ooh, they love that.

HOBSON: Ellen's journey to the Oscar stage was a long one, starting in 1986 with her debut on "The Tonight Show." She came out as a lesbian three years into her TV sitcom "Ellen." Has been changing the conversation about same-sex partnerships ever since. In this NPR encore, we have a profile of Ellen DeGeneres from NPR arts correspondent Lynn Neary.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: In 2008, during the brief window when it was legal for gays to get married in California, perhaps no couple drew more attention than Portia de Rossi and Ellen DeGeneres. A video of their wedding day captures the moment the two women first saw each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO CLIP)

PORTIA DE ROSSI: You look beautiful.

DEGENERES: Oh, my God. Oh, my God.

NEARY: Afterwards, photos of the couple were everywhere: DeGeneres, beaming, in a white suit, holding hands with de Rossi, the very picture of the princess bride so many young girls dream of being one day. It was a cultural touchstone that made gay marriage seem more normal. Dietram Scheufele, a communications professor at the University of Wisconsin, says it was neither the first nor the last time DeGeneres has played that role.

DIETRAM SCHEUFELE: Ellen DeGeneres is an interesting, almost a litmus test of where we've been as a society. When she first came out and really put the issue of same-sex partnerships on, I think, people's agenda, and I mean people who otherwise wouldn't have thought about it, I think the country was still in a very different state.

NEARY: The country was in a very different state when Ellen DeGeneres made her TV debut on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson in 1986. That same year, the Supreme Court had ruled that states' anti-sodomy laws were constitutional. The AIDS epidemic was at its height. And while there was already a burgeoning gay rights movement, a lot of homosexuals were not ready to come out of the closet. Ellen DeGeneres was not about to break any barriers. Her personality was warm and non-threatening. Her comedy was safe.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON")

DEGENERES: That whole fitness thing runs in my family, though, I think. My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was 60. She's 97 today, and we don't know where the hell she is.

NEARY: Nearly a decade later in 1994, DeGeneres was still very much in the closet when her sitcom "Ellen" went on the air. She had a gawky, tomboyish persona, but her fans seemed to have no trouble seeing her as young single woman who just happened to be unlucky in love.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ELLEN")

ALICE HIRSON: (As Lois Morgan) You want to know what your problem is, Ellen? You're too picky. I mean, you always look for a man's faults. Greg was too nice. Roger watched too much TV. Carl was a drag.

DEGENERES: (As Ellen Morgan) Drag queen, mother. Drag queen. There's a difference.

NEARY: DeGeneres' desire to say in the closet made sense, says Scheufele. In those days, you couldn't make it in show business if you were gay.

SCHEUFELE: I think it's just that we as a society had been in this mode for so long that if you're in Hollywood, if you have any success in entertainment, you obviously fit the gender stereotypes. And I think that's something that at the time was just not questioned.

NEARY: In 1996, the same year the Defense of Marriage Act was passed, DeGeneres was so deep in the closet she made a movie called "Mr. Wrong," playing a lonely young woman who goes out with a guy who turns out to be crazy because she feels so pressured to get married.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MR. WRONG")

JENNY TURNHAM: (As Aunt Belinda) Don't worry, Martha. You'll be the next one.

DEGENERES: (As Martha Alston) OK, Aunt Belinda. Thank you. Oh. She's drunk.

NEARY: One year later, gay marriage had not disappeared from the national conversation. And Ellen DeGeneres was no longer willing to be stuffed in the closet. She decided to come out on her sitcom. She was condemned by the religious right, sponsors pulled their advertising from the show, and DeGeneres ended up on the cover of Time magazine.

JESSICA HALEM: What's wonderful about her as a cultural figure is that it worked so wonderfully alongside political activism. So there's political activism and cultural change going on at the same time.

NEARY: Jessica Halem is a comedian and gay activist. She says it is no accident that it was a comedian who took the conversation about homosexuality to a new level.

HALEM: That's their role, is to be the jester, the fool who says let me talk about things that you might not be talking about yourself and let me invite you into that conversation.

NEARY: On the sitcom, Ellen finally, awkwardly, came out of the closet in an airport waiting room.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ELLEN")

DEGENERES: (As Ellen Morgan) Why can't I say the word? I mean, why can't I just say...

NEARY: As Ellen struggles to admit she is gay to a woman she is attracted to, she accidentally leans over an open mic and announces it to the whole waiting room.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ELLEN")

NEARY: (As Ellen Morgan) I'm 35 years old. I'm so afraid to tell people. I mean, I just - Susan, I'm gay.

HALEM: I remember that scene, which is just so beautiful because there's nothing like telling somebody you're gay and then it goes silent. But for her to say I'm gay and it's a laugh line and, you know, it lets us laugh. It lets us release some of the anxiety. It's just a really perfect moment for all of us to get to sort of breathe. Oh, my God, that's over, you know?

NEARY: Perhaps the biggest cultural shock that resulted from this very famous and public coming out was that it did not ruin DeGeneres' career. The "Ellen" show didn't last too much longer, but DeGeneres' career took off and mainstream America followed. Now, she has her own talk show, has hosted the Emmys and the Oscars, been a judge on "American Idol." And, Jessica Halem points out, she's a spokesperson for companies like JCPenney and Cover Girl.

HALEM: Who thought we would have a lesbian selling makeup?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV ADVERTISEMENT)

DEGENERES: Hey, wrinkle face. That's what people could say if you're still using a liquid foundation that can settle into your lines and wrinkles and make you look older like an apricot or a prune. And I like both. I just don't want to look like one. Cover Girl...

NEARY: Halem says she is still amazed by how widely accepted DeGeneres is.

HALEM: It blows me away when I turn on her show and I see her in a vest and tie dancing with housewives from Ohio and - I was in Ohioan I, you know, I know them, right, and people - and she loves them and they love her. It's wonderful.

NEARY: But even Ellen DeGeneres can't win over everyone with her charm. Last year, there was an organized protest against JCPenney for using DeGeneres as a spokesperson. In another sign of how much things have changed, the company stood by her, the same company that pulled its advertising from the "Ellen" show when DeGeneres came out. Still, that vocal minority that would rather not see Ellen DeGeneres selling clothes is likely to keep fighting gay marriage, even if a majority of Americans no longer opposes it.

DEGENERES: I'll tell you, for many reasons, I'm feeling good. I'm feeling that there's a smile on my face, there's a spring in my step, and there's a ring on my finger and I...

(APPLAUSE)

HOBSON: That report about Ellen DeGeneres from NPR arts correspondent Lynn Neary. It originally aired last year. And Ellen will be hosting Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony.

Meghna, the nominees for best picture, I'm looking here: "American Hustle," "Captain Phillips," "Dallas Buyers Club," "Gravity" - that's the music we're listening to right here - "Her," "Nebraska," "Philomena," "12 Years A Slave," "The Wolf of Wall Street." I don't like that they have so many of them. It's almost impossible to see all of them.

(LAUGHTER)

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

It's too hard to choose.

HOBSON: Just go back to five, in my view.

CHAKRABARTI: The paradox of choice.

HOBSON: Exactly. Although we should say it can be very lucrative if you're an actor to win an Oscar. Wealth X has crunched some of the numbers. Jack Nicholson: worth $390 million. He has won three Academy Awards, although he is at every single Academy Awards ceremony right in the front row with his sunglasses on.

Tom Hanks, two-time winner. He is nominated this time for the role in "Captain Phillips." He is worth $359 million. Two-time winner Robert De Niro is worth 310 mil. And Sandra Bullock, who's nominated for best actress for her role in "Gravity" - she won for her performance in 2010 in "The Blind Side." She's worth about $150 million.

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

CHAKRABARTI: I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.