by: Randy Caspersen
Even among gay people, Rosie O’Donnell is divisive — too liberal with her conspiracy-tinged viewpoints, and overly hotheadedness in public. She really isn’t “the Queen of Nice”, as Newsweek called her back in 1996 when her talk show was the hottest daytime hour since The Oprah Winfrey Show. Between her big mouth, frequent feuds, and string of failed attempts to recapture the spotlight, she seems more trouble than her dimming star power and dwindling audience is worth (see The Rosie Show cancellation). So why is Rosie still a big deal?
She started out as the pleasant host of a stand-up show, starred in a couple of short-lived sitcoms and was second-billed in a few popular summer movies. Her talk show, The Rosie O’Donnell Show, launched in the spring of 1996, catapulted her into the entertainment stratosphere. Oprah cried with her guests; Rosie cried, and cheered for her audience. When Rosie’s idol, Barbra Streisand, came onto her show, Rosie could barely contain her joy and gratitude at being able to tell this woman what comfort and solace her career had brought. She expressed to Streisand, and so many artists, how valuable they are. She validated them and, in turn, validated our personal investment in their journeys, demonstrating how pop cultural icons and artworks can be transcendent and healing forces.
Rosie became less “nice” in her final seasons, sometimes turning off the adoration and challenging her guests about their political viewpoints rather than letting them plug their latest project (look at her uncomfortable cross-examination of Tom Selleck about his support of the NRA). In 2002, after six successful years and eleven Emmys, Rosie had enough of fame. She quit her talk show, had a publishing meltdown with McCall‘s magazine and came out as a lesbian. Rosie focused on her growing family and used her celebrity to further her philanthropic endeavors.
But in 2006, she became a moderator on Barbara Walters’ chatfest The View. Back then, The View was soft television, more interested in telling women how to dress thriftier than being politically minded. Rosie changed all that. She called Donald Trump to task for bullying Miss Universe. She and resident ultra-conservative Elisabeth Hasselbeck got into daily disagreements about the W. administration’s handling of its wars, the economy and the distribution of the country’s wealth. Eventually, their feud exploded in an onscreen battle in which Hasselbeck chose to perpetuate the lie that Rosie had called U.S. soldiers terrorists. In less than nine months, despite goosing The View‘s stagnant ratings and being named to Time‘s “100 Most Influential People” list, Rosie exited the show. Today, The View treats her like a pariah, excising her from retrospective clips and never giving her credit for her redefining work.
Since then, Rosie’s returns to broadcasting–a failed variety hour, Sirius radio host and the very recent talk show redux on the fledgling OWN network — have been tentative. After leaving The Rosie O’Donnell Show behind, there has been a growing tension between fun, fawning, television Rosie and conflicted, evolving and concerned citizen Rosie. Her civic passion was there for years in her honest blog entries on rosie.com (where she was both frank and diplomatic in almost real time in documenting The View blow-up) and in her extensive philanthropy. Her episode of Inside the Actors’ Studio, where she reveals that fame and fortune disappoint, is the series at its most articulate. It was this Rosie, heart on her sleeve, asking the nation to patriotically question the government and embrace the plights of the disenfranchised (gays, autistic parents, WTC First Responders), who polarized the View-ing audience.
Rosie’s life — raising four children, lesbian relationships, her menopause experiences — have tempered her ambitions as a world famous comedic entertainer. Her willingness to sacrifice her likability, explore her maturing, sometimes contradictory, relationship with fame and still manage to shine a light on important issues is a sort of Jungian search for wholeness made all the more heroic because it is done under a media microscope that likes to pick on her.
Rosie did a signing tour a few years ago in support of a craft book at Michael’s in a Chicago suburb. The line was around the corner. When it was my turn, she was kind enough to ask the woman behind me if she would take a picture of the two of us and email it to me. When I told her that her year on The View was a source of great comfort during my tumultuous first year of grad school, she said, “I understand.” With those two words, she validated my connection to her as compassionately as Streisand did for Rosie. That voice of compassion, whether it is used to interview a celebrity, encourage a child, or speak up for the underrepresented is Rosie O’Donnell’s greatest gift. We are lucky to have her.
Note: This piece originally appeared on Go Over the Rainbow and was republished with permission. You can find the original here.