Madonna on Oprah

05/25/2011 12:00 pm ET

Speaking from a London hotel room about her adoption of the baby David, she had her hair hanging down in tresses that suggested one of those Whistter portraits of Ophelia-like blondes. Her voice had a clipped, vaguely British tone that suggested Emma Thompson (or even Celia Johnson in long-ago Brief Encounter), and you had the sense that somewhere in there she was trying to summon up Mia Farrow the Earth Mother.

Anyone who's seen Madonna in a non-singing movie role has encountered this note of weird vulnerable tentativeness before. But her problem was new, and rather odd: What should have been seen as simple gestures of the heart -- African philanthropy, the rescue of a child from poverty -- had not been playing out smoothly in the press. Madonna can deal with most controversy, thrives on most controversy, but this was more than that. It was a genuine conundrum.

Here we are in an age in which celebrities are touted for the Nobel Prize, meet with world leaders to talk about economic policy, tour far-off sites of the most desperate conditions. What had Madonna done that was different from Angelina Jolie's playbook? And yet Angelina Jolie moves through the world with a beatific smile and grace, like one of the nicer Greek goddesses in Clash of the Titans.

Madonna was baffled, and rightly so, but she corrected course swiftly and smartly: Oprah, who admits no weird vulnerable tentativeness. Oprah showered her with God-blesses and bravos and applause, neutralized the negative ions, steadied Madonna's frail bark and re-launched her back into the world. Then moved on to a segment about the Dixie Chicks.