Whoopi Goldberg has been called Hollywood's most uncategorizable star. The high-energy actress, who has appeared in such films as The Color Purple and Sister Act was the first African American to host the Academy Awards.
Whoopi Goldberg's life and career have followed similar circular journeys: both began with ingenuous hope then slipped dangerously toward extinction, only to be resurrected by a rediscovery of the dormant initial promise. Throughout her acting career, she has not forgotten the lessons she learned in her early, difficult life. There is, in a sense, no division between Goldberg the actress and Goldberg the person, as Paul Chutkow pointed out in Vogue: "She seems much the same way she has often appeared on-screen: fresh, direct, exuberant, no cant, no can't." Goldberg's unpretentiousness and determination imbue her best characterizations—they are direct and empathetic. She is committed to her art. "Simply, I love the idea of working," she admitted to Aldore Collier in Jet. "You hone your craft that way." And she is committed to rectifying disparaging social conditions affecting the unfortunate, and to which she was once subjected. Her success is earned, and she offers no platitudes for its achievement, only a realistic vision: "Take the best of what you're offered," she told Chutkow, "and that's all you can do."
Born Caryn E. Johnson in New York City in 1955, Goldberg wanted to be a performer from the very beginning. "My first coherent thought was probably, I want to be an actor," she recounted to Chutkow. "I believe that. That's just what I was born to do." She was acting in children's plays with the Hudson Guild Theater at the age of eight and throughout the rest of her childhood immersed herself in movies, sometimes watching three or four a day. "I liked the idea that you could pretend to be somebody else and nobody would cart you off to the hospital," Goldberg explained to Cosmopolitan's Stephen Farber.
But by the time she reached high school, Goldberg had lost her desire and vision. It was the 1960s, and she was hooked on drugs. "I took drugs because they were available to everyone in those times," she told Farber. "As everyone evolved into LSD, so did I. It was the time of Woodstock, of be-ins and love-ins." Goldberg dropped out of high school and became lost in this culture, delving further into the world of drugs and ending up a junkie. Finally she sought help, cleaned herself up, and, in the process, married her drug counselor. A year later, Goldberg gave birth to her daughter, Alexandrea. Less than a year afterward, she was divorced. She was not yet twenty years old.
In 1974 Goldberg headed west to San Diego, California, pursuing her childhood dream of acting. She performed in plays with the San Diego Repertory Theater and tried improvisational comedy with a company called Spontaneous Combustion. To care for her daughter, Goldberg had to work as a bank teller, a bricklayer, and a mortuary cosmetologist. She was also, for a few years, on welfare. During this period, she went by the name "Whoopi Cushion," sometimes using the French pronunciation "Kushon." After her mother pointed out how ridiculous the name sounded, Goldberg finally adopted a name from her family's history.
In a significant step, Goldberg moved north to Berkeley, California, in the late 1970s and joined the Blake Street Hawkeyes Theater, a comedic avant-garde troupe. With this group, Goldberg was able to realize her powerful acting and comedic abilities, developing a repertoire of 17 distinct personae in a one-woman show that she labeled The Spook Show. She performed the show on the West Coast, then toured the country and Europe in the early 1980s before landing in New York City.
Among her sketches were four rueful—and sometimes sublime—characters: Fontaine, a profanity-spewing drug dealer with a Ph.D. in literature who travels to Europe looking for hashish, only to openly weep when he comes across Anne Frank's secret hiding place; a shallow thirteen-year-old surfing Valley Girl who is left barren after a self-inflicted abortion with a coat hanger; a severely handicapped young woman who tells her prospective suitor who wants to go dancing, "This is not a disco body"; and a nine-year-old black girl who bathes in Clorox and covers her head with a white skirt, wistfully hoping to become white with long blonde hair so she can appear on The Love Boat.
Although Brendan Gill of the New Yorker decided Goldberg's sketches were "diffuse and overlong and continuously at the mercy of her gaining a laugh at any cost," the majority of critical and popular reaction was positive. Cathleen McGuigan writing in Newsweek believed that Goldberg's "ability to completely disappear into a role, rather than superficially impersonate comic types, allows her to take some surprising risks." And Enid Nemy, in a review of Goldberg's show for the New York Times, found the performer's abilities extended beyond mere comic entertainment and that her creations—seemlessly woven with social commentary—"walk a finely balanced line between satire and pathos, stand-up comedy and serious acting." These realistic and ranging performances also caught the attention of famed film director Mike Nichols (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate). After seeing Goldberg's premiere performance in New York, Nichols offered to produce her show on Broadway in September of 1984.
Another Hollywood figure entranced by Goldberg's sensitive performances was director Steven Spielberg, who at the time was casting for the film production of author Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Spielberg offered Goldberg the lead role of Celie—her first film appearance. Goldberg told Audrey Edwards of Essence how badly she wanted to be a part, any part, of the film: "I told [Alice Walker] that whenever there was an audition I'd come. I'd eat the dirt. I'd play the dirt, I'd be the dirt, because the part is perfect."
"As Celie, the abused child, battered bride, and wounded woman liberated by Shug's kiss and the recognition of sisterhood's power, Whoopi Goldberg is for the most part lovable and believable," Andrew Kopkind wrote in a review of the movie for the Nation. "She mugs a bit, pouts and postures too long in some scenes, and seems to disappear in others, but her great moments are exciting to behold." Newsweek's David Ansen concurred in assessing Goldberg's film debut: "This is powerhouse acting, all the more so because the rage and the exhilaration are held in reserve." For this performance, Goldberg received a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award nomination.
But the film itself failed to receive the praise bestowed on Goldberg. "The movie is amorphous," Pauline Kael wrote in the New Yorker. "It's a pastoral about the triumph of the human spirit, and it blurs on you." Much criticism was aimed at the selection of Spielberg, a white male, to direct a story that focuses on the Southern rural black experience, has a decidedly matriarchal point-of-view, and offers cardboard representations of its male characters. Even Goldberg herself was criticized when she defended Spielberg and the film. In an interview excerpted in Harper's, director Spike Lee questioned Goldberg's allegiances: "Does she realize what she is saying? Is she saying that a white person is the only person who can define our existence? … I hope people realize, that the media realize, that she's not a spokesperson for black people." Goldberg countered by defining for Matthew Modine in Interview the breadth of her social character: "What I am is a humanist before anything—before I'm a Jew, before I'm black, before I'm a woman. And my beliefs are for the human race—they don't exclude anyone."
Despite the lukewarm reception to the film as a whole, Goldberg's fortunes rose. In addition to her awards for her film portrayal, she won a Grammy Award in 1985 for her comedy album Whoopi Goldberg and received an Emmy nomination the following year for her guest appearance on the television show Moonlighting. The increased exposure, recognition, and acceptance allowed Goldberg to pursue social activities focusing on issues that affected her when she required public assistance and that she has tried to call attention to since her early stand-up routines.
Beginning in 1986, Goldberg hosted, along with Billy Crystal and Robin Williams, the annual Comic Relief benefit that raises money for the homeless through the Health Care for the Homeless project. "People would like the United States to be what we're told it can be, without realizing that the price has gone up—the price, you know, of human dignity," she explained to Steve Erickson in Rolling Stone. "Homelessness in America is just disgusting. It's just disgusting that we could have this big, beautiful country and have families living in dumpsters. It makes no sense." Goldberg appeared on Capitol Hill with Senator Edward Kennedy in a forum that opposed the proposed cuts in federal welfare. Jet reported her remarks in December 1995. She told the forum, "The welfare system works. I know it does because I'm here." Her protests are not limited to any one social imbalance; Goldberg also campaigns on behalf of environmental causes, the nation's hungry, AIDS and drug abuse awareness, and women's right to free choice. She has been recognized with several humanitarian awards for her efforts.
Increased exposure, though, did not translate into increased success for Goldberg, as she went on to star in a succession of critically assailed movies: Jumpin' Jack Flash, Burglar, Fatal Beauty, The Telephone, Clara's Heart, and Homer and Eddie. It seemed that as soon as she had risen, she had fallen. "On the strength of her past work as a stand-up comic, Goldberg deserves better," Lawrence O'Toole wrote in a review of Burglar for Maclean's. "If she keeps making thumb-twiddling movies like this one, she is unlikely to get it." And in a review of Clara's Heart for People, David Hiltbrand noted that ever since her debut film, Goldberg "has barely kept her head above water while her movies went under. After this, she'll need her own lifeboat."
Goldberg was vexed by gossip and rumors that Hollywood was ready to write her off. "In less than five years she went from Hollywood's golden girl to a rumored lesbian/Uncle Tom with a bad attitude and a career on the skids," Laura B. Randolph described in Ebony. "In Hollywood, that combination is almost always terminal, and insiders whispered that she should pack it in and be happy to do guest spots on the Hollywood Squares."
Goldberg remained steady, though, disavowing critical displeasure. "I've just stopped listening to them," she explained to Chutkow. "I've taken crazy movies that appeal to me. I don't care what other people think about it. If it was pretty decent when I did it, I did my job." And that seems to be the tenuous thread that connects her box-office disappointments: her strong performance marred by poor direction or a poor final script. The New York Times's Janet Maslin, reviewing Fatal Beauty, wrote what could be taken as an overall assessment of Goldberg's failed showings: "It isn't Miss Goldberg's fault, because Miss Goldberg is funny when she's given half a chance."
Goldberg seemed simply to need the right vehicle to transport to the audience her comic approach underscored by biting social and tender humanitarian elements. Her chance came with the 1990 film Ghost. "Thank God Whoopi finally has a part that lets her strut her best stuff," Ansen proclaimed. Although some critics didn't fully embrace the film (the New Yorker's Terrance Rafferty called it a "twenty something hybrid of It's a Wonderful Life and some of the gooier, more solemn episodes of The Twilight Zone"), most critical and popular response was overwhelmingly positive—especially to Goldberg's portrayal of the flamboyant yet heroic psychic, Oda Mae. It was a part for which she lobbied studio executives for more than six months, and her persistence paid off. Considered a sleeper when it was released, Ghost was the highest-grossing movie of 1990. And Goldberg won an Oscar for her performance, becoming only the second black female in the history of the Academy Awards to win such an honor (the first was Hattie McDaniel, who won for Gone with the Wind in 1939).
In a decisive indication of her acting range, Goldberg immediately followed her comedic role in Ghost with a substantive dramatic role in The Long Walk Home. The film is a poignant evocation of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955—a pivotal event in the American civil rights movement. Goldberg portrays Odessa Cotter, a housekeeper who, because of the boycott, is forced to walk almost ten miles to work, regardless of blistering or bleeding feet. Throughout, the character maintains her composure and integrity. Chutkow quoted Richard Pearce, the director of the film, on Goldberg's successful characterization: "What her portrayal of Odessa revealed about Whoopi was a complex inner life and intelligence. Her mouth is her usual weapon of choice—to disarm her of that easy weapon meant that she had to rely on other things. It's a real actress who can bring off a performance like that. And she did."
Goldberg also confirmed her far-reaching, unassailable talent in the arena of television. Beginning in the 1988-89 season, she earned accolades for appearing on an irregular basis as a crew member on the successful series Star Trek: The Next Generation. And while her 1990 stint in the series Bagdad Cafe was short-lived, Goldberg in 1992 secured the coveted position of late-night talk show host. The Whoopi Goldberg Show devoted each program to just one guest; Goldberg interviewed actress Elizabeth Taylor on the show's debut, and subsequent programs featured such celebrities as heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield. The show was canceled in 1993.
The year 1992 also brought a series of successful film roles to Goldberg. She began the year portraying a homicide detective in director Robert Altman's highly anticipated and subsequently acclaimed Hollywood satire The Player. In mid-year Goldberg donned a nun's habit as a Reno lounge singer seeking refuge from the mob in a convent in the escapist comedy Sister Act; one of the biggest box-office draws of the summer of 1992, the film, according to Detroit Free Press film critic Judy Gerstel, worked "as summer whimsy mainly because of Goldberg's usual witty, lusty screen presence." And in the fall she turned again to a dramatic role, starring in Sarafina: The Movie; a film adaptation of the musical about Black South African teenagers' struggle against apartheid, Sarafina was shot entirely on location in Soweto, South Africa.
Goldberg went on to appear in several more films including Made in America, Sister Act II (for which she was paid eight million dollars), Corrina, Corrina, and Boys on the Side. These films received mixed reviews, but as Janet Maslin stated in the New York Times in her review of Boys on the Side, "Ms. Goldberg, still reigning as Hollywood's most uncategorizable star, finally finds a role that suits her talents."
Goldberg took a break from acting to host the Academy Awards in 1994 and 1996. This took a great deal of courage considering she was the first African American and first female to host the event solo. The awards show is scrutinized by more than one billion people. In 1994, she had big shoes to fill because Billy Crystal had hosted the event for four years previously and the public was upset that he did not return. She performed to the critics' approval. Jet reported, "Critics and industry observers who had expressed wariness and reservation … hailed her for her tasteful comments, good jokes and ability to keep the three-hour show moving merrily along."
In 1996, the academy faced public protest by the Rev. Jesse Jackson for the lack of African American voters and nominees. The protest did not seem to bother Goldberg, who joked that she would wear Jackson's ribbon of protest, but she knew he was not watching. Maslin of the New York Times commented, "With Whoopi Goldberg as its quick-witted host, the show soon established an energetic tone and a refreshing impatience with Oscar traditions."
Goldberg has been linked with several of her movies costars: Timothy Dalton, Ted Danson, and most recently Frank Langella, her costar in a Disney release called Eddie. Her reported romance with Langella comes after a brief one-year marriage to Lyle Trachtenberg, a movie and television technicians' union organizer, whom she met on the set of Corinna, Corinna. A friend of Goldberg's admitted to People, "They've been mismatched from the beginning." Mismatched is a curious description, considering Goldberg once told Larry King, "Lyle's a real normal guy."
Her divorce happened quietly compared to what happened at the end of her romance with Ted Danson, whom she met on the set of Made in America. At a Friars Club Roast of Goldberg, Danson showed up tastelessly in black-face. His face appeared totally black with very large white lips. Danson roasted Goldberg by presenting a routine that included the word "nigger" several times, and included details of their sex life. Although many do not believe Danson is a racist, Jet commented, "Danson's routine stirred memories of days when white actor Al Jolson performed black caricature, which many found offensive." Many prominent African Americans expressed their disgust—Jackson, Spike Lee, and Montel Williams. At first, Goldberg defended Danson, claiming that she hired the makeup artist for Danson and wrote some of the jokes. However, Goldberg later told Jet magazine, "Well, we had already split up by then, but it ruined our friendship—it certainly did—which was sad. It was real painful, and it was very public. And the loss of this friendship hurts a great deal. We can never go and have a soda, anywhere." The incident drew so much attention that Goldberg probably wished the press would only report on her acting.
Goldberg's constant quest for a range of roles—what led Maslin to label her "one of the great unclassifiable beings on the current movie scene"—is not the mark of a Hollywood prima donna but of an actor committed to her craft. "None of my films cure cancer," Goldberg explained to Chutkow. "But they have allowed me to not just play one kind of person, which is important to me. Nobody knows how long this stuff is gonna last, and you want to have it and enjoy as much of it and be as diverse as you can."
In 1997, after appearing in the comedy film The Associate, Goldberg left Hollywood and returned to the theater, starring on Broadway in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The hit production of this 1963 musical classic is a vaudevillian spin on the classic Roman comedies of Plautus.
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Vogue, January 1991. □