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Whoopi's Revenge

For years Hollywood executives considered her a talented pain in the neck. Now Whoopi Goldberg's making them pay.
Paul Chutkow
From the Print Edition:
Winston Churchill, Autumn 93

Whoopi Goldberg can barely contain her glee. She's settled into an Art Deco suite at The St. James Club in West Hollywood, her shoes are kicked off, and she's expertly putting a match to a Davidoff, one of her favorite brands.

"It's disgusting how good life is right now," Whoopi laughs, trying to explain how it feels to have an Oscar, a $300 million hit movie, and one of the biggest fees ever paid to a woman in Hollywood. "I brag a lot more now. I see Billy Crystal and Robin Williams, and when we're doing a repartee I say, 'Wait a minute! I got the Oscar!' That stops' em. It's great fun."

Whoopi has every right to be feeling buoyant. After two decades of tumultuous ups and downs, she has firmly established herself as a gifted actress and comedian, and one of Hollywood's biggest box-office draws. With versatility and raw gumption, she has also secured for herself a unique niche in American popular culture.

Who else, after all, could bounce as easily from the dramatic excellence of The Color Purple to the whacko impersonations she does in her stand-up comedy routines? Who else could feel as comfortable doing a regular stint in Star Trek, The Next Generation and then rushing off to interview Al Haig for a segment of the Whoopi Goldberg Show, her answer to Jay Leno and Arsenio Hall? Who else can do AIDS benefits, Comic Relief television specials, Academy Award presentations and Hollywood wingdings for Nelson Mandela--without being labeled the Zelig of Sunset Boulevard? And if there were any doubts about her new status in American entertainment, 60 Minutes put those to rest with a fawning profile of The Whoop earlier this year.

"I suppose I'm becoming part of the American fabric," Whoopi laughs, puffing on her Davidoff. "But this didn't happen according to any agenda. This all has just sort of happened, and I'm just cruising with it."

Success clearly becomes Whoopi. This afternoon she's dressed in slacks, a plain white T-shirt, and an elegant designer jacket. Her hair is in dreadlocks, and as usual she has a dozen wisecracks on the tip of her tongue. When she's in this kind of mood, everything becomes a comic prop: her eyes, her hair, a jar of macadamia nuts, and above all, her cigar. One moment she's savoring it with a long pull, the way George Burns does to accentuate a punch line. The next moment she's flicking the ash the way Groucho used to, and the next moment she is holding the cigar flat against her upper lip, making a Groucho moustache.

Three years ago, Whoopi was not this jolly, and her wisecracks often had a caustic bitter edge. With good reason: her career was sputtering, her personal life was in the doldrums and Whoopi was one angry frustrated woman. Nothing she did seemed to satisfy the power brokers in Hollywood. When she did light comedies like Jumpin' Jack Flash, the critics complained she wasn't doing serious films like The Color Purple. And when she did the fine serious film, The Long Walk Home, where she played a maid caught up in the civil-rights struggle in Birmingham, Alabama, during the 1950s, the critics complained that there were no laughs. To compound the problem, Hollywood executives failed to promote the movie, and the public stayed away. The memory still makes Whoopi bristle.

"Take Clara's Heart," Whoopi explains. "It's a nice movie, without any violence. It's not going to cure cancer, but it's a nice movie. And they killed it. The critics killed it. They said it wasn't funny enough. When you do the fun ones, they say it's not serious enough. And when you do the serious ones, they say it's not serious enough. God, you get to the point where you know what? Fuck you!"

Her fortunes started to change with Ghost, a comedy that many critics feel Whoopi alone turned from a minor bit of Hollywood fluff and whimsy into a major international hit. For her marvelous comic performance as the phony psychic who mediates between Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore, Whoopi won the Academy Award for best supporting actress--an industry tribute that helped erase studio executives' memories of her earlier financial flops. After Ghost, Whoopi had successful roles in Soapdish and The Player and then came the film that sealed her rise into the upper echelons of Hollywood stardom: Sister Act.

In this Disney production, Whoopi played a hip nightclub singer who witnesses a gangland execution and winds up in an unusual locale for a witness-protection program: a convent. There the nuns try to convert Whoopi to the straight and narrow, but she ends up turning their antique church choir into a rocking soul group that packs the pews on Sunday and revitalizes the church's involvement in its down-and-out neighborhood. The film was a surprisingly big hit in the United States. As it went on to ring up worldwide receipts of $300 million, Disney decided to give the green light to Sister Act II.

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