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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

(continued from page 2)

"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.

Given the success of the first picture, and projected earnings for the sequel, Disney paid Whoopi a reported $12 million to $14 million to go back to the convent--one of the highest fees ever paid to an American actress, and a price tag that puts her up near the dizzying per-movie heights of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Douglas. Along with her Oscar and the millions grossed by Sister Act, that new fee is more than money for Whoopi: it is a confirmation and a validation, in irrefutable terms, of her talent and box-office appeal. For Whoopi, it is also a bit of sweet revenge against all those Hollywood executives who consider her a bombastic pain in the neck.

"I've now done three movies that have grossed more than $100 million: Ghost, The Color Purple and Sister Act," Whoopi says, puffing her cigar. "That's pretty good for a career. I don't know a lot of people who can say that."

Whoopi's current wave of success is only the latest chapter in a long and sometimes tempestuous personal odyssey. Indeed, Whoopi's life story is just the kind of show-biz tale the Hollywood studios used to thrive on, or create, back in the days of Frank Capra, and back when Hollywood press agents were even more shameless than they are today. But the beauty of Whoopi's story is that it's true; even the name Goldberg has a degree of authenticity.

Whoopi grew up in the racially mixed Chelsea neighborhood of lower Manhattan, and her family lived in a housing project that she remembers mostly as concrete and noise. She was born Caryn Johnson, from a clan of Johnsons and a clan of Harrises, but she says there were Goldbergs in her ancestry as well. "Whoopi" she made up; it seemed to define her spirit better than "Caryn." Whoopi says her mother always claimed she emerged from the womb with a grin on her face that seemed to say "Let's party!" Whoopi also swears her first coherent thought was, "I want to be an actor."

Whoopi's mother was a stern, strong and wise woman who worked as a schoolteacher and raised Whoopi and her brother by herself. Whoopi may have been a born hellion, but her mother believed in education and hard work, and she put Whoopi into a strict Irish-Catholic school. Still, there was no stopping Whoopi's fascination with the movies and comedy. On television she watched Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges, Ernie Kovacs, and the original Star Trek. She adored old Hollywood movies, and she grew up idolizing stars like Carole Lombard and John Garfield. She even dreamed about the day when she would come to Hollywood and play at their sides.

Manhattan was a perfect place for a kid like Whoopi to grow up. She did children's theater, and at Christmastime, she would always want to see a performance of the Nutcracker. Whoopi tells a great story about the Christmas her mother refused to let her go, but The Whoop sneaked out to it anyway, figuring she could get back before her mother came home from work and in time to clean up her room. But when Whoopi got back home, she realized she had forgotten her key, and as she stood terrified at the door, who should she see coming Lip the street but her mother.

"My mother's great," Whoopi laughs. "She has the major looks. She could stop you from doing anything, through a closed door even, with a single look. Without saying a word, she has that power to rip out your tonsils."

But there was only so much her mother could do to tamp down a fire like Whoopi's. After a wild teenage tumult, Whoopi wound up in San Diego at age 20, divorced and with a baby daughter, Alexandrea. Whoopi worked as a cosmetician in a mortuary (now who could make that up) and she started in as a stand-up comedian. During the flower-power'60s, Whoopi drifted north to Berkeley and caught on with the Blake Street Hawkeyes, a theater troupe where she created a parade of characters she called The Spook Show. She had a flair for whacko impersonations and hybrid characters who, like Whoopi, combined street smarts and social awareness. There was Fontaine, a drug dealer with an attitude and a Ph.D., and there was a little black girl who so badly wanted white skin, blue eyes and blond hair that she tried to bleach her blackness away in Clorox-all this so she could sail on The Love Boat.

Whoopi became a local legend in Berkeley ("a wonderful nut case," one old pal recalls) and soon she took her routines home to Manhattan and the Dance Theater Workshop, where it caught the eye of director Mike Nichols. With his help, The Spook Show turned into a hit on Broadway, the album won a Grammy Award for comedy, and Spook became a special on HBO. As she rocketed to critical acclaim, Steven Spielberg signed her on for The Color Purple, Alice Walker's novel about a black family on a farm in the South. Whoopi's movie debut was brilliant, and it earned her an Academy Award nomination-and a marketing problem. She was at once a gifted actress and a whacko comic. Which movie path to follow? lngmar Bergman or Steve Martin?

During the 1980s, Whoopi did a series of movies that most critics panned: Jumpin'Jack Flash, Burglar, Fatal Beauty, Clara's Heart and Homer & Eddie. When none of these turned into a major hit, Whoopi took the disappointments and the bad reviews very personally. "I was hurt," she admits now. "I mean how many Color Purple roles are there out there?" She felt she was being held hostage to outlandish expectations from Hollywood producers looking to exploit her talents to maximum advantage-their financial advantage.

But film critics and the Hollywood studio executives were not the only ones confounded by Whoopi and her multiple talents. For all her prominence throughout the 1980s, in the eyes of the public Whoopi remained one of the most enigmatic and misunderstood actresses in America. Who was this zany character? What really made her tick? The gossip columns and tabloids often chattered about her personal life, but who knew what to believe?

The fact is, Whoopi Goldberg is one very complicated lady; she defies easy labels, classifications or pigeonholing. There is a part of her that seems to be a pure Hollywood creature: hip, flip, party all night and never miss a celebrity gathering. This is the public Whoopi. The private Whoopi is very different. She keeps close to her mother, her brother and her daughter, who now has a daughter of her own, making Whoopi a grandmother before she hit 40. Whoopi is also an avid reader (her taste in books includes biographies and such intellectual fare as My Father's Guru, by Jeffrey Masson, an account of a son's spiritual awakening with his father, his mother, and their dubious guru) and she also collects paintings and rare books.

In her flamboyant public moments and in her private reflective moments, The Whoop loves a fine cigar. She's been smoking cigars since she was a teenager, when she'd sneak a cheap cheroot when she was far from the radar of her mother. Now she prefers cigarillos or small cigars, but she's been known to share a big Cohiba with director Ridley Scott. She has another favorite: the 80 Aniversario, a difficult-to-find Cuban Davidoff made especially for Zino Davidoffs 80th birthday.

Whoopi buys cigars at the posh Davidoff outlet in Beverly Hills, and she has a large humidor at home. As discriminating as she is about what she smokes, The Whoop is also particular about the way she prepares her cigars; she prefers to punch a hole in the end of the cigar rather than clipping it off. As frenetic as her life usually is, Whoopi does not like to hurry a fine cigar, and usually doesn't smoke more than one cigar a day.

To help her slow down and to give her a bit of respite from the Hollywood scene, Whoopi recently purchased a secondary residence on 40 isolated acres in rural New England. This past summer, though, she put the house to little use. She was too busy working on the Sister Act sequel, being shot in Los Angeles, and promoting a recent comedy she did for Warner Brothers: Made In America, a farce with Ted Danson about a mix-up with a sperm-bank baby. The film received lukewarm reviews, but by mid-July The Hollywood Reporter was still listing it as one of the five biggest movies of the summer.

Whoopi also had a setback this summer: her late-night talk show was canceled because of poor market share. Whoopi and the show's producers had differences about the concept right from the start. The Whoopi Goldberg Show grew out of guest stints she did as host of Pat Sajak's late-night show, in the mode of Jay Leno, Arsenio Hall, David Letterman and Bob Costas. But from the beginning, the project brought together two different mentalities and two very different sets of values. The producers envisioned a Whoopi version of Saturday Night Live, with plenty of sass and bite. What Whoopi envisioned was something else: The Further Education of Whoopi Goldberg.

"When the producers first asked me if I'd sit in, I said yes," Whoopi says, "but only if I could have Lady Bird Johnson, Rosalynn Carter, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Betty Ford as guests. I wanted to know from these first ladies what the progression of America has looked like through their eyes. The producers said, 'Oh, no, no, no, no, no. We have to have bands. Actors and stuff.' And then they asked me if I wanted to do my own show. I said yes--but only if I can have the people I want. One person. No band. No hassle."

The producers and sponsors were worried primarily about ratings; Whoopi was not. "I did that talk show for me. Strictly for me. I didn't care about ratings. This isn't so good if you're a sponsor, but I just wanted to meet interesting people. I mean, where else was I going to get to talk to Al Haig? The man told me to call him 'Big Al.' And where else could I listen to G. Gordon Liddy crack jokes? I mean the man is very funny. Who knew?"

Haig and Liddy are fascinations of Whoopi's; she loves politics. Away from the cameras, she likes to talk about Bill Clinton and Haitian refugees, Colin Powell and gays in the military, and what television has done to the American political process. So why not talk about these same subjects on her talk show? Serious stuff, and she got serious people on; she had no intention of playing smartass or pretending she was doing MTV for the bubble-gum-and-Madonna crowd.

"People complained it was too gushy. Well, why the fuck not? I really liked the people I talked to. And I don't see why being nice and polite should cause problems," Whoopi says. "It's all about money and economics, and I can understand that; I want to be paid well, too. But I also want to do some real quality stuff. All I had to do was learn to shut up. Because people came on and blew us away; they opened themselves up. People really wanted to talk to me."

Early on, the producers fumed because Whoopi would not cozy up to sponsors and bare her teeth against competitors like Leno. They also disagreed about what would play in Peoria. Here she clashed with the same mind-set that drives Hollywood: the big-number audiences out in Middle America are numskulls who only want celebrity hype and glitter, and they're allergic to anything that smells of quality, substance or authenticity.

"The excuse people in television use is that these are not what people in Peoria want. But that isn't true. It really isn't. What people in Peoria really want to know is that Barry Manilow thinks of himself as a back-up singer, he has no ego about being a back-up singer, and he doesn't give a damn if anybody likes him or not. They want to know Anthony Quinn is doing amazing stuff, he's building like the Panama Canal in Italy. Or that James Earl Jones and that magnificent voice of his came forth because this was a kid who stuttered horrifically, horrifically, and had no self-confidence. None! I sat there thinking, 'But you're James Earl Jones; what are you talking about!?' These are the things that really get to people."

After Whoopi did 113 shows, the producers called a hiatus, because of weak ratings, and then they canceled the show outright, though reruns will continue in some markets. Whoopi remains upbeat about the experience, but the producers are probably not so sanguine. They apparently thought they had bought Whoopi in all her flip comic garb, but what Whoopi delivered them was her serious intellectual side.

Running through the talk show and many of her comedy routines, were Whoopi's deep interests in politics and social issues, usually from a vantage point of what Hollywood would call the hip left and conservative critics might call politically correct. "I came to Clinton late," she says now, drawing reflectively on her Davidoff. "I wanted to make sure, before I got out there and did anything, that he was the right guy. I really think he's going to do a lot of good, though they're really going to kick his ass for another year or so. He's not God, you know; he's a little guy from Arkansas. And, hopefully, they'll allow him to make a few mistakes, so he'll learn how to govern correctly."

Promoting AIDS research and gay rights remain high on her activist agenda. "I'm telling you, Colin Powell's a frightening guy. He says he doesn't see the similarities between gays in the military and blacks in the military. 'Hello, Colin, maybe you're a little too light skinned. Maybe you've never felt this before, but they were kind of scared of us, too.' And what do folks think gays are going to do anyway? Come into the barracks and rape 'em?"

A few years ago, probably because of her ties to Berkeley in the '60s, The Whoop was labeled a wild-eyed radical. As usual with Whoopi and labels, this was never accurate, and today the very idea seems overblown. "Some people want Clinton to change the Haitian policy immediately," she says. "I think, because of the situation in Haiti, this policy has to gradually change, so we don't find ourselves with the entire country of Haiti in the United States and no way to house them or get them to work." Pragmatic. Diplomatic. ("Hello, UNICEF? Mike Ovitz at CAA. Have we got a goodwill ambassador for you!")


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