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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 3)

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!")

As she talks, you often get the feeling that Walter Mitty is alive and well and hiding under Whoopi's skirts. Part of her wants to be Carole Lombard, part of her wants to pump steel and compare cigars with Arnold and part of her wants to be Bill Moyers or Diane Sawyer. Above all, she wants to feel free to do comedy or serious drama depending only on her spirit of the moment, not on any pigeonholing by the Hollywood-establishment money men. In sum, Whoopi Goldberg wants it all, and given the roll she's on now, she just may have it all, pretty much the way she dreamed it back in the housing projects of Chelsea.

Do all her career ambitions and her diverse interests leave any time for a private life? There have been reports of a romance between her and her Made in America co-star Ted Danson, but Whoopi remains discreet. "One of the reasons it's so hard to live here is that you're not allowed to have friends. It so sad. You want to know about my love life? I'll tell you. I eat macadamia nuts and I read," she laughs. "That's it." Like many stars, Whoopi has a low pain threshold about the press in general, and the tabloid press in particular. One recent story said she was the best friend of some social-climbing starlet in Hollywood. "Hey," "Whoopi says, snuffing out her Davidoff, "I don't even know this bitch!"

Still, Whoopi knows that the public scrutiny and loss of privacy come with the territory of stardom, just like hassles with the studio bosses and the penthouse she used to keep here at the St. James Club, a premier landmark of West Hollywood. With its distinctive Art Deco mirrors and detail, the St. James serves as an enduring reminder of all the glamour and high style of Hollywood in its golden years, and as Whoopi walks through the lobby you can easily picture Carole Lombard sweeping down the staircase and out toward the waiting klieg lights of the celebrity photographers and myth-makers.

"This place is me, don't you think?" Whoopi says, reaching up for a kiss good-bye. Absolutely, Whoop. Absolutely.

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