Whoopi Goldberg's Unflinching Rise To The Top

Whoopi Goldberg

Whoopi Goldberg gives her opening monologue as host of the 74th annual Academy Awards in March 2002. Kevork Djansezian/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Kevork Djansezian/AP

Whoopi Goldberg is a comedic force.

She has defied the odds, overcome personal hurdles and carved out a niche in film and television.

Born Caryn Elaine Johnson in New York City, Goldberg began acting at the Hudson Guild in the Helena Rubinstein Children's Theater when she was 8 years old.

In Hollywood, the leading ladies are often white. Glamorous roles for black actresses had traditionally been reserved for light-skinned and slender performers. Such racial typecasting did not deter Goldberg's ambitions. She appeared in the chorus of the Broadway musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair.

'The Color Purple'

Notes

In the 1985 film The Color Purple, Goldberg stars as the main character, Celie, alongside actors Danny Glover and Margaret Avery. The film also stars Oprah Winfrey as Sophia.

In the late 1970s, Goldberg developed a one-woman play, The Spook Show, based on characters derived from her life. Goldberg toured the United States and Europe with this show.

Goldberg made her film debut in Steven Spielberg 's 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker's The Color Purple. The newcomer to the big screen played Celie, the main heroine, who was a victim of domestic violence and suffered from low self-esteem. The film was a commercial success. For her strong, subtle performance, Goldberg received an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe Award.

Throughout the 1980s, her films Burglar, Fatal Beauty, Clara's Heart and The Telephone were, by and large, only marginally successful.

'Sister Act'

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In the 1992 film Sister Act, Goldberg stars as Deloris Van Cartier, a nightclub singer who goes into hiding as a Catholic nun after witnessing a mob crime.

Her career took off again with her portrayal of fortune teller and tarot-card reader Oda Mae Brown in Ghost. The film grossed over $500 million worldwide and earned Goldberg an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress — only the second Oscar ever awarded to an African-American woman.

In 1992, with Sister Act, Goldberg had another box office success. She also picked up her second Golden Globe Award.

Whoopi Goldberg has hosted everything from fund-raisers to the Oscars, and now collaborates as part of the lively ensemble on ABC's The View.

Goldberg has become a mainstay in American entertainment, despite being an African-American woman in a predominantly white industry where conventional beauty reigns.

Some film critics argue that her sometimes asexual characters perpetuate the familiar stereotype of the black mammy in the white household. Goldberg has responded by expressing frustration with the selective editing of love scenes that featured her yet ended up on the cutting room floor.

In her movie, Fatal Beauty, she tried to keep sexy scenes from being cut from the movie. There was also the film Corrina, Corrina in which the filmmakers didn't know how to handle the sexual tension that occurred between Goldberg's character Corrina Washington and employer Manny Singer, played by Ray Liotta. Despite her protests, the scenes weren't in either film.

Goldberg is Hollywood's unruly woman. She is sometimes described as too fat, too funny, too noisy, and too rebellious. In Broadway performances, Hollywood pictures, independent movies and on television, she challenges social hierarchies, crosses through racial boundaries, and subverts conventional authority.

When we review her career, we see her longstanding commitment to question and oppose dominant standards of beauty and femininity as they inform visual pleasure and narrative cinema.

Mia Mask is an associate professor of Film at Vassar College. She is the author of Divas on Screen: Black Women in American Film. She has written film reviews and covered festivals for IndieWire.com, The Village Voice, Film Quarterly, Time Out New York, and The Poughkeepsie Journal. Her criticism was anthologized in Best American Movie Writing.

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