Watching it is like finding money in the pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn in years.
Whoopi Goldberg has collected many words of wisdom over the years. She makes it her practice to go to all those Hollywood fund-raisers with an autograph book, and she sidles up to the heroes of her youth and asks them for advice.
"Jessica Tandy told me, 'Listen to this. Take the work. People will tell you you're overexposed, but you only get better when you take the work.' Jimmy Stewart told me you have to be the big actor in little movies, and the little actor in big movies, that's how you get better. Burt Lancaster said, 'Listen, kid, this is a bitch of a business. You're gonna be okay. Tell the truth, hit your marks, do your job, and if it's you on the screen, then fight for it. They're going to say terrible things about you, but no one will ever be able to say that you didn't shoot for the very best you're capable of'."
Goldberg curled up in the corner of a sofa and lit a Marlboro and smiled. "I talk to everybody at those Happy Birthday salutes to Hollywood. That's why I do them. I bring my autograph book, and I corner people and I talk to them."
With responses like that, maybe you ought to have a talk show.
"If I was doing a talk show," she said, "I would do the kind of show that comes on just once a month, with amazing guests. I'd like to do the three first ladies, Lady Bird Johnson--the Bird, who I adore--Betty Ford, and Rosaland Carter. I would like to say to the Bird, 'Now listen, we've read all these books about what happened. How did you stay with this guy?' She was really, I think, the balls behind the man after awhile. He was my favorite president, because you knew where he stood. You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours."
We were having this conversation one afternoon last September at the Toronto Film Festival, after a screening of "The Long Walk Home," a movie that is just now going into national release. It's the story of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, told through the eyes of Goldberg, as a maid, and Sissy Spacek, as her employer. But we were also talking about "Ghost," which had come out not long before, and was already at the top of all the money charts.
It's the number one hit, I said, wonderingly.
"I know. It just cracks me up."
I don't know where Whoopi Goldberg was the day they announced the Oscar nominations, and I don't know how she reacted, but when they read her name for her supporting work in "Ghost," my guess is that she laughed long and loudly. In my fantasy she laughed because she was delighted, of course, but also because of the irony of the whole thing: She was nominated for a role the filmmakers agonized for months over giving her, at a time when her screen career was allegedly in the toilet. It may also have occurred to her, as it did to me, that the Oscar nomination came for the kind of work she has done many times before in the movies--while the Academy overlooked her inspired and truly wonderful performance in "The Long Walk Home."
In the movie, Spacek and her husband (Dwight Schultz) lead a comfortable middle-class life in Montgomery, made easier by the labors of their cook and maid. Then Rosa Parks refuses to move to the back of the segregated bus, and that leads to a bus boycott. For the maid, Goldberg, it also means a long walk to and from work every day. Spacek's husband, a white supremacist, thinks that serves her right. But Spacek secretly begins to provide her maid with a ride some days of the week, and that experience opens her eyes to a few of the realities of her society.
One of the qualities which makes the movie special is that the family lives of both women are treated by the story. A few years ago, the movie would have been told through the eyes of the Spacek character, and the Goldberg character's reality would have been defined mostly in terms of her work as a maid who undergoes heroic suffering. In "The Long Walk Home" we learn, however, that Goldberg has a husband and children, makes a good home for them, and has a whole existence little guessed at by her employer.
"That was one of the areas where I had to take Burt Lancaster's advice, and fight, because it was me on the screen," Goldberg said. "When they were talking about scenes they thought they might be able to lose, and two of the scenes were my family scenes, I lived up to my reputation, and went ape crap. But they're in there."
One of the things I didn't like, I said, was the gratuitous narration by young daughter of the Spacek character, who has no real role on the screen. She appears on the soundtrack, telling her memories of what her mother went through at that time. The narration is obviously not necessary, and seems to exist only to reassure white viewers that the movie is told from their point of view.
"I couldn't agree more," Goldberg said. "It bugged the hell out of me. Why couldn't the narrator have been my kid, or no kid? Why couldn't the story stand on its own? I didn't understand why they put it in there. Maybe they wanted to show how brave the white woman was in the face of all of this. But the black woman was brave, too.
"The thing that saved us is the fact that my family comes off as a real family. My husband works. He's a working man, and he's got some anger, but it's not 'we-gonna-get-you-Whitey' anger. It's about how people had to behave. People have told me it's a very restrained performance. It's restrained because that's what those woman had to do. They were mad, but they had to work to support their families."
There's a scene where the white in-laws talk with incredibe rudeness right in front of your character, as you're serving them dinner, and when you get down to the bottom of the driveway with the cook you say, "She damn near got a plate full of food right upside her head."
Goldberg grinned. "Yeah. You know, it was a big thrill to sit down and see this thing. I'm just really proud of it. I could say all kinds of stuff, little nit-picky stuff, but it's not necessary. People will take from it what they take, but I really am glad, thrilled actually, that it is as equal as it is in showing the two families, because, boy, it could have gone the complete other way."
Now about Goldberg's other role, the one that won the Oscar nomination. We didn't really discuss it much; the occasion for our talk was "The Long Walk Home." But we did discuss Oscar possibilities, and, for me, that Montgomery maid was a sure bet. I was wrong--maybe because the movie wasn't seen by nearly as many people as "Ghost." "The Long Walk Home" opened briefly in December in New York and Los Angeles to qualify for Oscars, was lost in the Christmas avalanche, and is ironically now opening just in time to benefit from Goldberg's "Ghost" nomination.
What's disappointing is that Goldberg's role in "Ghost" is the sort of thing she has done before in several films. Her character, a psychic who starts picking up vibes from a dead husband and acts as his conduit to his wife, is well-played, warm and funny. But it isn't new. And it helps illustrate one of Goldberg's big professional frustrations: The type-casting that prevents her from being considered for certain kinds of roles.
"There are roles I am never considered for. Meryl Streep roles, let's say. Why not? I really wanted to do 'Ironweed,' for example, because the depression era in this country was one of the best for multiracial people, because everybody was poor. Everybody lived in the tents, and under buildings, and under gratings, together. It is a frustrating thing that I was not considered for that role. Or a lot of roles that could be played by a black woman, except they never think that way. Or male roles. I would love to play a male role.
"I have the strangest time to get cast in anything. 'Ghost' was the same thing. Six months I had to wait for them to decide they had seen everybody possible. Why not? What limits me? I'm black? Oh, am I black? What will I be when you shoot me? I could be from England. It took MTV to tell us that there are black people in England! It took Fassbinder with his black actors to tell us there are black people in Germany. Sad to say, but over the last five years, I have come to the realization that I am black, and somehow that's supposed to hinder me.
"It's not that Meryl takes my roles. Sigourney doesn't take my roles. It's that I'm not allowed in the door to read for the things. I feel that I could have played the Glenn Close role in 'Fatal Attraction.' It would have been interesting. Maybe not the same, but interesting."
But then they would have felt they had to explain the interracial relationship.
"All right, then, why can't I have a relationship with a Warren Beatty, or a Jack Nicholson? I think acting-wise I'm up for it, but I'm plodding along, and I just keep hoping for the best. Sean Connery has always been the epitome of a man to me, I'd love to play opposite him. People say.'But he's the one who says it's okay to pop a woman every once in a while,' and I say, 'Yeah, well, he'd pop me once, and that would be it. I'd break his arms.' But why can't this kind of casting be considered? There was an article in the paper that showed artists that have played other ethnic groups, like Yul Brynner and Brando, and they were wonderful in these parts. Then somebody said to me, 'Do you think that Olivier should have played Othello? He's called the greatest Othello that ever lived!'
"And I asked, how many black actors got the opportunity? How do we know he was the greatest? It wasn't like there was a large group of people offered the role, and he happened to get it because he was the best. All actors should be able to play all roles, that's the magic. But the opportunities are not there."
Actually, I said, your very name is an attempt to fly in the face of preconceptions.
"I can't tell you how many people have said, 'So where did the name Goldberg come from?' And I say it came from my mom. That it was my grandmother's mother's mother's maiden name. And they say, 'But you know it's a Jewish name.' And I say, 'Well, I'm a Jewish girl, with a Catholic upbringing.' And they go, 'Oh, really?' It's just so odd, you're not allowed to just be an actor. You have to be in some category. They have to be able to look at you and tell you what roles you can play.
"I was talking to a lady who was asking, 'Why do you make these movies that don't make money?' I said, 'Did you ever ask Meryl that question? Because I don't remember Meryl being in any big box office movies. Does box office the actor make now? Is that what you mean? I'm an actor now because I've finally made a movie that made some money?"
It's true that Goldberg wasn't in an enormous box office hit between her first movie, "The Color Purple," and "Ghost." But in her case the theatrical box office figures don't tell the whole story. Ask the guy behind the counter at the video store and you'll discover that for some reason she is a superstar on home video. Entertainment Weekly recently singled her out in that category, reporting, for example, that her "Jumpin' Jack Flash," sold 6.9 million theatrical tickets (itself not so bad), but has been rented on video more than 19 million times.
Why is that? Maybe it's because Whoopi Goldberg sort of grows on you. She doesn't have conventional beauty, she doesn't play conventional roles, but there is always a presence there, and usually it's interesting. She's not like everyone else on the screen. Just by persisting, by being herself and yet playing roles that the conventional wisdom says she's wrong for, she may be helping to expand the ranges of a lot of actors. At first, Hollywood treated her like an alien from outer space: She played one-of-a-kind characters who had few real relationships with anybody.
"It's a very old argument, that I look wrong for certain roles," she said. "It has a lot to do with people's personal stuff. I worked with Sam Elliott in a film called 'Fatal Beauty,' and one of the initial talks that I had with the director after the contracts were signed was about this scene that was a really great love scene. I don't have the body to take my clothes off, but you know, it had hands to faces, and kisses, and all that romantic stuff that you always want when you find the right guy.
"It's the right stuff, and the director said to me, 'Well you know this character is somewhat based on me, and frankly, I don't see him seeing anything attractive about you.' So I just kind of took a deep breath, and said, 'Well maybe he had many years of drugs, and he just doesn't know any better, and his brain is half fried.'
Sam Elliott did have a sort of love interest with you in "Fatal Beauty," I said.
"Yeah, they couldn't get around it."
He kissed you.
"Yes, and I gave him a peck and a hug, but there was no deep sort of Mickey Rourke kissing going on. I've had two kisses in my career. That, and also of course my hair has bothered people for many years. Finally Euzan Palcy and Milli Vanilli came along, and they decided maybe braids were okay. I've even worn a dress or two recently, and now people suspect that there may be something interesting under there, and I guess I'm growing into my face, or they're just getting used to me, and so they're finally sort of talking to me about woman's roles. 'The Long Walk Home' is the first movie where I have a family, and a love interest, who even kisses me. It's wild."
She lit another cigarette, and blew out smoke, and sighed.
"All I really want to do, is just keep acting, and some of it will stink, and some of it will be really good, and maybe when I'm 85, and presenting an Oscar like Bette Davis did, I can look back and say, it was okay, I did all right.
"You know what Bette Davis told me? She told me, 'F--- 'em! F--- 'em!' That's what she said to me. 'They told me I couldn't do this, and I couldn't do that, and f--- you, I told them! So Whoopi, f--- 'em!' That's what she told me, and she was right, you do the best job you can, and when it works, thank you very much, and when it doesn't there's next year, you know, and maybe the year after that."