Whoopi, the Star
Whoopi, the Comic
Yussuf J. Simmonds
‘Academy-Award, Emmy-Award, Grammy-Award and Tony-Award Winner’
At the opening of “Motown 30,” Whoopi Goldberg appeared in a long flowing pink dress, and her figure from behind showed a body sporting a full head of dangling hair, and with a smooth silky-tone voice she crooned, “If you need me, call me,” imitating Diana Ross. Then she spun around and said in a heavier tone, “But don’t call me before eight o’clock in the morning, Honey,” in her normal voice, as she climbed down from some steps she had been perched on, showing her white socks and white tennis shoes. That was the vintage Whoopi Goldberg.
In an industry where style and traditions are set and fixed by the dominant culture, and standards of beauty are often what the public sees strutting down the fashion runways and on the cover of magazines, Goldberg has achieved success on her own terms, with her own styles, fashions and ideas of beauty. Having won the top award in the four main categories-Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony-she can truthfully say, “I did it my way.”
However, life was not always smooth and silky for her. Goldberg was not born into wealth; she achieved wealth and success as a Black woman despite the odds and by beating the odds. She was born Caryn Elaine Johnson on November 13, 1955 in New York City, to a nurse/teacher mother; and a clergyman father. Early in her life Goldberg’s father left the family so she was raised by a single mother. According to Goldberg, her mother was very stern, strong and wise, and it seemed to have carried over to her now-famous daughter. Unknowingly she suffered from dyslexia and it affected her studies, so at 17, she dropped out of high school.
During her formative years, Goldberg worked in various odd jobs while trying to find her niche-she worked in a funeral parlor, and a bricklayer, taking small parts on Broadway while navigating up the food chain of the comedy world. A combination of factors-part slang and part religion-led her to change her name from Caryn Johnson to Whoopi Goldberg and as a youngster, she was enthralled with the Lt. Uhura character played by Nichelle Nichols in “Star Trek.” It was not the buffoon/maid stereotype that was relegated to many Blacks at the time and therefore had a significant effect on her. (Later on, Goldberg scored a recurring role on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”)
Moving to California, her skills as a stand-up comedienne blossomed as she infiltrated the comedic world. Goldberg’s rise to prominence came during a one-woman, HBO special where she played Moms Mabley, the legendary comedienne. And though her resume includes actress, singer-songwriter, activist, author and talk show host, she has had a few bumps in the road along the way to stardom: multiple marriages and drug addiction. In addition, some of her social commentaries have been controversial. Goldberg’s trademarks became her dreadlocks, wire-rimmed glasses worn halfway down her nose, and a wide impish grin, combined with adept portrayals in both comedic and dramatic roles, as well as groundbreaking work in the Hollywood film industry. That made her unique as an African-American entertainer.
Her film debut was memorable. In 1985, Goldberg played a mistreated, southern Black woman, Celie Harris Johnson, in “The Color Purple” for which she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, a milestone-her first movie and her first Academy Award nomination. She did not capture the Academy Award on her first screen outing but she did win her first Golden Globe Award. The role placed her on Hollywood’s radar though some critics later on claimed that Goldberg did not have to act that much, Â Celie Johnson was, in many ways, a reflection of her true self, Caryn Johnson. She demonstrated sound acting skills since both ‘Celie’ and ‘Caryn’ lacked “traditional” beauty and book smarts, yet managed to overcome many obstacles and barriers in their lives to find happiness.
In 1990, she flexed her dramatic muscles as Oda Mae Brown, a psychic of questionable repute, in the blockbuster film “Ghost.” For this role, Goldberg won an Academy Award for best supporting actress (the first in 50 years since Hattie McDaniel won in 1940) and her second Golden Globe Award. That role has also been listed in the list of the top 100 best movie characters by “Premiere Magazine.” She went on to star in many more memorable films including “Clara’s Heart,” “Sarafina,” “Made in America,” “Burglar,” “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Fatal Beauty,” “Rat Race” and “Sister Act,” just to name a few.
In May 1992, when “Sister Act” was released, it grossed well over $100 million in the U.S. and Goldberg was nominated for another Golden Globe Award. That triggered a sequel two years later: “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.” By 1996, her presence in Hollywood was secured; that year, four of her movies were released: “Bogus,” “Eddie,” “The Associate” and “Ghosts of Mississippi.”
In addition to movies, she did television, stage and vocal renditions for animated movies such as “The Lion King,” “The Pagemaster” and “Captain Planet and the Planeteers.” Goldberg’s work in television consisted of a myriad of genres: movies, series and game show regular, radio and talk show host, stand-up comedy, and guest roles. She hosted a nationally-syndicated radio talk show, “Wake Up With Whoopi,” and parlayed some of her stand-up comedy routines into political commentaries and social activism-in the latter, she publicly protested California’s Proposition while in New York. And her compilation of awards reflected this versatility.
For her television work, Goldberg has been nominated for a record 13 Emmy Awards and won seven. She starred in the TV situation comedy, “Bagdad Cafe,” in 1990 and hosted “the Whoopi Goldberg Show,” a late-night talk show. She co-produced and was a regular on “Hollywood Squares” from 1998 to 2004, followed by one of the moderator’s spot on the talk show “The View” since 2007. In addition, she received a Tony Award as a producer of the Broadway musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” four People’s Choice Awards, a British Academy Film Award and several NAACP image Awards. On her 48th birthday, Goldberg was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Her comic routines have been aired on HBO as television specials “Comic Relief” with fellow comedians Robin Williams and Billy Crystal to highlight awareness relative to human and natural tragedies, and to raise funds to assist numerous philanthropic causes. Goldberg has also been an advocate for human rights worldwide; has moderated a panel at the Alliance of Youth Movements Summit on the use of social networks to fight violent extremism in 2008; and has also moderated a panel at the UN in 2009 on armed conflict, terrorism, human rights and reconciliation.
Goldberg became the first African-American female to host the Academy Awards in 1994, and she did it so well that the Academy had her back as the host in 1996, 1999, and 2002. Her multitude of talents was blended with super star, Michael Jackson, in a guest appearance in his short film for the single, “Liberian Girl”. She produced two television sitcoms: Lifetime’s original drama, “Strong Medicine,” which ran for six seasons, and “Whoopi’s Littleburg,” a Nickelodeon show for young children. Goldberg then narrated an HBO special, “Unchained Memories,” with Samuel Jackson and Angela Bassett about slave narratives, and became a spokeswoman for ‘Slim Fast.” In 2004, her association with ‘Slim Fast’ took a hit after she made a sexual joke about then President George W. Bush while at a fundraiser for presidential candidate, John Kerry at Radio City Music Hall in New York. Goldberg waved a bottle of wine, pointed toward her pubic area and said: “We should keep Bush where he belongs, and not in the White House.” ‘Slim-Fast’ was offended by the comments and dropped her from its advertising campaign.
In a 2006 documentary, “African American Lives,” Goldberg’s family roots were traced to the Papel and Bayote people of Guinea-Bissau, West Africa, and the documentary went on to state that according to DNA test results, her genetic makeup was 92 percent Sub-Sahara Africa and 8 percent European. Goldberg has been married three times and has one daughter, Alexandrea, and three grandchildren, Amarah Skye, Jerzey and Mason, and the family seems to be following her footsteps; they appeared in a GAP commercial.
Though she has her own production company, One Ho Productions, which backs most of her movies and television projects, Goldberg is loathe to fly the friendly skies, as a result of several bad experiences. For many years, she preferred travel by her personal bus even from coast to coast. But recently, she has resumed airplane travel and said she would continue more frequently in the future barring no unforeseen incidents.
Goldberg’s tenure as one of the current hosts of “The View” has been punctuated by sporadic controversy. Some of her controversies included her remarks about Michael Vick’s dog fighting as being part of his cultural upbringing and the different relationship Chinese have with cats. However, on the ratings’ radar, the mechanism that drives television shows, Goldberg has caused the show to experience a 7 percent increase to 3.5 million total viewers after her first two weeks. On a recent show, with four other women-dressed in dresses-acting as co-hosts, Goldberg made her grand entrance with the group, dressed in jeans, shirt and vest; that’s vintage Whoopi Goldberg.
“Legends” is the brainchild of Danny J. Bakewell Sr., executive publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel. Every week it will highlight the accomplishments of African Americans and Africans.
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