I have to admit it. The thing that made me smile most when going through her information on IMDb was the discovery that she collects Fiesta Ware, because so do I, and seriously. I also liked her statement that, as Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation, she got to “be really sage and wear great hats.” Because I would totally take that gig, if it were offered to me. Not even just acting; if someone came up to me right now and said, “We’ve got a job for you; come in every day and be really sage and wear great hats,” I’d take it. I wouldn’t even finish writing this article.
I’m not writing about Whoopi today because it’s my sister Elaine’s birthday—I already had her planned. But Whoopi’s birth name is Caryn Elaine Johnson. Her youth wasn’t bad, though she self-performed an abortion at fourteen and dropped out of high school at seventeen because she was dyslexic. But as an adult, she’s had a great career. Like fellow Soapdish cast member Kevin Kline, she’s adept at both comedy and drama; she has a Best Actress nomination for The Color Purple, her first film role, and a Best Supporting Actress win for Ghost, where she plays the comic relief.
And she’s Guinan, and she was Shenzi, and she was Myrlie Evers. Odessa Cotter in The Long Walk Home, about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Girl, Interrupted and Sister Act and Boys on the Side. A lot of voice work—she was Gaia on Captain Planet! And a lot of stuff where she’s playing herself or some version of her screen persona. Honestly, looking over her IMDb page was interesting because I hadn’t realized she’d done quite such steady acting over the years. She may have started as a comedian, and she’s good at it—and still one of my favourite Oscar hosts—but there’s more to her than that. And she was the second black woman to win an acting Oscar, so there’s that.
Okay, there’s also some of her statements about rape victims, which have not been great. At least her response to the explanation of “statute of limitations” was to urge rape victims to come forward sooner. But it seems as though she’s defended some pretty unsavoury people; “I know Mel Gibson and he’s a good guy” does not mean that Mel Gibson is not a racist just because he didn’t say those horrifically racist things directly to you, after all. And drugging a girl and having sex with her over her objections is more than just statutory rape, and even if it weren’t, a man as old as Roman Polanski would have a power imbalance in a relationship with a thirteen-year-old girl even without his fame and influence entering into it. I think she tends to believe the best of people she knows even when the evidence is against them, and I’d be more okay with that if she didn’t use her platform to disparage their victims.
I’ve always wondered if her performance in Soapdish was written for a Jewish woman, honestly. While the name “Rose Schwartz” could have been a play on “Goldberg,” it’s also possible that she just turned out to do such a good job at the part that they gave it to her. (Contrary to her past claims, she has no Jewish ancestry and the “Goldberg” is not a family name.) She’s not quite a center of sanity in the movie; if anyone fits that description, and I’m not sure anyone does, it’s the late Garry Marshall. But one of the movie’s moments of true heart is when she’s watching her best friend, Sally Fields as Celeste Talbert, surrounded by fans and just smiles at how happy it makes her friend. I could write a whole essay about that shot alone.