No One Made a Better Film Debut than Whoopi Goldberg in ‘The Color Purple’

Legendary acting teacher Uta Hagen gave Goldberg the tools she needed to create her revelatory performance.
Whoopi Goldberg In The Color Purple

Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we revisit Whoopi Goldberg’s debut performance in The Color Purple.

The road to Whoopi Goldberg’s role in The Color Purple was paved by her work on the stage. In the early 1980s, Goldberg wrote a one-woman play called The Spook Show. A collection of comic monologues where she brought to life a motley crew of kooky characters, the show caught the eye of legendary director Mike Nichols. He was so impressed by her work that he became instrumental in transferring The Spook Show to Broadway where it was simply retitled Whoopi Goldberg. Both Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, and Steven Spielberg, who directed the 1985 film adaptation, were so impressed by Goldberg’s performance that she was instantly cast as its lead character, Celie.

What Nichols, Spielberg, and Walker likely saw in Goldberg’s stage work was the way she found the inner humanity in these larger than life characters. Our introduction to her drug-addled thief Fontaine is through fourth-wall-breaking ad-libs to the audience, cracking wise about the biggest controversies of the 1980s. But when she has Fontaine visit Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, the candor of the monologue shifts unexpectedly. She lets this crass character be moved by his experience of what Frank endured, “I discovered what I didn’t think I had: a heart.”

Goldberg’s most famous roles may rely on her natural panache, but her greatest strength as an actor is the ability to disappear into the emotional nuances of a character. It may not be as evident in her Oscar-winning performance as Oda Mae Brown (Ghost) or as Deloris Van Cartier (Sister Act) but it’s central to why she’s so revelatory in her Oscar-nominated role in The Color Purple. We can’t tell where Whoopi Goldberg ends and Celie begins.

What makes her transformation even more remarkable is how little personal connection she felt with the character. As she told Roger Ebert in 1985:

“The way I played Celie was to stand back from her. There’s a theory that an actor should identify with the character. Well, I loved her, but I didn’t identify with her. Celie is so far away from me, it was easy to allow her pain to be there, because her life has so little to do with mine.”

That acting theory she mentions is central to the methodology of renowned teacher Uta Hagen, whom Goldberg studied under in New York City. Hagen is the author of the wildly influential books Respect for Acting and Challenge for the Actor, and a major tenet of her method is a technique called Substitution.

Substitution asks the actor to compare their character’s thoughts and feelings with aspects of their own personal lives. If a character is going through a divorce, Hagen encourages the actor to draw from their own memories of bad breakups. Tapping into a lived-in experience helps the actor generate genuine emotions, rather than trying to completely manufacture a feeling.

The pitfalls of this technique are in transferring too much of yourself onto your character. You risk entangling your character’s emotions with your own. Digging up traumatic experiences for a role can easily make a negative impact on the mental health of the actor.

Since Goldberg didn’t pour her own identity into Celie, she was able to sidestep becoming emotionally entombed in a character who is initially defined by her trauma. In the film, Celie is sexually abused by her father before being married off to the equally abusive Albert (Danny Glover), all while contending with the indignities a Black woman faced living in the South during the early 20th century. Instead of using personal touchstones to express the complexities of Celie’s trauma, Goldberg fell back on a different technique she learned from Uta Hagen: the concept of an inner object.

An inner object is the thoughts and memories an actor puts into their head to help them think like their character. It’s like trying to replicate our brain’s stream of consciousness. Goldberg’s inner object for Celie is her history of abuse, so Goldberg uses those memories to affect the way she responds in a scene. At any given moment, we can look into Celie’s eyes and see her past, present, and future all in a single glance, because Goldberg puts her character’s memories into the forefront of her mind. This inner object connects Goldberg to Celie so she can bring the character to life with heartbreaking realism. 

Goldberg’s inner object is what keeps her mentally engaged as Celie, but it also informs her physical performance. Every time we see Celie shrink away from the touch of another character, it doesn’t read as some ingrained shyness, but the lingering imprint of abuse. We realize her reserve is really a defense mechanism designed to protect herself from the violent, drunken mood swings of the men in her life. That abuse has left her in arrested development, and Goldberg expresses that through Celie’s physicality.

This is most poignantly realized in one of The Color Purple’s sweetest scenes, when Shug (Margaret Avery) tells Celie how beautiful she is. When Celie opens up to her, Shug responds with tenderness in a way that Celie has never felt in her adult life. In the moments before they share a kiss, Goldberg adopts childlike mannerisms. She clasps her hands nervously together as Shug looks at her fondly. As a smile spreads across Celie’s face, she quickly covers her mouth, but we can read her expression from the gleam in her eyes. It’s the same expression you see in a child bursting with joy but unable to properly verbalize it, so they just beam at you with wide-eyed radiance. For Celie, happiness was something she only experienced as a young girl attached at the hip to her confident sister Nettie (Akosua Busia.) In this moment, she’s transported back to her childhood, and Goldberg touchingly expresses that through her physical performance.

In 2007, after a series of poorly received film and TV roles – not to mention one controversial joke about then-president George W. Bush – Goldberg announced that she was retiring from acting. The political joke cost her countless jobs, and when she stopped receiving screenplays for consideration, she chose to accept an offer to join Barbara Walters on The View. The daytime talk show gave her a new audience and relevance, but it also distanced her from the roles that defined her career. 

Arguably we now associate Goldberg more with The View than we do any of her major film roles. We remember Ghost and Sister Act, but to younger generations, she’s just the outspoken firebrand who dunks on Meghan McCain, not this enormously talented award-winning actor. Which is a shame, especially when you consider the incredible work she did in The Color Purple. As Celie, she created a vivid portrait of intergenerational trauma, systemic abuse, and perseverance that is as harrowing as it is effortlessly performed. 

Roger Ebert said it best, that Goldberg gave “one of the most amazing debut performances in movie history.” It’s rare for an actor to make such a groundbreaking impression in their very first role, but Whoopi Goldberg is a rare actress, and The Color Purple is the perfect reminder of her colossal talent.

Jacob Trussell: Jacob Trussell is a writer based in New York City. His editorial work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the author of 'The Binge Watcher's Guide to The Twilight Zone' (Riverdale Avenue Books). Available to host your next spooky public access show. Find him on Twitter here: @JE_TRUSSELL (He/Him)