We’ve seen a noticeable rise in recent years in terms of LGBT visibility in Hollywood, but if you flash back even ten years ago—let alone twenty or thirty—the number of “out” performers and gay film and TV projects dwindles markedly. This was the Dark Ages, when Hollywood brought out maybe one movie a year with a gay character (who hopefully didn’t die or wasn’t a stereotype), and maybe one or two art-house films that broke through the clutter. Things began to improve in the 90’s, but it’s largely been since the age of reality television and the rise of cable over the past 15 years that we’ve really begun to see a more realistic breadth and scope of gay life being portrayed in a wide variety of ways.
Before that however, there were a handful of brave performers who—though not necessarily gay themselves—took on high-profile gay roles or lent their star power to gay projects that got an extra “boost” due to their involvement. Back when it was considered risky—if not career suicide—to play gay and commit to gay issues and causes. Some of these folks might not get the recognition and appreciation from the LGBT community that they deserve. We’d like to do our part to address that, so we’re going to be profiling them as part of our Gay Icon Nominee series.
GAY ICON NOMINEE: WHOOPI GOLDBERG
Goldberg, nee Caryn Johnson, came to prominence in the early 80’s via her one-woman Broadway show, directed by Mike Nichols. From there, she made her official screen debut in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, playing Celie, the abused Southern wife of Mister (Danny Glover), who only discovers that she is beautiful and desirable in the arms of her husband’s mistress, Shug Avery (Margaret Avery). Though the film soft-peddles their night together (several sweet kisses and a pan over to the wind chimes), Shug ultimately frees Celie from Mister’s grasp, enabling her to become a strong, independent woman who is finally reunited with the children who were taken from her as a teenager. (If you can keep from bursting into tears when Goldberg-as-Celie sees her sister for the first time in some thirty years and screams “NETTIE!” before plunging into a field of purple flowers to run to her, you’re made of stronger stuff than I.)
Though the film lost every one of its 11 Oscar nominations, including Goldberg’s for Best Actress, it was a financial success and its initially mixed reviews—largely directed at Spielberg—are mostly forgotten today, in light of the appalling dearth of stories about black women, let alone gay black women.
After several subsequent comedy vehicles Goldberg did, in fact, clinch Oscar gold for Ghost in 1990, becoming only the second black actress in history to do so. She followed her turn in Ghost with a solo vehicle smash in Sister Act, and several years later had once again acquired enough clout to play gay in Boys On the Side (1995) opposite Mary Louise Parker and openly bisexual Drew Barrymore. Though Goldberg’s character Jane spends much of the movie chastely pining for Parker’s HIV+ character, Robin, the film was still noteworthy in its portrayal of female friendship (always rare at the box office) and the wider lesbian community of the Southwest, specifically New Mexico (complete with a cameo by the Indigo Girls). It was a modest hit at the box-office.
Drew Barrymore and Goldberg in Boys on the Side
In 1997, Goldberg appeared in the small but vivid role as Robert Sean Leonard’s nurse in In the Gloaming, pulling no punches with mother Glenn Close: “He’s come home to die.” She played gay yet again—though with even less of a personal or dating life—as detective Candy Bliss in The Deep End of the Ocean (1999) opposite Michelle Pfeiffer, maintaining an almost nine-year quest to find a missing boy. In 2001, she played Brooke Shields’ lawyer in the Lifetime movie What Makes A Family, where lesbian Shields loses custody of her non-biological daughter after her partner (Cherry Jones) dies. Recently, after years of small roles and various TV guest spots in and around her anchoring The View, Goldberg resurfaced in possibly the gayest context she’s yet been in, assaying the part of the intimidating Carmen Thibodeaux on Glee and deciding whether or not Rachel and Kurt were worthy of their performing-arts dreams at NYADA.
Always outspoken, funny, and passionate about human rights issues Goldberg has also emceed the Pride Agenda dinner in fall of 2008, and attended one of the gay marches on Washington, pushing an AIDS-afflicted friend in a wheelchair. (She quipped that though she wasn’t gay, “That doesn’t mean I wasn’t in a previous life, or won’t be in a future one.”) She has regularly weighed in on gay issues since joining The View in 2005 (“If you don’t like gay marriage…don’t marry a gay person!”), and has just put the finishing touches on a new HBO documentary about famous African-American comedienne—and lesbian—Moms Mabley, whom Goldberg first played in a one-woman show almost thirty years ago. (Oddly, in one of those can-you-believe-it bits of destiny, Mabley, like Celie in The Color Purple, was also raped and gave up two children for adoption in her youth.)
For all of these fantastic performances and projects, for representing the LGBTQ community with pride and integrity, and for playing a character named Dolores Van Cartier (how fabulous is that?), Whoopi Goldberg is our first GAY ICON NOMINEE.