The Great Actresses Whoopi Goldberg Beat Out for Her Oscar

Whoopi Goldberg didn’t tiptoe onto the scene with her film debut. For her first movie, Whoopi played the lead in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of The Color Purple (1985). Spielberg, who’d just directed E.T. and the second Indiana Jones movie, was the biggest director in Hollywood.

Meanwhile, Alice Walker had just won the Pulitzer Prize for The Color Purple. (Walker was the first woman of color to win the award for fiction.) After Walker saw Whoopi in her first solo stage show, the author recommended her to Spielberg for the role.

In brief, Whoopi debuted in one of the era’s great productions and made sure not to miss. However, she didn’t win the Oscar that year. Facing off against the like of Meryl Streep, Anne Bancroft, Jessica Lange, and Geraldine Page, it was Page who took home the statue in 1986.

Five years later, Whoopi returned to the Academy Awards with a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Ghost. The second time around, Whoopi got her Oscar after facing off with four great actresses of her generation.

Annette Bening and Diane Ladd both delivered signature performances in ’90.

1991 Oscar winners
Kathy Bates, Jeremy Irons, Whoopi Goldberg and Joe Pesci | Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

In that competitive ’91 Oscars, the Supporting Actress category was stacked. Dianne Ladd, who’d been nominated once before, had gotten the nod for her wicked witch performance in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart.

Playing Marietta, the domineering mother of Lula (Laura Dern) and nemesis of her boyfriend Sailor (Nicolas Cage), Ladd was utterly terrifying and convincing. But the same could be said for Annette Bening, who had a career highlight playing Myra in The Grifters.

Working alongside John Cusack and her worthy adversary Angelica Huston, Bening definitely put in the type of work you’d call Oscar-worthy. However, like Ladd, neither could top Whoopi’s work in the eyes of Academy voters.

Looking at the Golden Globe race from earlier in the year, you might have predicted a Whoopi sweep in ’91 — even in the year of Goodfellas and Dances With Wolves.

Mary McDonnell and Lorraine Bracco also could have walked with the Oscar.

Whoopi Goldberg and Denzel Washington at the 1991 Oscars| Barry King/WireImage

Even in 1991, film critics and fans recognized that Martin Scorsese’s classic Goodfellas was destined to be an all-time classic. The film went into the ceremony with six nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Joe Pesci, who’d co-starred as the psychotic Tommy, walked away with the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that night. Lorraine Bracco, who later wowed fans as Dr. Melfi on The Sopranos, faced off against Whoopi for Best Supporting Actress for her work as Karen Hill.

But the list of great actresses didn’t end there. Mary McDonnell, who’d played the female lead in Dances With Wolves, represented another heavyweight in the competition. (Dances With Wolves swept the major awards that night, ending with a total of seven Oscars.)

Looking back on that night in ’91, Whoopi had a lot of admiration for her fellow nominees. “I wanted an Oscar. I thought I’d earned it,” she told the New York Times Magazine in July. “I thought the other women also earned it. I mean, the performances that year were stellar.”

Whoopi also spoke of her personal connection to the others in the race that night. “All broads I love. We see each other, and it’s still like, ‘OK, bitch, when do we do this again?'”

Also see: The Controversy That Put Whoopi Goldberg’s Career on Hold