Why Whoopi Goldberg Didn’t Win the Oscar for ‘The Color Purple’

If you look back at the career of Whoopi Goldberg, 1984-86 stand out as breakout years for the stage and screen performer. After her Spook Show generated major buzz on both coasts, Whoopi landed an audition with Steven Spielberg for his upcoming film, The Color Purple (1985).

Spielberg, working on a recommendation from author Alice Walker, considered Whoopi perfect for the role of Celie almost immediately. Critics and awards voters loved Whoopi in the part as well. When the Golden Globe nominations came out, Whoopi found herself on the list

At the ceremony, Whoopi beat out the likes of Anne Bancroft and Meryl Streep to walk away with the Golden Globe. After that showing, she likely felt confident about her chances for the Best Actress Oscar.

However, that ceremony didn’t play out the same way. Though Whoopi faced incredibly stiff competition in 1986, some unwritten Academy rules might explain her loss best.

Geraldine Page, an 8-time nominee, took home the Best Actress Oscar.

Whoopi Goldberg and Jack Nicholson in 1984 | The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

When an actor gets an Academy Award nomination, they know they’re not only running against four other actors who appeared in quality films that year. In many cases, they’re running against another actor’s entire body of work — and their record at Oscars ceremonies past.

Al Pacino’s Oscar win offers the perfect example of this Academy dynamic. Though Pacino had floored critics with performances in Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Godfather saga, he won his statue for Scent of a Woman, which might be his 11th-best performance.

In 1986, when Whoopi faced off with Streep, Bancroft, Jessica Lange, and Geraldine Page, she had to topple some heavyweight contenders. But the job was actually even tougher than that. Page, a 61-year-old legend of both screen and stage, entered the night with eight career nominations.

Each of the previous seven times, Page lost to another Best Supporting or Lead Actress contender. But she didn’t miss for her performance in The Trip to Bountiful.

Whoopi’s chances seemed strong with Spielberg not in the running.

Whoopi Goldberg and Michael J. Fox arrive at the 1986 Academy Awards in Los Angeles. | Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

In what many Academy observers considered a snub, Spielberg did not receive a Best Director nomination for The Color Purple. That omission had the potential to help Whoopi. (Another element of Oscar dynamics is “the make-up award.”)

“The chances of The Color Purple for best picture and of Whoopi Goldberg for best actress zoomed when Mr. Spielberg was snubbed,” the Times declared a few weeks before the ceremony. Alas, it didn’t happen.

Obviously, no one could deny the great Page her Oscar. (She passed away the following year at 62.) For Whoopi, it wasn’t a long wait before she was back in the running. She received a Best Supporting Actress nod for 1990’s Ghost.

That time, Whoopi didn’t go home empty-handed. Though she faced another stacked category (including the likes of Diane Ladd and Lorraine Bracco), she made her mark in history that night as only the second black woman to win an Oscar.

To find the first, you had to go all the way back to Hattie McDaniel’s 1939 win for Gone With the Wind. When people say Whoopi Goldberg is a legend, this is the type of thing they’re talking about.

Also see: Why Whoopi Goldberg Was Always Bothered by Eddie Murphy Comparisons