Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Hit Me With your Best Shot: The Color Purple

After an embarrassingly long hiatus, I'm happy to return to the blog...and what better way to do so than by participating in Nathaniel's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" over at The Film Experience.  Finding a single frame to focus on from Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple(1985) was no easy task.  It's a seminal film for my personal movie-watching narrative.  Had I been alive and following the Oscar race at the time, I would probably regard it much in the same way that I regard The Hours (stay with me for a moment).  An adaptation of a challenging Pulitzer-prize winning novel in which (according to vocal detractors) the edges of the source material were sanded down to a fault; a film very much interested in the interpersonal relationships between women; queer undertones (and overtones) that seem to be standing in for larger ideas, rather than as hyperreal representations of homosexuality.  Both films frustrate and engage me, almost in equal measure.  And while neither The Color Purple nor The Hours is the film from its respective Best Picture crop that, all elements of filmmaking considered, I would likely have crowned "best" (that would have been Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Pianist, for the record), they are the entries that have burrowed deepest into my heart and which I return to most often with a complicated, but enduring affection.

My first inclination was to go with this shot:
One of many calm-before-the-storm moments for Miss Sofia

Sofia, as rendered by Oprah Winfrey is such a force of nature that the film often has a "come hither" energy where she's concerned.  Having first seen The Color Purple years after Oprah had entered the consciousness (and the living rooms) of millions as a television personality, I understand my handicap in trying to view the film outside of that context.  Every scene with Sofia, from her animated walk up to Mister's house, to her famous dinner table monologue feels portentous of just what a ubiquitous cultural figure Ms. Winfrey would become after the film.

For a long time, I thought Winfrey was my favorite of the 1985 Best Supporting Actress lineup (Confession time: I've never seen Twice in a Lifetime, have only seen Agnes of God once a very long time ago and have a strong apathy-leaning-towards-dislike for Prizzi's Honor, which probably colors my read of Anjelica Huston's Oscar-winning performance).  However, the more I watch the film, the more I latch onto what I truly love about it, which are the aforementioned character relationships, especially between the women.  While an impressive turn, Oprah loses points upon closer inspection for the way she seems to be acting in parallel, rather than with her co-stars, especially Goldberg.  Her big moments often feel pre-ordained and scripted, rather than genuinely reactive to the other performers.  I never really get a sense of how Sofia and Celie feel about one another, outside of tangibles that are very much beholden to everything else that's going on.  Even in scenes that they share, even in scenes where they are talking to one another, Sofia and Celie seem to occupy completely different universes (much like the actresses who portray them).  

My heart has ultimately found its way to Margaret Avery's Shug as the Belle of the 1985 Supporting Actress Ball.  Despite the brouhaha associated with how she got her Oscar nomination, she is my favorite of the pack.  It's a sympathetic, complicated and fully-realized portrayal of one of the novel's most nebulous creatures.  In her scenes at the Juke Joint, performing "Miss Celie's Blues" (my favorite moment in the film), we see Avery and Goldberg interacting and feeding each other's magnificent performances like no other two actors in the film.  

Miss Celie can't take her eyes off of Shug and neither can we.

Has Goldberg ever looked more convincingly and joyfully overwhelmed and radiant as she does in this moment (my favorite shot in the film) when Shug is singing to her? The very notion that someone is acknowledging her existence, let alone crooning a verse just for her is almost too much happiness (a feeling she is not familiar with) for Miss Celie to take.  As accomplished as Goldberg's performance in The Color Purple is (and it's very accomplished, to be sure), she owes a huge portion of that turn's power to Margaret Avery and her centered, exuberant and welcome presence.