At the very beginning of 1985’s The Color Purple, there is an affecting scene where a woman gives birth. While shooting that very scene (the film had the clandestine title Moonsong during production), a certain actress, Amy Irving, was about to go into labor herself – incidentally this would be Max, the first child of The Color Purple‘s director, Steven Spielberg. Whether you have had children or not, you can imagine the filmmaker’s tension on the set at this time, regardless of the monumental task he had set himself.
Spielberg was about to enter a brand new phase in his personal life, welcoming a child into his world for the first time. A transition that no enthuiasm for film and story-telling can truly prepare you for. In his professional adventure as an extremely popular, talented film director, Spielberg was also embarking on fresh waters with The Color Purple, an African American, period drama, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker – adapted for the screen by Menno Meyjes.
The director had the success of the suspenseful, technically superb Jaws, now ten years gone by. A seemingly natural flair for science fiction with Close Encounters. Box office gold with E.T.. And the introduction of the timeless Indiana Jones saga fresh on audiences palates. A force to be reckoned with in the film industry, Spielberg’s The Color Purple would receive criticisms, both positive and negative, largely based on that apparent change of direction from his household blockbuster status. Of course, there was no John Williams scoring this time around too, so this really was a step into alternate territory.
The Color Purple takes place during turn of the twentieth century Georgia, depicting decades in the life of Celie as she grows up, marries into domestic abuse, suffers oppression, but also the rich, flourishing bonds with the people around her. Although there are revolving tones of physical violence, the poverty of the times, behaviors of racism, sexism, incest, The Color Purple is a rich tapestry of story-telling, beautiful to look at, a film of huge depth and importance. I mean, these were overlooked themes and portions of society in Hollywood at the time (and today), films like this were just not getting made. Spielberg’s influence, no matter what nitpicking occurred, certainly helped make this so.
In a tale integral to the plights and strength of women in film, The Color Purple would also be Whoopi Goldberg’s very first film, playing Celie, a comedienne taking to film drama like a fish to water. Oprah Winfrey was also cast as Sofia, the film’s long-suffering role model, you might say. And with the inspiring Margaret Avery as Shug (Spielbeg had unbeknownst worked with the actress many years earlier), the trio of actresses, as well as those playing the younger characters, imprinted a female-fronted chapter of history into the chronicle of film, where it has remained since.
On its release, The Color Purple was exalted by critics across its technical and acting achievements, but scrutinized it for being overly-sentimental and aligning with stereotypes of ethnicity. I mean, how can a white Jewish man make a movie about black women, were some of the whispers around Hollywood. And whispers are contagious in this business.
The Christmas release, 20th December 1985, was also the day of the arrival of Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa, not just into theaters, but slap bang into the Oscar race. And locked, Out of Africa and The Color Purple would stand tall as the front-runners, the ones to beat. Africa was a clean-cut epic, AMPAS box-ticker, with the great Meryl Streep and charming Robert Redford – not to mention this was making some serious dough. A safe choice for victory, given Purple had mouths wagging for all manner of reasons, but still had the quality (and director) to conquer for sure.
Critics awards came and went, with films like Prizzi’s Honor, Witness, Kiss of the Spider Woman, making strong cases for Oscar glory too. Many Best Director prizes were scattered across the likes of John Huston, then 79, and Akira Kurosawa, 75, for Ran. Veterans still making good on their prosperous careers. The turning point (you’ll get that pun shortly) surely came when the Golden Globes went with Out of Africa and Prizzi’s Honor in their respective Motion Picture categories. Witness and Prizzi’s Honor took the WGA prizes. And the Directors Guild would nominate the usual suspects – Huston, Pollack, Peter Weir (Witness), and Spielberg.
The fifth DGA slot threw a small spanner in the works, with Ron Howard being nominated for Cocoon. Ten years later, Howard would famously win the DGA for Apollo 13 but not be nominated for the Best Director Oscar. What? Not the first time, though, that the DGA winner could not win the Oscar. Ten years earlier, too, 1975, Steven Spielberg publicly showed his disappointment when he too was not nominated for Best Director for Jaws, even after a Directors Guild nod. On 5th February 1986, the 58th annual Academy Awards nominations were announced. Among the few surprises, like no Best Picture place for Akira Kurosawa’s King Lear, it would be Out of Africa and The Color Purple tying with 11 nominations each. What a race his would be. Back then the highest tally was a super-strong indicator for the Best Picture win outright.
The Color Purple had cemented its front-runner status, as well as chiseling its way into the Academy Award record books. Original Song nod “Miss Celie’s Blues”, Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup, Cinematography, Adapted Screenplay. All well deserved. And acting nominations for three, yes three, of the women. Best Actress for Goldberg, and two Supporting Actress mentions, one for Avery, one for Winfrey. And of course that elusive Best Picture nomination. Wait, one, two, three… nine, ten, eleven. Eleven nominations. But where is Spielberg? I don’t see Spielberg. Nowhere to be seen in the Best Director category. Nope. Pollack, Huston, and Weir, were instead joined by Kurosawa and Hector Babenco (Kiss of the Spider Woman).
Does this mean The Color Purple‘s chances are blown? Not according to the Directors Guild, where Spielberg actually won, a la Howard in 1995. Unprecedented. If you want more clarification on the absurdity of the DGA / Oscar match-up, have a word with Ben Affleck in 2012. Or go back to 1989 and get Oliver Stone and Bruce Beresford in the interrogation room together. Like those examples, though, in hindsight, we know the Best Picture prospects are still very much on. Could Steven Spielberg be completely absent from the Best Director category, and still have his film win Best Picture?
Roger Ebert named The Color Purple as his number one film for 1985, and confidently predicted that Whoopi Goldberg would win the Oscar for Best Actress (she had solidified this notion by winning the Golden Globe). Gene Siskel was also enamored with the film, but warmly advised Oprah Winfrey privately to enjoy the Academy luncheon, for she was not going to win, Anjelica Huston would.
Along came 24th March 1986, the venue Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and Siskel was right. Both Avery and Winfrey would lose to Huston in Supporting Actress. Incidentally, the presenters of the award were Richard Dreyfuss (a Spielberg regular) and Marsha Mason, an acting pairing that played together in Herbert Ross’ The Goodbye Girl, for which Dreyfuss won Best Actor the year of Close Encounters. Ross was jinxed in 1977 though, with two films in Oscar contention, his The Turning Point earned a new record that year for the most Oscar nominations without one single win – 11. A surreal statistic. The Color Purple, on Oscar night, would be heading the same destination.
Prodded for being too sentimental, Spielberg’s film would fall victim to the Academy’s own sensibilities, with 61 year-old Geraldine Page winning Best Actress for Trip to Bountiful – previously a 7-time nominee without a win. Sorry Ebert, you were wrong about Goldberg. One by one, other films took gold in the categories The Color Purple was in contention for. Even the terrific “Miss Celie’s Blues” couldn’t win Best Song. By the time it was the announcement for Best Picture, Out of Africa had been over-lavished with 6 Oscars from 10 nominations (the fancied Prizzi’s Honor had just the one win). Even with the glimmer of history-changing potential for Spielberg’s film at that final envelope opening, it was all well and truly over for The Color Purple.
You had to feel for Spielberg. No Best Director nod for Jaws, no Best Picture place for Close Encounters, mediocre Picture winners Chariots of Fire and Gandhi defeat Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.. Old news, sure, but I bet your head is still shaking. Forget what happened after 1985, The Color Purple deserved better than that unfortunate stat entry in Academy Award history books. That Best Director nomination would have tallied The Color Purple at 12, the top dog going into Oscars’ final hurdle. Would that have made a difference? Would we be talking about the film’s record 0 from 12 nominations instead? Was purple the color of a bleak destiny all along?
As fate would or would not have it, the very next year the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, which honors the collective, consistently excellent film production of motion picture filmmakers, not necessarily those previous left out in the cold by the Academy, was presented to a 41 year-old director named Steven Spielberg.