Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Oprah Winfrey in The Color Purple

Oprah Winfrey received her first and only Oscar nomination to date for her performance as Sofia in Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple. The film is about Celie Johnson (Whoopi Goldberg), a young black woman who is forced into marriage at a young age, and Celie's growth from a timid and confidence-less young woman to a stronger one willing to stand up for herself. I've seen The Color Purple twice now in an effort to motivate myself to write about either Margaret Avery or Oprah Winfrey's performances (which is not a comment on either the film or the nominated ladies, but rather my lack of motivation and exhaustion from work) and each time Sofia has stood head and shoulders as the most vigorous presence in the film. It's really a combination of the charisma of Ms.Winfrey and the larger than life ardor of the character she plays. Sofia is the domineering wife of Harpo (Willard Pugh), the buffoonish and ill-behaved son of the tyrannical "Mister" (Danny Glover).

Sofia is the absolute opposite of Goldberg's Celie in nearly every way, a spirited and boisterous character with an energetic physicality that makes her character larger than life. She storms into the film and is instantly the most magnetic personality on screen, as she fights back against the various offenses thrown her way by Mister, Harpo, and even Celie. Winfrey allows Sofia to be a woman of perseverance and undying vitality. When the frequently beaten Celie advises Harpo to beat his wife to set her straight, Sofia confronts her and shows the ferocious doggedness of her refusal to be treated as a lesser person and the love she has for her husband. Sofia only knows how to be her wholly independent self, and won't allow herself to be anything else or hold back in the same way that Celie will. Winfrey drifts between comedic and dramatic moments gracefully, all the while maintaining the unapologetic girth of her character. Which, of course, makes the demoralization of her character even more completely and utterly devesatating.

After punching the condescending (and white) mayor, Sofia finds herself physically and emotionally beaten down and placed first in prison and later in service of the mayor's doltish wife, Miss Millie (an amusing and spiky Dana Ivey). Separated from her family and physically scarred for life, Sofia shrinks in everything but physical stature and becomes a broken version of her dominant self. Winfrey once again nails the physical aspects of the character, effectively showing the shameful and despondent nature of  Sofia's life through her walk and body language. This previously overly-expressive woman becomes a broken woman just moving through life without really living it. Winfrey's scenes working for Miss Millie is like watching an emotional zombie as she tunes out the world around her and puts her head down and does as she's told. She has many devastating moments where Miss Millie flirts with reuniting Sofia with her family, and ultimately none of them succeed and Winfrey shows a Sofia so broken that it doesn't even faze her. She's numb to the world around her.

At the end of the film, we don't exactly get an explanation as to how Sofia is reunited with her family but she is, and the climactic dinner table scene is a fabulous denouement to the film and both Winfrey and Goldberg's performances. Celie finally gains the conviction to leave her husband, and this show of perseverance reignites the old Sofia into action. It all happens a little quickly, but Winfrey adds such emotional heft to the scene (I suspect Spielberg cut some scenes here too) that you don't really care. It' an emotional journey that Winfrey travels, and one that is more than worth taking. Sofia can be a bit of a cartoon at times, especially in the beginning of the performance, but Oprah balances out the cartoonish and touching in a very cinematic way. Do people like Sofia exist in real life? Probably not but Winfrey succeeds in making you not care about realism and instead loving the force of nature Sofia is. 4.5/5 Fancy Funerals.