Margaret Avery received her first and only Oscar nomination to date for her performance as Shug Avery in Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple. Of the two nominated supporting ladies, there is no doubt that Shug plays a more important role in main character Celie's (Whoopi Goldberg) journey. Shug first enters the film as a potential rival of sorts, a free-wheeling jazz singer who Celie's husband Mister (Danny Glover) has long been infatuated with, and someone who he openly has extra-marital affairs with. However, the two women eventually form a tight bond as Shug helps Celie open up and stand up to her abusive husband, eventually even embarking on something of a romance. Another key aspect of the performance is Shug's desire to reconcile with her father, the town preacher, who looks down upon her extravagant lifestyle as immoral and ungodly.
It's an incredibly juicy part, and Avery does a commendable, if slightly uneven, job of portraying all facets of Shug's personality. Where she struggles the most is in showing the excess of Shug's lifestyle. From her very first scene, when she arrives at Celie's home drunk out of her mind, I never found myself convinced of her immorality. It takes all of one scene for Avery's niceness to come out, and thus never really believed her as the crass party girl that makes her father upset with her. From that first scene onward Avery emphasizes the pleasantness of Shug. Avery made a conscious choice to downplay Shug's party nature and instead focus on her kind heart, which is admirable though dulls the impact of her "wild" party scenes. It doesn't help that director Spielberg seems imminently more interested in big emotional moments rather than characterization. It's also sad that my favorite Shug moment in the film, when she sings "Miss Celie's Blues (Sister)" to Celie, can't be attributed completely to Avery with Tata Vega serving as Shug's singing voice.
However, it's because of Avery's choice to downplay Shug's rowdiness and focus on the inner soul of the character that the rest of her performance is supremely touching and rewarding. Her chemistry with Whoopi Goldberg is phenomenal, and scene by scene they build a warmth marked by playfulness and mutual support. Though Spielberg dulls the sexual implications of the film, the two actresses clearly know what type of relationship the two really have, and do a good job at underpinning their relationship with just the right amount of sexuality to get the point across. Her most moving moment in the film is another that can't be completely attributed to her, the moving reconciliation with her father that culminates in her singing a song ("God Is Trying to Tell You Something"). It's her big moment in the film, and one that causes me to tear up (I crumble to pieces in the final scene of the film every time). The film's focus is on sentimentality and moving emotional moments, and that shows in Avery's performance. She's consistently elegant, touching, and has the type of sentiment that Spielberg requires.
Ultimately, Avery's performance in The Color Purple is the one that most improves on multiple viewings, starting out as a mere 3/5 when I first saw it. It's not quite as flamboyant or showy performance as Whoopi or Oprah's, but instead is a more graceful and affectionate performance that emphasizes the warmheartedness of this supposedly "immoral" woman. The performance is far from perfect, though Spielberg's heavy-handed direction has something to do with dulling her rowdy impact, and nobody could make a relationship with a character as deplorable as Mister believable, but those are only minor points off an otherwise well-calibrated performance. 4/5 Funeral Funerals.