Whoopi Goldberg was beside herself with anticipation. This, she figured as she put her dog-eared copy of "The Princess Bride" by William Golding down on her nightstand, was a part she was born to play.
In just a few days, she was to meet with the filmmakers who would turn the book into a major motion picture."It was a good book," she says. "And I was a big fan of Rob Reiner, who was directing the movie. She was not an ordinary princess, and I thought I would be perfect in it."
But when Goldberg asked to read for the part - it eventually went to a 20-ish actress with wheat-colored hair - the filmmakers didn't refuse. They were too busy convulsing to speak.
"They said it was the biggest joke they had ever heard of," says Goldberg, who is not amused at the retelling, five years later. "They turned the whole thing into a huge joke."
She's sitting for an interview at the St. James Club, a hotel fairly haunted by photographs of luminous Hollywood legends that cover practically every inch of wall space. And Hollywood is not laughing now. Not at all.
A little flick called "Ghost" has changed all that.
Little is, perhaps, the wrong word; it turned into a behemoth. "Ghost," of course, racked up the biggest box office gross of 1990, a sleeper of a film that has to date raked in over $200 million. Goldberg's exceptional comic acrobatics alongside Patrick Swayze's rippling muscles and Demi Moore's torrent of tears deserve at least some of the credit for the movie's success. Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences apparently agree. Goldberg was nominated as Best Supporting Actress for her turn as the film's eccentric medium. She's a shoo-in to win.
But while the film has given her credibility (her Oscar-nominated performance in 1985's "The Color Purple" was widely credited to Steven Spielberg's direction), Whoopi Goldberg wants to know one thing.
"If I'm so hot right now," she asks, "then why aren't I being offered any scripts?"
The co-star of the year's hottest film without a follow-up offer to speak of? (Moore, by comparison, is said to be mulling over at least 10 scripts and will soon be seen on the cover of Vanity Fair).
It's no joke. "I never get scripts. I have never gotten scripts. I'm looking for scripts. But they will never come to me." The tone of her voice turns the words into a challenge, and one thing is perfectly clear: In a town where being in is all, Goldberg's an actress with a lot of rocks.
One is on her right hand, a huge diamond ring. "You like it?" she says, suddenly Holly Golightly. "Thank you very much, darling. I bought it myself." The other is on her shoulder. It's bigger than a chip, not quite a boulder. But it's growing.
Here she is, nominated for the industry's top award, and she's being virtually ignored.
Tell her you thought she is the one who lifted "Ghost" from maudlin mediocrity to great comic and sentimental heights, and she becomes mock-sarcastic.
"Thank you!" she says, twirling one of her trademark dreadlocks between long tapered fingers. "Thank you for saying that. Write it down! Thank you, darling." She looks heavenward. "Somebody noticed!"
Well, actually, somebody always has. Ever since 1984 and her one-woman Broadway show directed by Mike Nichols, Goldberg has been an undeniable presence. Funny yet sweet, strong yet vulnerable, she is a whirlwind of talents and convictions, a true original with the face of a pixie and a voice that sounds like golf cleats on glass. Her problem, as she is more than happy to tell you, is that in Hollywood - an industry run by white men, with products mainly geared toward white young single males - she is an albatross of a talent faced with a double whammy: She's a woman, and she's black. And no one yet, not even Whoopi Goldberg herself, has figured out a way to properly channel her energies.
Goldberg tried to carve out a niche after the success of "The Color Purple," her debut film. She went after parts written for white females or white men ("Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Burglar," "The Telephone" - which wasn't even released nationally) and through sheer force of personality won the roles. Sadly, for Goldberg and for other black actresses who might have profited from her commercial success, all the films bombed. Then came "Ghost."
"I didn't even know my career was in the toilet until I read the reviews for that movie," she says. "The reviewers were the ones who decided I was nowhere, that this movie was my comeback. I found this really amusing. Whenever someone says something good about me, I always try and attribute it to my overall body of work. But I have learned that this is not the case." Goldberg takes a sip of water and pounds the table where she is sitting to make her point.
"Oh, no," she says, suddenly speaking in capital letters. "YOU MUST BE BRILLIANT EVERY SECOND OF THE DAY! But I never will be, and I have always said that I never will be. But suddenly, you know, your career is out of the toilet because you make a film that brings in a lot of money. It's very distressing.
"Not all of Katharine Hepburn's movies were good, or Jimmy Stewart's. Back then, you were allowed a career that went up and down, up and down. But not anymore, honey. Three bad movies and you're gone."
But despite the label of box-office poison, Goldberg has stayed afloat. She appeared in several "Comic Relief" specials, worked opposite Jean Stapleton in the now-dead CBS series "Baghdad Cafe," and landed a recurring role on the syndicated series "Star Trek: The Next Generation."
Although beloved by Trekkies, Goldberg's appearances on the show - especially after her Oscar nomination - seem . . . well, painful. Beneath her. And though she received rave reviews for her recent turn in "The Long Walk Home," she got them for playing a maid, a stereotyped role in the mold of the ones played by Hattie McDaniel or Butterfly McQueen in the '30s and '40s.
The notion turns Goldberg's in-your-face tone to defensiveness. "It's a funny thing when you talk to white people about black roles," she says solemnly. "Like we really have a choice. Do you think I would have passed on `The Russia House' to do `Burglar?' " She laughs. "I probably would have done `Burglar,' and then `Russia House' after it. But you do the best you are offered."
If the Michelle Pfeiffer role in "The Russia House" is one role she lusted after, the Melanie Griffith sexpot in "Bonfire of the Vanities" is another.
"That could've been me," she says defiantly. "I've got a great body and I'm very sexy. But I'm not somebody they would put into that type of picture. Or `Russia House.' No, they don't see me as being able to pull that off. But why not? There are Africans in Russia. So as you can see, my vision of myself is vast, and Hollywood's is more limited.
"These days," she continues, "I'm hearing all these big actresses whine about how there's no jobs for women in the movies, about how they can't find any roles. I say `Hey! Come play a maid. Or a burglar. You wanna role? Go play in "Star Trek," like I did. Now there's a role for you.' I hear Sigourney Weaver bitch and complain about how she doesn't make the money Mel Gibson makes. Well, I don't make the money she makes, and I'm just as good. They don't come rushing to me to play in `The Year of Living Dangerously.' "
But maybe, just maybe, they will - if she wins the Oscar. Goldberg's not counting on it.
"Look," she says, and her tone is matter-of-fact, not resentful.
"Nothing helps me get movie roles but me. I go knock on doors . . . I hear mean things said."
She's working on a couple of roles for herself, too. She'd make a dandy James Bond villainess, for instance, and her eyes go wide as saucers at the mention. "It's funny you would mention that, because I'm working on that right now. That would be fun. Those are the kind of roles I want to do . . . a doorknob, a poinsettia plant . . . I'll do anything if the role is good."
Until then, she'll keep showing up on the "Star Trek" set.
"Oh, yeah, honey," she says. "They're stuck with me. What good is a career if you're not out there doing it? Mothers, grandmothers, fathers, I can do anything. I don't need a big starring role." She leans forward to make her point. "I'm like De Niro. I'll do the walk-on and the role in `Raging Bull.' "
She laughs, and makes sure you take her meaning: It's literal. "Of course, I wouldn't be able to take all that weight off as quickly as he did . . . ."