'The Color Purple' Celebrates 30 Years

Based on Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by the same name, Steven Spielberg's 'The Color Purple' has a story of its own.
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Paulette Cohn
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Based on Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by the same name, Steven Spielberg's 'The Color Purple' has a story of its own.
The Color Purple Photo

An iconic scene from 'The Color Purple.' (Photo: John R. Shannon via Warner Bros. Pictures/Photofest, ©Warner Bros. Pictures)

The Color Purple began as a novel. Released in 1982, it won author Alice Walker both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. But its story about an uneducated black woman's struggle to find love and self-worth was too powerful not to be made into a motion picture, which is now celebrating its 30th anniversary.

Enter Steven Spielberg, who had just directed Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and E.T., big blockbuster movies, none of which made him the obvious choice to direct a film adapted from a feminist book about a black woman's story of love and triumph over adversity. But when his producing partner Kathleen Kennedy gave him the novel to read, he saw it as his next project.

Spielberg told biographer Joseph McBride that he wanted to "challenge [himself] with something that was not stereotypically a Spielberg movie. Not to try to prove anything, or to show off -- just to try to use a different set of muscles."

Despite the blockbuster films on Spielberg's resume, Walker had never heard of him, so the director needed to win her over. Spielberg met with Walker at her home in San Francisco -- taking along Quincy Jones, who has a scoring credit on the film -- but only after Walker's daughter had taken her to see E.T., which she loved.

"When Steven appeared himself, I really loved him, as well," Walker told Democracy Now in 2012."He was very open, knew what he was about, wanted very much to do this film."

Thirty years after the movie's premiere, it's hard to imagine a different cast than Whoopi Goldberg as Celie Johnson, Margaret Avery as Shug Avery, and Oprah Winfrey as Sofia, but none of them were on the original wish list.

The role of Shug was especially hard to cast. Phyllis Hymen was the first choice, but something happened -- it is unclear -- and she either lost the role or turned it down. Chaka Khan, Diana Ross, Lola Falana and Tina Turner also passed, and Patti Labelle and Sheryl Lee Ralph were among those who auditioned, before it went to Avery.

No one but Whoopi Goldberg thought of her as a potential actress for the film because, at that time, Goldberg was well known as a comedian but had yet to prove her acting chops. So after reading the novel, Goldberg took the bull by the horns and wrote a letter to Walker asking to play Sofia. Walker went to see Goldberg's one-woman show in San Francisco and thought she was perfect, so Goldberg got an audition.

In fact, Goldberg auditioned for Spielberg, Jones, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, and several others who happened to be at Amblin for the occasion. But instead of reading lines from the script, she auditioned by performing a bit from her comedy act in which a stoned E.T. gets arrested for possession of an illegal substance. Goldberg won over Spielberg, but instead of asking her to play Sofia, he asked her to play Celie. Even though it wasn't the role she wanted, she accepted.

Winfrey's casting is also an interesting story, because it never occurred to her to audition until Quincy Jones recommended her to Spielberg. The Grammy Award-winning music producer was in Chicago to testify at a trial, and happened to catch Winfrey on her local talk show A.M. Chicago   -- she wasn't syndicated yet -- and he envisioned her as the practical, no-nonsense Sofia.

Winfrey auditioned, but didn't hear anything. Discouraged, she decided that if she wanted to add acting to her resumé, she needed to lose some weight, so she checked into a fat farm in Wisconsin, which is where she was when Spielberg called and offered her the role.

At the Santa Barbara Film Festival in 2014, Oprah told the story, "I get on the phone and Steven Spielberg said, 'I hear you're at a fat farm.'" To which Oprah replied, "No, sir, this is a health retreat." Spielberg told her he wanted to see her at his office the next day and added, "If you lose a pound, you could lose this part." So Oprah packed her bags and hit the road, making a stop at Dairy Queen. As she tells the story: "I got myself three scoops, just in case I lost a pound, and I went to that audition."

Despite being a part of the daily process of the film, when all was said and done, initially Walker wasn't happy with the end result of The Color Purple, but she came around.

"We collaborated as much as possible," Walker said in the Democracy Now interview. "And I think we both feel very pleased, although in the beginning I didn't like the film, because it just felt so outlandish. It's very weird having a book of yours made into a film. Everything looks like a cartoon. But I got used to it when I saw it in a theater with lots of people."

The one regret that Spielberg has expressed about the making of the movie was the fact that he didn't explore the lesbian relationship between Celie and Shug more than the single kiss they exchanged onscreen. But at that time, he feared that including that aspect of the book might alienate audiences.

It is a decision that Winfrey has supported, telling Lou Cedrone of The Baltimore Evening Sun: "Spielberg said he couldn't include every incident, and that if he had, the film would've been too depressing. As it is, it's a joyous picture, a triumphant one. The essence and spirit of the book are there and that's most important."

And as further proof of the significance of its story, The Color Purple grossed more than $142 million at the box office worldwide the year it opened.

Here is some additional, fun trivia about the making of The Color Purple:

*The Color Purple received 11 Academy Award nominations -- Goldberg for Best Actress, Winfrey and Avery for Supporting Actress, Best Picture, Screenplay, Cinematography, Makeup, Costumes, Art Direction, Score, and Original Song -- but didn't win a single one. Spielberg was snubbed by the Academy, which didn't nominate him for Best Director. Losing in 11 categories makes The Color Purple tied with The Turning Point as the movie with the most nominations and no wins.

*Even though he didn't get an Academy Award nomination, Spielberg did win the Directors Guild of America award.

*Spielberg's son Max was born during the making of The Color Purple. So, the sound of the baby crying when Celie gives birth is actually baby Max.

*In an interview for a Turner Classic Movies special, Spielberg said without having directed the The Color Purple, he wouldn't have been able to go on to direct Empire of the Sun or Schindler's List.

*The scenes in The Color Purple that took place in town were filmed in Marshville, North Carolina.

*Auditions were held under the name "Moon Song" to keep things as secret as possible.

*Film critic Roger Ebert called it the best film of 1985.