Whoopi Goldberg’s comedies have always been favourites of mine. From the minute I saw Jumpin’ Jack Flash as a kid I was hooked on Goldberg’s unique comic talent. She has varied roles in both comedy and drama fantastically well, showing a range that many of her contemporaries have failed to achieve, but it has always been her comedy that has stood out for me.
Recently, many would have seen her work for television or her various appearances at political protests. But for those who remember her bursting onto the screen, first with the dramatic role in The Color Purple, then with wildly funny turns in Burglar, Fatal Beauty, Sister Act, The Associate and the Oscar-winning performance in Ghost alongside Patrick Swayze, Goldberg’s comedy films (and roles) are the ones that stick out in the memory.
Looking back over her career I am reminded that her potential, although realised on occasion, never fully found fruition on a consistent basis. She deserved all the plaudits she received for her brilliantly funny Oda Mae Brown character in Ghost (she was only the second African-American actress to win an Academy Award for acting for that role) and her sprightly, fish out of water lounge singer in Sister Act. But even in the films that appear in this list, there is a sense of missed opportunities. She is great in Fatal Beauty and Burglar but they remain lazy cash-ins with scripts that were obviously rushed. The Associate is a lot of fun but its familiarity with Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire highlight deficiencies that mean it can never be as good as either the Hoffman or Williams vehicles. And, likewise, while she explored race and discrimination in The Color Purple, that cutting edge has sadly been missing from her comedy work, particularly in Fatal Beauty and The Associate where gender is briefly explored but race is not.
But that said, Whoopi Goldberg has such a great knack for comedy, and frequently portrays a warm heart through idiosyncratic characters, that I find her films difficult not to like. And, regardless of its mixed critical reception, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, for me, remains one of the best films of the 1980s.
10. Burglar (Wilson, 1987)
A star vehicle if ever there was one, Burglar is cash-in on the rising talent of Whoopi Goldberg. Not her best work but the assortment of guises she has to take on attempting to prove her innocence after being wrongly fingered for a murder is fun and perfect for her brand of humour.
9. Fatal Beauty (Holland, 1987)
This is Whoopi Goldberg following in the footsteps of Eddie Murphy and Beverly Hills Cop as a detective who works on the fringes of the ‘book’ to get her culprit. It isn’t as good as the Murphy vehicle and the dramatic side of the film works a lot less efficiently than the comedic element but Goldberg is again great to watch.
8. Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (Duke, 1993)
I’ve always liked this sequel to Goldberg’s smash hit Sister Act. It’s heavy-handed, overly sentimental, and asks a lot of your suspension of disbelief, but the songs are great and the ending suitably feel good.
7. Made In America (Benjamin, 1993)
Made In America would win unlikeliest couple in the history of cinema if there was such an award. Here, Whoopi Goldberg ends up in Ted Danson’s bed after her daughter discovers he is the anonymous sperm donor who were mother used to get pregnant. Cue father-daughter bonding and Goldberg finding a little love. Funny, cute, a bit sentimental but easy on the eye.
6. The Associate (Petrie, 1996)
Goldberg isn’t one to shy away from the tried and trusted. Here we see the comic tread the same ground as Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams as a crossing dresser trying to put the world to rights. Of course, unlike Tootsie and Mrs Doubtfire, this time it’s a woman becoming a man. Goldberg’s male incarnation is strange but serviceable even if she’s a lot more rigid and a whole lot less likeable than Hoffman and Williams’ efforts. But this is another feel good film that does what you expect it to. I’d call it part Working Girl, part Tootsie with some added sentiment.
5. Soapdish (Hoffman, 1991)
A brilliant ensemble cast can’t keep Goldberg hidden in the backdrop in this funny and well-written story about life in the world of soap opera TV. Sally Field is great, as is Kevin Kline and a whole host of other actors including Robert Downey Jr., Teri Hatcher, Cathy Moriarty, Elisabeth Shue and Carrie Fisher.
4. Corrina, Corrina (Nelson, 1994)
Goldberg strikes up another unlikely relationship, this time with Ray Liotta in nice-guy mode. However, Corrina, Corrina, features an interesting pairing that highlights the difficult racial tensions of 1950s America and the bond between a father and his daughter. This is the other side of Goldberg – endearing and a little fragile but still with the potential to make you laugh.
3. Ghost (Zucker, 1990)
Would Ghost work without Goldberg’s brilliant performance as psychic Oda Mae Brown. Okay, Demi Moore has just lost her husband to a terrible case of knife crime but oh boy she’s miserable. Without Whoopi prancing about talking to dead people and Patrick Swayze singing I’m Henry the 8th I am, we’d be left with Demi Moore’s corpse-like performance and that silly scene involving pottery making and sex. The reason I’ve seen Ghost so many times is all due to Goldberg’s Oda Mae Brown.
2. Sister Act (Ardolino, 1992)
Whoopi Goldberg was at the height of her star power when Sister Act was released and thankfully its one of best and most original films. This tale of a Reno lounge singer on the run from mobsters ending disguised as a nun is the prefect set-up for Goldberg’s unique talent. This comedy-musical features some great comedy moments and equally good music with tongue firmly pressed against cheek.
1. Jumpin’ Jack Flash (Marshall, 1986)
A hugely underrated film that sees quirky but bored office worker Terry Dolittle thrust into the world of spies and international espionage. Whoopi Goldberg has rarely been better as Dolittle, a role seemingly tailor made for the comic actress. It’s Working Girl meets James Bond. Director Penny Marshall brings it all together with the focus on Goldberg’s fish-out-of-water adventure and an assortment of amusing support characters.
Written and compiled by Daniel Stephens