Remember When... 'The Color Purple' Gave Us Our First Glimpse of 'Adult' Spielberg?

Remember When... 'The Color Purple' Gave Us Our First Glimpse of 'Adult' Spielberg?

Dec 18, 2015

Today's movie fans know Steven Spielberg as much for his serious films as for his summer blockbusters. Schindler's List came out 22 years ago; anyone younger than that has never lived in a world where Spielberg wasn't respected as a mature, grown-up filmmaker. 

But it was 30 years ago this week that the man behind Jaws, E.T., and Raiders of the Lost Ark made his first bid for a seat at the adults' table with The Color Purple. Adapted from Alice Walker's popular novel about black women in Georgia in the early 20th century, it bore little resemblance to anything Spielberg had made before. Spielberg, a white Jewish man from Ohio, probably wasn't anyone's first thought for who should direct this story, either. 

Spielberg said he wanted to make the film as soon as he spent a weekend reading the book, which had been recommended to him by producer Kathleen Kennedy. "She didn't give it to me as a producer to a director saying 'I think you should make this,'" Spielberg recalled. "She said, 'As a woman to a man, I think you should read this.'" 


Spielberg interview:

He was nervous about making a straightforward drama with no aliens, sharks, or Nazis, but not about the fact that there were no white characters in it. "I never really looked upon it as just a 'black movie,'" he told an interviewer. "I think if it was a question of race, and if it was a film about race, I don't know if I would have done the movie. But I felt that it was a movie for all times and all people. A humanist story."

The results were positive, with some asterisks. The movie was a hit with audiences, grossing $94 million (that'd be $212 million at today's prices), making it the fourth top-selling movie of 1985 after Back to the Future, a Rambo, and a Rocky. Most critics liked it too, though even some of the ones who did weren't keen on Spielberg's tone. Variety wrote: "Spielberg’s turn at ‘serious’ filmmaking is marred in more than one place by overblown production that threatens to drown in its own emotions." In The New York Times, Janet Maslin said Spielberg's cozy sensibilities were "a colossal mismatch"  with the harsh tone of Alice Walker's novel. Roger Ebert's review called it "the year's best film" but gave no appraisal one way or the other of Spielberg's work as director.  



Still, the prevailing view in Hollywood was that this, finally, would be Spielberg's Best Director Oscar. He'd been nominated for Close Encounters, Raiders, and E.T., and had lost each time. When the Academy Award nominations were announced, there were 11 for The Color Purple -- and Best Director was not among them.

People were stunned, in the way that people are stunned every year when the Academy fails to do what everyone thought it would surely do. Warner Bros. issued a statement thanking the Academy for the nods but adding that "the company is shocked and dismayed that the movie's primary creative force -- Steven Spielberg -- was not recognized." GOOD DAY, SIR! 

Then, adding insult to injury, The Color Purple lost every single one of its 11 categories. It tied The Turning Point (1977) for the biggest shut-out in Oscar history. It wasn't until Schindler's List (1993) that Spielberg got his trophy (and he got two: as a producer, he shared that film's Best Picture prize).  

If The Color Purple nudged Spielberg a little bit further down the road of success, it shot Whoopi Goldberg out of a cannon. She was virtually unknown at the time except in the theater world, where her one-woman show was doing brisk business on Broadway. Spielberg saw her there and offered her the lead role in The Color Purple, for which she received an Oscar nomination. 

Also catching the Academy's attention was one Oprah Winfrey, who earned a nod for Best Supporting Actress as the Goldberg character's plucky friend. Like Whoopi, Oprah was only regionally famous at the time, with a top-rated talk show in Chicago that would become nationally syndicated eight months after The Color Purple was released. The deal was already in the works (Roger Ebert lent her some wise advice), but appearing in a popular movie certainly didn't hurt, especially as it introduced her to a national audience. America's been on a first-name basis with her ever since. 

Spielberg didn't let his disappointment in the way the Oscars turned out keep him from making the films he wanted to make. He followed The Color Purple with Empire of the Sun and Always, neither of which fit the usual Spielberg mold, before returning to form with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Hook, and Jurassic Park. He dealt with racial themes again in Amistad (and Lincoln, to some extent).

The Color Purple remains unique in one way, though: so far, it's the only Spielberg film to have a lone female protagonist. So whether he's making summer blockbusters or prestigious dramas, there's still plenty of territory for America's favorite moviemaker to explore. Exciting, isn't it? 


When The Color Purple Was Released, on Dec. 18, 1985...

- It started small, playing on about 200 screen, one-fifth as many as fellow new releases Out of Africa (which it would eventually compete with at the Oscars) and Enemy Mine (which, uh, didn't compete with anything, anywhere). Also in the multiplexes that weekend: Rocky IV, The Jewel of the Nile, Spies Like Us, Santa Claus: The Movie, White Nights, A Chorus Line, and a reissue of Disney's 101 Dalmatians. Oh, and opening on one screen: Terry Gilliam's Brazil.

- You might have heard so many jammin' tunes on the radio on your way to the theater that you'd be tempted to skip the movie and just sit in the car. Among the top hits that week: "Say You, Say Me" by Lionel Ritchie; "Broken Wings" by Mr. Mister; "Alive and Kicking" by Simple Minds; "That's What Friends Are For" by Dionne Warwick; and "Party All the Time" by Eddie Murphy (yes, that Eddie Murphy; no, not a comedy song).

- The hottest Christmas toys were of the ursine variety: Teddy Ruxpin, a bear who could talk and sing songs; and the Care Bears, who couldn't do anything but love. 

- Calvin and Hobbes had begun appearing in American newspapers exactly one month earlier, finally providing rednecks with a character who could pee on the logos of cars they didn't like. 

- Carly Rae Jepsen, Frankie Muniz, Raven-Symone, and Amanda Seyfried were all less than a month old. Those innocent babies had no idea they'd be famous one day, much less that some of them would already be forgotten by the time they were 30. 

Categories: Features, Movie Nostalgia
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