Whoopi Cushion

Whoopi here, Whoopi there, Whoopi everywhere. Like a coral-bound moray eel furiously biting off more than it can chew, the ubiquitous Goldberg has been, in the main, an eyesore since she blazed on Broadway in her 1984 subcultural solo act. In one comedy spectacle after another - Jumpin' Jack Flash, Burglar, Fatal Beauty, the Oscar-winning Ghost, and recently in The Player - her peculiar brand of narcissistic, self-satisfied jive has mauled our sensibilities into pulp. Goldberg's comedic traits are not unfamiliar: Her basso delivery the equivalent of dark corn syrup; her trademark grin is more cloying than shoofly pie; and as for beauty, well, it's not to die for - but fatal nonetheless.

Goldberg's dramatic performances, however, in films such as The Color Purple, Clara's Heart, and The Long Walk Home, have fared better because in them she played extraordinary women in believably ordinary circumstances, and the effect was often touching. Goldberg can be as subtle as a rap-emitting ghetto blaster, no question. But the scene in The Color Purple, when Celie, now grown into charismatic womanhood, beckons the ailing Sophia (Oprah Winfrey) to keep her dignity about her - with a simple gesture, Celie places her finger on her chin, and ever so gently, points her head up - is the work of an actress willing and able to be imaginative. There were also, to her credit, a number of delicately rendered scenes in the otherwise lachrymose Clara's Heart. But the craft of acting is another universe from the quick-fire, guerrilla strategies of stand-up comedy. And that's where Goldberg, at least by popular opinion, allegedly excels.

But how can anyone sit through Sister Act, in which Whoopi, back to her street-mama antics playing a casino chanteuse, elicits more laughs per minute than Dan Quayle? At the public screening I attended, every predictable and uninspired crack by Whoopi drew sustained cackles and guffaws from the crowd - and these gags constituted comic material roughly as funny as Daryl Gates. Lesson one: The picture may end up as a summer hit.

In Sister Act, Goldberg plays Deloris Van Cartier, a second-tier singer whose trio, called The Ronelles, performs inside a casino in Reno, Nevada, to a gallery of incontinent old geezers. Needless to say, The Ronelles specialize in Motown medleys (led by Whoopi, whose singing voice matches the intonation of Roseanne Arnold with the sound of wind breaking from a pair of glutei). No matter: Deloris's boyfriend is an oleagenous Italiano mobster (Harvey Keitel, monotone as always, wearing as many bracelets and solitaires as Joan Rivers), who runs the gambling hall. Deloris witnesses a murder committed by the gangster and his henchmen, so she runs to the police, fearing for her life.

The affable detective (Bill Nunn), hides the hyperactive Van Cartier in, yes, a convent. (Here the action moves to San Francisco, suggesting either that, for these cops, the limits of jurisdiction are meaningless or, probably more to the point, nunneries are few and far between in Nevada.) Sequestered in the run-down house of God, she meets Mother Superior, who's played by Maggie Smith as a harridan host-swallower whose taste in matters religious is, to say the least, reactionary. She orders Deloris to train the church choir, which, of course, is godawful.

Admittedly, as they warble through their hymns the group's fifteen elderly nuns sound like a pen's worth of sows and chickens as the slop is being hurled down - but here comes Deloris! In an instant, their voices make the angels weep; their scale matches the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Whoopi Goldberg, who as a singer could no more seduce an audience than Kitty Dukakis away from nail polish, disciplines these black-and-white church birds with all the authority of a master conductor at the rostrum. And she teaches them a new way to praise the Almighty, much to the chagrin of the dragon Mother Superior. You guessed it - a version of Smokey Robinson's "My Guy" complete with get-down dancing and tambourine shaking: "There's not a man today/Who could take me away/From my God." The nuns also take part in the gangster-and-moll saga, but on their way to a concert before Pope John Paul II, they also accomplish a similar assault on "I Will Follow Him."

Don't blame the writer for this mess: he's a committee. The press informational booklet mentions but gives no clue as to who the writer "Joseph Howard" is. Actually, the pseudonym was offered by the Writer's Guild as a means of settling the matter of authorship after the screenplay had endured various rewrites by several intrusive hands. Originally, Sister Act was created by playwright Paul Rudnick and began as a project for Bette Midler. Midler wisely begged off, and the script went from one set of writers to another to another. Finally the Guild named Rudnick, whose original idea this was, as the only writer deserving of screen credit. Rudnick, meanwhile - and again, wisely - declined the privilege, and so we end up with "Joseph Howard." Who's to say whether Sister Act would have steered a straighter course with Bette at the helm. At least she can sing.

As for Whoopi, don't look for her to abandon her schlocky course anytime soon. When she won that coveted Oscar for "Best Supporting Actress," Goldberg echoed William Hurt's 1986 paean to their craft - the drivel about being "proud to be an actor" - and added an ominous flourish of her own. She grabbed the statuette and promised that she'd keep on acting, presumably till the end of time. With uningestible folly such as Sister Act to keep her word, you wonder whether the Day of Judgment isn't at hand, and, in the larger scheme of things, welcome.

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