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Reflections of an EGOT Winner: Whoopi Goldberg on ‘Ghost’ and the 30th Anniversary of Her Oscar Triumph

Photographs by The Tyler Twins for Variety

Exactly 30 years to the day since Whoopi Goldberg officially became an Oscar winner, the entertainer is reliving the moment over Zoom.

Watching a clip from the 1991 Academy Awards telecast from her home in New Jersey, Goldberg breaks into a big smile as Denzel Washington opens the envelope and declares her the best supporting actress for her performance as psychic Oda Mae Brown in “Ghost.”

Listening intently, Goldberg takes in her earnest acceptance speech — which, though she’s been asked to recall the experience over the years, she hasn’t seen in a while — and shares her takeaways.

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“I looked really good,” she says. “My hair was cool. Dress was cute.”

Goldberg chose a black sequined column gown from veteran costume designer Nolan Miller (with whom she’d worked on 1991’s “Soapdish” and who designed clothes for her mentor Elizabeth Taylor): “I couldn’t look glamorous like other people look glamorous. I wasn’t thin and I wasn’t a white lady, so I had to find my own style.”

The video also brought back more personal memories. “My brother, who’s no longer with us [Clyde Johnson died in 2015], that was great to see him and my daughter [Alex],” she says. “[I remember] just being happy to be there, get the speech out of the way and get off the stage.”

“Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted this,” Goldberg said onstage. “My brother’s sitting there. He says, ‘Thank God we don’t have to listen to [her] anymore.’” She then thanked the film’s director, Jerry Zucker, and co-stars Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore.

“I want to thank everybody who makes movies,” Goldberg concluded. “I come from New York. As a little kid, I lived in the projects, and you’re the people I watched. You’re the people that made me want to be an actor. I’m so proud to be here. I’m proud to be an actor, and I’m gonna keep on acting.”

Among the 42 million viewers watching the speech at home was a preteen Tiffany Haddish, who’d idolized Goldberg since 1986’s “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”

“When I saw [her win], I was like, ‘She’s amazing,’” Haddish says. “I didn’t understand the enormity of what an Oscar was at that time. All I knew was that she deserved it.”

Both as an aspiring entertainer and a young Black girl, Haddish viewed the Oscar as a dream greater than the trophy itself.

“For so many hundreds of years, we’ve been told, ‘You can’t do this. You can’t do that. You’re restricted ’cause of this,” she explains. “But when you see someone [like Goldberg] do it, you think, ‘If they can do it, I can do it too.’”

Goldberg’s win was not only aspirational; it was historic. On that March night, she became the first Black woman to receive an Oscar in 50 years. Hattie McDaniel became the first Black person to win in any category in 1940 (for supporting actress in “Gone With the Wind”). After that, only three Black people received the honor: Sidney Poitier (who won best actor in 1964 for “Lilies of the Field”), Louis Gossett Jr. (1983’s best supporting actor for “An Officer and a Gentleman”) and Washington (the best supporting actor in 1990 for “Glory”).

Of course, Goldberg had been down this road before, having earned a best actress nomination in 1986 for her big-screen debut in “The Color Purple.” For “Ghost,” she hoped to distance herself from the horse-race conversation. Though she had already won the Golden Globe and the BAFTA, she knew the Oscar wasn’t guaranteed.

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“I didn’t want to jinx it,” she explains. “I just thought, ‘You’ve got to go in this without any expectations, and whatever happens, happens.’”

In truth, Goldberg’s Oscar win almost didn’t happen, but not because of any jinx. The real touch-and-go moment came before she landed the part.

Zucker, who had co-helmed “Airplane!” with his brother David, wasn’t sure he wanted to cast a comedian for his first solo directorial effort, a genre-bending romantic dramedy about a murdered banker (Swayze) who comes back to warn his girlfriend (Moore) that she’s in danger via a charlatan psychic (Goldberg).

“All the casting in that movie was agonizing,” Zucker says, but finding the right Oda Mae was incredibly important. As the comedic relief in the romantic tale, the role was the glue that held the movie together.

As Goldberg tells it, practically every Black woman in Hollywood (including Tina Turner and Patti LaBelle) was considered for the part, but Swayze fought for her to get it. The actor and Zucker flew to Alabama, where Goldberg was filming “The Long Walk Home” with Sissy Spacek, so they could read together.

Goldberg and Swayze had immediate chemistry, she says: “He and I just took to each other.” Zucker was charmed as well. During the audition, Goldberg really sold it. “Particularly with the comic lines, she hit it out of the park,” he recalls.

When Zucker and Goldberg chatted recently about his hesitation to cast her, he says she teased him: “You forgot that I could act.”

“She was kidding, but it was absolutely true,” he admits. “I was so afraid of a comic in this role, or someone identified with comedy, that it took me a while to come to that decision. But in the end, Whoopi’s ability to be hysterically funny without ever leaving her character is what makes the film work.”

During the first table read, Goldberg began suggesting new lines, which were ultimately written into the script. She brought a swagger to the character, delivering unforgettable quips like “Molly, you in danger, girl,” with panache.

“Oda Mae, at some point, stopped being how I had imagined it, and it became Whoopi,” Zucker says.

But even as the stars aligned during production, neither Zucker nor Goldberg could’ve predicted the box office behemoth that “Ghost” would become. “We weren’t sure what the hell we were shooting,” Goldberg says. On set, she and Swayze joked that the movie might be “the dopiest thing we’ve ever done.”

“I don’t think any of us thought it would have this sort of impact,” she adds. “And then the box office numbers started coming in, and everybody was like, ‘Do we have back end on this movie? Because I’d like some.’”

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“Ghost” hit theaters on July 13, 1990, and the fantasy romance turned out to be a smash, with major staying power. The film hovered around the top two spots on the chart from July until September, and didn’t fall out of the top five until Thanksgiving weekend. “Ghost” was the highest-grossing film of 1990, earning more than $217 million domestically and more than $500 million worldwide.

“Everybody wants to feel like their loved one is there with them, and that the bad guys go to hell and good guys go to heaven, and that love is forever,” Goldberg says. “Everybody wants that kind of magical connection that Demi and Patrick’s characters have.”

“Ghost” went into the 1991 Oscar ceremony with five nominations, including Goldberg’s supporting actress nod. The film was also nominated for film editing, original score, original screenplay and best picture, losing the last to “Dances With Wolves.” However, Zucker couldn’t bring himself to attend the awards.

“My wife has never forgiven me for it, but being around all those famous people, wearing a tux and sitting there, just makes me nervous,” he explains. “We had a big party at the house. We had a bunch of friends over and TVs everywhere, and it was great, because we were screaming and yelling when Whoopi won.”

Goldberg’s mother, Emma, also wasn’t in the audience, electing to stay home to wait out the suspense.

“My mom did not want to come because she felt that she came to the first one and didn’t want me to see her looking disappointed or upset,” recalls Goldberg, referring to the 1986 ceremony. Fortunately, the supporting actress award is the first of the night, so neither Goldberg nor her mother had to wait long to learn her fate. “And then I won, and it was like, ‘Of course, the day you don’t come.’”

When her name was called, Goldberg says her only worry was “Will I make any sense? Can I do it before they play me off? Will I remember to thank the people I need to thank?”

She doesn’t remember the post-show celebration, but she did take her group of nominees — Annette Bening (“The Grifters”), Lorraine Bracco (“Goodfellas”), Diane Ladd (“Wild at Heart”) and Mary McDonnell (“Dances With Wolves”) — to dinner afterward. She also had chocolate Oscar statuettes made that she presented to them.

“We all did really good work,” Goldberg says. “Any one of us could’ve taken it, and I don’t think anybody would’ve been mad at anybody else. Sometimes you look at actors and you know, ‘Oh, he’s mad,’ but with us, it was just ‘Whoever wins is paying, that’s all I know. Free food.’”

The Oscar was the second trophy in Goldberg’s EGOT run, following her 1985 Grammy for best comedy recording for “Whoopi Goldberg: Direct From Broadway.” The term “EGOT” (an acronym for Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) was coined in 1984 by “Miami Vice” star Philip Michael Thomas, but Goldberg’s cameo in a 2009 episode of “30 Rock” helped popularize it.

The entertainer played herself in a storyline where Tracy Morgan’s character sets off on a quest for EGOT glory and turns to Goldberg for advice on how to obtain it. Goldberg says she learned about the concept while appearing in the episode. “That was the first time I was made aware that I was an EGOT winner,” she says.

Rounding out Goldberg’s collection are her two Emmys — she scored the first in 2002 for hosting the TV special “Beyond Tara: The Extraordinary Life of Hattie McDaniel” and another in 2009 for co-hosting “The View.” In 2002, she won a Tony for producing “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Only 16 people have attained EGOT status, and Goldberg is one of only two Black entertainers — John Legend being the other — to reach the milestone.

The categorizations of “first” and “only” have been a hallmark of Goldberg’s career. Since her Oscar win, 11 more Black actors have earned the honor, but only Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer have joined her as Black women with multiple nominations. Goldberg is not just the only Black woman to host the Oscars solo; she’s done so four times — emceeing the show in 1994, 1996, 1999 and 2002. She shares the key to getting it right: “Whoever the host is has to love the movies, because they have to keep you engaged, and the best person at that was Billy [Crystal].”

Crystal has hosted the event nine times, including the 1991 broadcast, thus witnessing his friend and “Comic Relief” partner’s win in person. “It was like two of my brothers were there — Billy and my brother Clyde,” Goldberg says. “It would’ve been brilliant if Robin [Williams, her other “Comic Relief” co-host] had been in the audience. Then the three most important men in my life would have been there. But he was watching.”

Goldberg is in the midst of her third act with the Academy, serving on the board of governors for the actors’ branch. The 2021 Oscars, which will be broadcast live on April 25, will be markedly different from the ones she hosted. They will be held amid the pandemic with strict COVID safety protocols, and only the nominees and their guest will be in attendance. This year’s crop of contenders is also the most diverse ever, with nine people of color among the 20 acting nominees. Whereas 30 years ago, Goldberg was the only Black winner, this time all four acting categories could be won by a person of color — a first in the ceremony’s history.

As Hollywood strives to bolster diversity and inclusion, Goldberg looks back at the Black women who paved the way for her: “I think of all the women — Diahann Carroll, Pearl Bailey, Dorothy Dandridge, Butterfly McQueen, Hattie McDaniel, Juanita Hall — who did great, amazing work that was overlooked.”

When Goldberg hosted the 2002 Oscars, she witnessed another historic moment: Halle Berry became the first Black woman to win best actress. Denzel Washington was in the mix too, picking up the actor prize.

“It was kind of wonderful,” Goldberg says of seeing Berry take the prize. “I had a little tear in my eye, because I always wished it would be me. But you can’t always get what you want; sometimes you get what you need.”

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Yet that triumph didn’t usher in widespread change. Last year Berry told Variety that her Oscar win was ultimately “one of my biggest heartbreaks,” because she is still the only Black woman to win in the category and has had to continue to fight for a way forward in the industry. “Just because I won an award doesn’t mean that, magically, the next day, there was a place for me,” Berry said.

Goldberg endured similar setbacks as her career ebbed and flowed. In the wake of the Oscar, she began to star in more high-profile films — such as the “Sister Act” franchise, “Corrina, Corrina” and “The Lion King” — instead of the mid-level comedies she booked after “The Color Purple.” For 1993’s “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit,” Goldberg earned a $12 million payday, becoming Hollywood’s highest-paid female actor.
“That lasted 25 minutes, and then it was gone,” she says of the record. “I’m really glad that I was one of the first to break that little ceiling or crack it.”

Screen legend Elizabeth Taylor, a close friend of Goldberg’s, passed on important advice for how to navigate the business. When Taylor signed on for a film, she’d have the studio give her a present. Taylor explained that an actor’s work helps agents and managers line their pockets, so the actor also should have something tangible to show for it.

“You and I know you can do anything, but you are Black, so it’s going to be harder for folks to believe,” Goldberg says Taylor told her. “It’s going to be up and down. If you have a way to see where you were, it will allow you to not give up in tough times.”

Goldberg chose artwork for her mile markers and ultimately found Taylor’s words to be spot-on. In the times when there was no work, she says, “I was able to look and see that piece of art and think, ‘OK, you’re going to carry me through now.’”

The entertainer assumed a similar mentorship role with Haddish after she appeared on “The View” in 2017 — more than 25 years after the young comedian watched the 1991 Oscars on television.

“To be able to call on her and for her to tell me, ‘Girl, no. Think twice about this. Pick your battles. OK, that’s a good joke; that’s going to do well. I love that you don’t have any fear, but you might want to think twice about this thing,’ is huge for me,” Haddish says.

But she says the best advice Goldberg has given her is to “listen and know your worth. And don’t be afraid to say no or walk away.”

After the duo co-starred as mother and daughter in Tyler Perry’s 2018 comedy “Nobody’s Fool,” Haddish declared during another segment of “The View” that she wanted to achieve the EGOT just like her role model. Goldberg replied, “Yes, you will” — a remarkable vote of confidence from the only Black woman to have done it.

Last month Haddish got one step closer, becoming the first Black woman to win the comedy album Grammy since Goldberg. After the announcement, mentor reached out to mentee.

“She told me she was proud of me,” says Haddish, who previously earned an Emmy for hosting “Saturday Night Live.” “And she was like, ‘I told you. Now just keep focused. Don’t stop here.’”

While Haddish makes a run at joining the EGOT club, Goldberg is concentrating on writing her own next chapter — literally. The entertainer is penning the script for a superhero film about an older Black woman who acquires new powers and has to learn to use them. “Since I was a little kid, I’ve been obsessed with superheroes,” Goldberg says. “They’re all saving the earth all the time. But do you know who’s really going to save the earth? Old Black women.”

Goldberg will soon reprise her role as lounge singer-turned-nun-whisperer Deloris Van Cartier in “Sister Act 3” for Disney Plus, after years of back and forth between Goldberg and studio over the premise for the sequel. She and Tyler Perry are co-producing the film, with “Evil Eye” author Madhuri Shekar writing the screenplay. “Marc Shaiman [the franchise’s composer] is just waiting,” Goldberg teases. “The nuns are all waiting. Maybe there’s gonna be some of the kids [from ‘Sister Act 2’]. Who can say?”

In addition, she is producing “The Emmett Till Story” and preparing to return as Guinan on “Star Trek: Picard.” The series’ star, Patrick Stewart, made the invitation during an appearance on “The View,” on which Goldberg has been a moderator for more than a decade. Despite her surprisingly long tenure on the daytime talk show, she says she’s not ready to give up her seat at the “Hot Topics” table.

“I’m there until I don’t think I can do it anymore, but I’m not there yet,” she says. “As long as they allow me to do both [acting and hosting], I can do it. The minute they say, ‘No, you can’t,’ then I have to figure out what to do.”

For now, she relishes filming the show from home, where she can see her Oscar — which she affectionately calls “Osc” — every day. He lives on the third floor with his E-G-and-T compatriots.

Like the artwork, Goldberg’s trophies are mile markers of her career, though her legacy isn’t defined by the colossal number of wins she’s accumulated over the past four decades, nor the losses. The achievement Goldberg is most proud of: “That I’m still here. I didn’t fade away. I didn’t disappear. I’m still here and still here doing me.”

Styling: Jason Rembert; Makeup: Karen Dupiche; Hair: Derick Monroe; Look 1 (cover): Dress: Christian Siriano; Earrings and bracelet: New York Vintage; Rings: Sevan Bicakci; Look 2: Coat: Christian Siriano; Hat: Nina Ricci; Scarf: Gucci