'Color Purple' and Oscar's Musical Curse
Despite an Oprah-Spielberg pedigree and critical plaudits, the new screen version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is meeting resistance on the circuit
When the musical version of The Color Purple first hit Broadway in 2005, it was rewarded with 11 Tony nominations and saw the best actress in a musical award go to its leading lady, LaChanze, who brought down the house with her performance as the long-suffering but ultimately triumphant Celie. A decade later, The Color Purple returned to Broadway in a new production, winning one Tony for best revival of a musical and another for best musical actress Cynthia Erivo for her take on the role of Celie.
But — at least when it comes to its Hollywood awards hopes —the new movie musical version of The Color Purple hasn’t been embraced as enthusiastically. Instead, it’s been riding a bubble, shut out by some groups, recognized by others. On Dec. 7, as the season was getting underway, the American Film Institute issued its list of the top 10 films of the year, and The Color Purple was conspicuously absent. A few days later, when the Golden Globe noms were announced, the new movie’s star, Fantasia Barrino, and supporting actress Danielle Brooks both scored noms, but the movie failed to earn a slot as best musical or comedy, where, given its unabashed musical numbers, it should have found a natural home. A few days on, though, when the Critics Choice nominations were unveiled, the pendulum started to swing back as the movie picked up five noms, including best picture and acting ensemble (although when the awards were handed out Jan. 14, it went home empty-handed).
As 2023 drew to a close, Barack Obama issued his list of his favorite movies of the year. The Color Purple mysteriously was missing, but the former president quickly rectified that the next day with a post on X that read, “Update: I just saw The Color Purple and loved it. I’m adding it to this list as one of my favorite movies of the year.” But then the film stalled again when the British Academy of Film and Television Arts left The Color Purple off its long list of best pic possibilities, from which its eventual nominees will be chosen, although it did include Barrino and Brooks in its acting categories.
With the Jan. 10 announcement of the Screen Actors Guild Awards nominees, The Color Purple rallied in a big way, earning a nomination for outstanding cast in a motion picture — SAG’s equivalent of a best picture nom — alongside American Fiction, Barbie, Killers of the Flower Moon and Oppenheimer, as well as a supporting actress nom for Brooks. But its momentum proved short-lived since the film just hit another roadblock by failing to secure a Producers Guild of America best picture nomination.
The Color Purple’s struggle to find a firm foothold is all the more surprising given its lineage. Based on Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, it follows in the wake of Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film adaptation, a box-office success that corralled 11 Oscar nominations, including a best picture nom. The new film, a $100-million Warner Bros. release directed by Ghanaian filmmaker Blitz Bazawule and boasting an A-list lineup of producers that includes Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones, opened to largely laudatory reviews. Its Rotten Tomatoes score stands at a solid 87, just a notch below Barbie’s 88. The performances were all greeted with applause.
“Barrino, amazingly, has her first major-movie role in The Color Purple, and she commands the frame as if it were made to order. She plays Celie with a forthright, poised physicality along with a subtly mercurial, under-the-surface expressivity that imbues the character with mighty energy even in repose,” raved The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, concluding, “The cinema is rich in great singers —stretching back to the eras of Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra — who become movie actors of the first order; Barrino instantly joins their ranks.”
So then why has the awards prospects of 2023’s The Color Purple been more muted than the welcome given 1985’s The Color Purple? Consider the major difference between the two: The new movie is a musical, which wears its songs on its sleeve, and, for many audiences, movie musicals are problematic. Why else do the recent trailers for movies as different as The Color Purple, Wonka and the new Mean Girls essentially disguise the fact that they’re full of singing and dancing?
The Academy itself has always had a deeply ambivalent attitude toward movie musicals. At the second Academy Awards dinner in 1930, the best picture prize went to The Broadway Melody, MGM’s very first movie musical. But fast forward to 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain. Now considered Hollywood’s greatest musical, it was somewhat grudgingly allotted just two nominations — for Jean Hagen’s supporting turn and best scoring of a musical picture — winning neither. (To add insult to oversight, the best picture winner that year was the clunky The Greatest Show on Earth, now universally considered one of the worst best picture winners.)
Musicals, especially lavish adaptations of Broadway hits, enjoyed a resurgence in the ‘60s as West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music and Oliver! all claimed best picture Oscars. But after big-budget bombs like Darling Lili and Paint Your Wagon struck sour notes, so-called tuners went out of fashion, and only a handful of musicals like 1972’s Cabaret and 1978’s All That Jazz came within hailing distance of the top prize. And blockbuster musicals like 1978’s Grease got the cold shoulder from the Academy, save for a song nomination for “Hopelessly Devoted to You.”
Over the years, the occasional Broadway-bred musical — 2012’s Les Miserables, the 2021 remake of West Side Story — has broken into the top ranks of best picture nominees. But the last musical to actually win best picture was 2002’s Chicago. Harrumphed Broadway maestro Stephen Sondheim in one of his more famous quotes, “The movie adaptations of stage musicals that I’ve seen, without exception, in my opinion don’t work.” And that would have to include the 1977 version of his own A Little Night Music, in which Elizabeth Taylor gamely tried to warble “Send in the Clowns.”
Hollywood’s simply wary of traditional movie musicals in which characters unapologetically burst into song to express their emotions: 2021’s Tick, Tick…BOOM! earned just two Oscar noms, one for its leading man Andrew Garfield, and the same year’s rousing In the Heights was shut out altogether. Instead, these days Hollywood prefers quasi-musicals like the 2018 Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, which won Rami Malek a best actor Oscar, and that same year’s A Star Is Born, which earned eight nominations, winning one for its songs, “Shallow.” But that’s probably because in those movies, the musical numbers, set in recording studios or on the concert stage, play out relatively realistically and don’t require the same suspension of disbelief. The one sui generis exception has been 2016’s original movie musical La La Land, which reveled in the artificiality of the genre with its opening number in which traffic-jammed Angeleno’s abandon their cars to celebrate “Another Day of Sun.” It basically dared musical skeptics to look away.
Still, The Color Purple could beat the musical curse and elbow its way into best picture contention because Bazawule really pulls out all the stops, adopting a hybrid approach to the movie’s musical moments. There are big, conventional production numbers like the celebratory opening “Mysterious Ways” in which the townsfolk sing and dance their way through town. There are performances that take place on the stage of the local juke joint as Taraji P. Henson’s Shug Avery bursts out with “Push Da Button.” And then there are the tunes that effectively function as interior monologues for Barrino’s Celie as she gives voice to her inner thoughts and fantasies, all leading up to her full-throated I-have-survived anthem, “I’m Here.”
The Color Purple’s final ace-in-the-hole may also be the fact that it’s a genuine tear-jerker that swells with emotion as the movie’s characters and performers reunite for a final, uplifting choral hymn. It’s a poignant, three-hanky climax and if that can’t sell a movie musical to the Academy, nothing can.