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Pulitzer Prize Winner Comes to the Screen

December 19, 1985

NEW YORK (AP) _ Celie, a young, timid woman, is raped by her father and gives birth to two children, then is handed over to a brutish man in marriage to suffer years of indignities and cruelty.

The odyssey of Celie from whimpering pup to strong, centered woman is the essence of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, ″The Color Purple.″ It has been beautifully translated to the screen in a richly textured movie by Stephen Spielberg that opened in theaters across the nation Friday.

Filming Walker’s plain yet complex book - the exposition unfolds through Celie’s letters written to God and to her sister, Nettie, and the dialect is rural Georgia - involved an approach atypical of Hollywood. Spielberg, who made his career on formula fantasies, chose to direct. Superstars were bypassed for the major roles.

In Hollywood’s other excursions with Pulitzer works, the heavy guns were often called: ″The Good Earth″ starred Paul Muni and Luise Rainer; ″Gone With the Wind″ had Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland and Leslie Howard; ″Caine Mutiny″ had Humphrey Bogart and Van Johnson, and ″To Kill a Mockingbird″ starred Gregory Peck.

For William Kennedy’s ″Ironweed,″ which won the fiction prize last year, the author said such stars as Jack Nicholson and Gene Hackman are being mentioned for Hector Babenco’s film version.

To cast Celie as an adult, producers Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, Quincy Jones and Spielberg went outside the usual stable of bankable Hollywood talent and chose comic Whoopi Goldberg who had never made a movie. In a strange move, Desreta Jackson, who looks and sounds nothing like Goldberg, plays Celie as a teen-ager.

Oprah Winfrey, the host of a popular TV talk show in Chicago, makes her film debut as the proud, no-nonsense Sofia. Her performance as a mother who stands up to a white bigot only to be whipped into servitude, should win an Academy Award nomination for supporting actress.

For Shug Avery, the worldly tart with a heart of gold who is mistress of Celie’s husband, superstar singers were considered: Diana Ross, Tina Turner, Patti LaBelle. However, the part of the lusty blues singer with the whiskey- laced voice went to Margaret Avery, who had parts in ″Which Way Is Up?″ and ″Magnum Force.″

All three stars of the film had read Walker’s strongly feminist work when it appeared and wanted to be in any movie made from it.

″I sat down and wrote to Alice Walker with a resume and all my reviews and references, telling her that I would go anywhere to audition,″ says Goldberg.

She was launched on Broadway last season by director Mike Nichols in a highly acclaimed one-woman show that illuminated her abilities as a caricaturist and her potential for acting.

Despite a few instances of cliched directing by Spielberg and overmugging for the camera, Goldberg lends a humanity and sweet innocence to Celie.

In one scene with Harpo (Willard Pugh), the son of Celie’s husband, Mr. (Danny Glover), the young man laments that he doesn’t know how to control his new wife, the proud Sofia. Celie says with all sincerity: ″Beat her.″ It was, after all, what Celie has known of marriage.

The story unfolds in rural Georgia from 1906 to the 1940s. Celie and her sister (Akosua Busia) have an inseparable love. Nettie is pretty; Celie is homely.

They are separated when Celie goes to live with Mr. When Nettie visits and spurns his sexual advances, Mr. physically throws her out. Over the decades, Nettie lives in Africa as a missionary, constantly writing to Celie who never gets the letters because Mr. hides them.

Celie endures, never really respecting herself as a strong woman, until Shug teaches her true passion. Their relationship is toned down in the movie to a momentary and almost chaste kissing episode.

Celie blossoms and leaves Mr., who languishes without her. By the conclusion of the movie, Spielberg has swapped much of the power and reality of Walker’s book to play for tears.

When he first read the book, the filmmaker said he couldn’t put it down. ″I got angry, I laughed, then I cried,″ he says. ″And as Celie’s story came pouring out into the sunlight, I felt everything at once.″

The novel, which also won the American Book Award, was adapted to the screen by Dutch screenwriter Menno Meyjes.

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