With her twin matriarch roles in this year’s Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins and the latest from-nowhere Tyler Perry family-values comedy Meet the Browns, Margaret Avery has suddenly reappeared. Yet that name may not ring bells for many viewers, overshadowed as it was even in her major, Oscar-nominated breakout by behemoths like Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. Heck, back in 1985, Rae Dawn Chong, in a minuscule role, even got more poster space than Avery in Spielberg’s The Color Purple. Yet the film, whose incessant unfair maligning has been going on now for two-plus decades (Empire of the Sun seems to have been widely reassessed….why no cinephilic love for Purple?), is unthinkable without the presence of Avery, whose performance as the identically surnamed “Shug” Avery is one of Purple‘s most versatile, surprising, and effortless. Yet anecdotes of Avery’s tireless, and ultimately defeated, Oscar campaigning (when she was nominated against Winfrey, and eventually lost to Anjelica Huston for Prizzi’s Honor) summarily usurped the real story, which should have been that of a sensational breakthrough.
Avery is a wonder, emotionally varied without ever seeming schizophrenic, from her cackling, double-soused introduction (coming out of the rain, lifting her sopping wet head, and exclaiming to Goldberg’s Celie, “You sure is ugly!”–certainly one of the most memorable of all screen entrances) to her breakfast-in-the-bathtub hangover to her blowsy Billie Holiday routine in the Juke Joint (where she perfectly lip-syncs to Quincy Jones’s terrific period song “Miss Celie’s Blues”) to her tender, erotic kiss with Celie (yes, yes, it was toned down from the more sexually explicit book, but would we really expect a Hollywood blockbuster circa 1985, or heck even today, to show two black lesbians doing much more than kissing and holding hands?). In the final hour of the film, Avery elegantly wears, but never pushes, the after-effects of hard living, even though she’s left it behind for a “respectable” marriage; it’s all there, in the lines on her face, in her tired, but indomitable gait. It’s not her story, but when she’s on-screen, she makes it hers, and Spielberg even gives her her own stirring climax, a reconciliation with her preacher papa, rousingly set to the Jones-penned spiritual “Maybe God’s Trying to Tell You Something,” that nearly equals Celie’s own conclusion for emotional wallop (no mean feat).
Avery inhabits Shug so fully, and has subsequently dropped so far from public view, that the actress and role have become inseparable. I must admit the Averys (Margaret and “Shug”) have never left me; Margaret dug into the role with claws outstretched and held on to “Shug” for dear life. And while Whoopi and Oprah have stayed constantly in the public eye, and we’ve seen them age, expand, and morph into different forms and personalities, Avery has stayed captured on-screen, and remains a sweet, spectacular memory.