Margaret Avery in The Color Purple (1985) - Supporting Actress Sundays

Lo those many years ago, Inez inaugurated StinkyLulu's early fascination with Alice Walker by dragging a teenaged Lulu to a book signing in the “University area” on a school night. Inez had just made Lulu read Alice Walker’s novel that spring (the spring of Lu’s sophomore year & way way way before The Color Purple was assigned in high schools). Indeed, it’s sorta funny now to think of how Inez & Lu – two teenage boys in the sticks outside ABQ – doubtfully loaned our personal copies of The Color Purple to our respective moms, not at all certain our mothers could fully appreciate Celie’s story. (Precocious snobs from way back, Lulu & Inez were mortified by our moms's devotion to the oeuvre of Catherine Cookson...) But Lulu remembers also being just a little possessive of the story, in part because Lil Teenaged Lulu had fallen in love with the character of Shug. In. Love. (Having fallen almost as hard as Celie.) StinkyLulu just loved the character’s rawness, her rudeness, her riotousness... (Notably, the character of Sofia made no comparable impression whatsoever.) But when rumors swirled that Tina Turner (one of Lulu’s other big swoons that year) offered the role but turned it down...well, Lulu was more than a little devastated. And wondered who would – who could? – play Shug? And who was this.....

...Margaret Avery in The Color Purple (1985).
approximately 36 minutes and 25 seconds
21 scenes
roughly 25% of film's total running time

For StinkyLulu (& for Celie I'd propose) Shug Avery represents a kind of illicit abundance. Shug probably shouldn't doing some of the things she's doing, but while she's doing them, she's going to do right by them & enjoy them to the fullest. No nihilist, though, Shug's got a heart, and it's a heart Shug comes to know better by coming to know Celie. Shug's also that absent beloved, the one who blows into town every so often making everything a lot more alive... Indeed, the character of Shug's got it all -- highs, lows, scenes of her own, scenes to steal, plus a few songs -- it's the kind of role (not unlike Effie White) that seems almost guaranteed a nomination, if not the win.

@ 1985 seconds - "...fo the next aay or ten month Olvuh was the victim of a sisstem metack corss of teachry..."

Margaret Avery was, like most of the principal female performers in the cast, a little known actress when she snagged the role that garnered a Supporting Actress nomination. A charismatic, elegant performer, the teenaged StinkyLulu found Avery all wrong for Shug. (Developing something of a grudge against the actress as a result.) The space of a few decades forces StinkyLulu to acknowledge that, while not perfect, Margaret Avery's performance is very good. Not perfect. But very good. And even though she doesn't do her own singing, Avery's still often quite effective in the role.

The essential piece to Shug is that, on the one hand, she's a rural preacher's daughter while, on the other, she's a free-living, free-loving blues diva living in the big city on the big river. Part street cat, part barn cat. The character's arc follows Shug as she reconciles both halves of herself, a journey galvanized by Celie's doting worship.

Unfortunately, Avery makes the inexpert actor's mistake of playing the destination rather than the journey. Avery's performance amplifies Shug's gentility at the expense of Shug's crassness. And while Avery nails Shug's desperation to reconcile with her father (click images below to enlarge), Avery is less vivid in her depiction of Shug loving the life she lives when away from her rural roots.

Avery's Shug is always a preacher's daughter, but rarely does Avery's elegant performance offer even a glimpse of Shug's unrepentant side. The result? Avery's Shug is more saint than sinner. Indeed, the character's critical early scenes, in which Shug is at her least refined, seem -- in retrospect -- as somehow less "true" than the later scenes when Avery's Shug glows with mature, radiant elegance. In Avery's portrayal, Shug's life as an iconic blues diva reads almost as a diversion, as Shug straying from her true self, rather than a fully inhabited "other" life.

This is not to say that Avery doesn't do a largely good job. She's often quite effective, offering the kind of knowing glances Spielberg requires. It's just that the architecture of the performance is a bit wobbly, and Avery's Shug feels a lot more "church lady" than "juke joint mama." (All of which tosses the character's sexuality into a curiously gauzy relief, an issue that's just way too big for StinkyLulu to do justice here.*)

Avery's Shug is good, not great, and nowhere near as glorious as the role might have been in a different actor's hands (or in a different director's film). Even more, little has been heard or seen from Avery since her ill-advised "epistolary" Oscar campaign. (Commentators felt the Avery's "letters to God" -- as published in Variety while humping for an acting trophy -- were in poor taste.) (PS: If anyone has a scan of one of those ads, I'd love to publish/link it here.) So it's hard to know what Avery's gifts are beyond what's on display here. But, after all these years, StinkyLulu's force to admit that Margaret Avery brings a great deal to Shug Avery.

Attentive readers will note that The 1985 Smackdown was yesterday... And, with this profile, 'tis now complete. So just keep a'scrollin' for all that SmackDowning fun...

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