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A Q&A with the great Frank Langella
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Whoopi's Narcissistic Injury

  • 2/23/11 at 10:46 PM

It’s no big deal, it’s not Egypt or Libya, but for the last week I’ve been haunted by Whoopi Goldberg’s embarrassing hissy fit on her television show, The View. If you somehow missed the spectacle, Goldberg brought her Oscar for Ghost to work, plopped it down in front of the camera, and then proceeded to castigate the New York Times for “shoddy reporting”—having, she said, omitted her name from the list of African American actors who had won Academy Awards. Always happy to see my more powerful colleagues—in this case, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott—publicly humiliated, I eagerly called up the piece.

The thesis—that the “whiteness of the 2011 Academy Awards is a little blinding”—seemed reasonable enough, although I don’t, frankly, have much use for sweeping statements about either movies or racism pegged to something as parochial as the Oscars. But the article was cogent and did move on to explore the “newly separate black cinema” with its own auteurs and stars and political rifts—and anyway, I was looking for the injustice done to Whoopi.

And there it was... not. After recounting the triumphs of Denzel Washington and Halle Berry in 2002, Dargis and Scott write: “Real change seemed to have come to movies or at least the Academy, which had given statuettes to a total of seven black actors in the previous 73 years. After Mr. Washington and Ms. Berry, there would be Jamie Foxx and Forest Whitaker (both best actors); Morgan Freeman (best supporting actor); Jennifer Hudson and Mo’Nique (best supporting actresses).” [italics mine]

After Mr. Washington and Ms. Berry…” Goldberg’s Oscar came more than a decade earlier and wouldn’t have been relevant to the authors’ argument—unless they’d posed the idea that her character, a high-strung charlatan preying on the poor and credulous of her community, wasn’t much of an advance from Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy, which probably wouldn’t have made Goldberg too happy either. Goldberg accepted the commiserations of her fellow hosts (Elizabeth Hasselbeck announced, melodramatically, that she was canceling her Times subscription, which no one could have dreamed she had) and then sat back, having restored her precious sense of self.

The next day she half-apologized. She said it was not “shoddy reporting” but let herself off the hook because the piece was “confusingly written.” It was, of course, nothing of the sort. What I imagine happened was that Goldberg saw the headline, scanned the list of actors for her name, and then suffered what Freud called, “a narcissistic injury.” “This is an article about African-Americans who have won Academy Awards and my name isn’t mentioned! Are they trying to say I don’t exist??? Maybe I don’t exist…” Having been roundly ignored for her hambone turn in this year’s execrable For Colored Girls…, she was very likely waiting (hoping?) for some slight that would allow her to use her powerful platform to remind her audience that she’d once won an Oscar and had been a box-office draw.

Why is this fascinating? Because in show business, narcissistic injuries and their attendant rages happen every day and at every level. Producers, directors, agents, publicists, spouses, and even entertainment journalists witness them and are not infrequently wounded (or devastated) by them. They are, in many instances, the primary mode of communication between performers and their co-workers and lackeys. But you almost never see them in public, at least if you’re not standing next to them when they realize they’ll actually have to cross the street to get to their limo or they think that someone has looked at them funny. Heinz Kohut, who coined the term “narcissistic rage,” said, according to our trusty Wikipedia, that “narcissists may even search for conflict to find a way to alleviate pain or suffering.” One of a publicist's main tasks is keep those rages under wraps. But this time there was no publicist between Goldberg and her huge national audience, and no one on camera with the intellectual stature to tell her to shut up and read the article.

I suppose we should be grateful for this peek inside the dressing room of a tortured human psyche.

Speaking of the Oscars, despite my professed superiority toward them (probably triggered by one of the many narcissistic injuries to which I am prone), I shall be live-blogging the ceremony for Vulture… But really, who isn’t?