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`Ghost' Provides a Second-Rate Showcase For a First-Rate Talent: Whoopi Goldberg

The surprise hit of the summer may be entertaining but is also relentlessly superficial. FILM REVIEW

WHOOPI GOLDBERG sent me a message about three years ago, after I gave a negative review to ``Fatal Beauty,'' starring Sam Elliott and her. She told me ``this movie was not made, edited, or released the way we would have liked,'' and added that ``if I had the power people seem to think I have, the movies I've made would be a little different. Give me a little credit for taste.'' I do. For one thing, Ms. Goldberg had the taste to speak out about the failings of that movie. For another, only a combination of taste and talent allows her performances to shine so brightly in the dim surroundings that some of her movies provide.

I also sympathize with Goldberg's difficulty in finding projects worthy of what she has to contribute. At a time when African-Americans are badly underrepresented in Hollywood pictures - a situation that's even worse for women than for men - she has carved out a highly visible career that continues to grow in stature. That's an impressive accomplishment by any measure.

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In light of this, it's too bad Goldberg's new movie, ``Ghost,'' provides yet another second-rate showcase for her abilities. True, it's an entertaining picture in some ways, and it certainly strikes a chord with audiences - in fact, it has emerged as the surprise hit of the summer.

Clever timing is a big reason for this, since it arrived just as moviegoers were tiring of sequels and action-adventure pictures, offering a touch of sentiment that isn't present (or is swamped by special effects) in its high-tech cousins. Then too, ``Ghost'' is anything but a risky or unconventional picture. It serves up well-liked stars in a tale that mixes comedy, suspense, and romance, all photographed and edited in Hollywood's slickest style.

Still, there's something relentlessly superficial about the movie, and in one area that cries out for sensitivity - the treatment of racial differences among the characters - it falls down badly.

``Ghost'' is the story of Sam, a New York yuppie who has a high-energy job, makes a lot of money, and gets along splendidly with Molly, his girlfriend. Happiness comes crashing to a halt when he's senselessly murdered in the street, leaving Molly in a state of deep sorrow. He soon discovers two things, however. One is that he's now a ghost, roaming the world unheard and unfelt by living people. The other is that his murder wasn't senseless. It was planned by a dangerous enemy who's now after Molly, and the only way Sam can warn her is through a medium who runs a phony spiritualism shop in Harlem - and who couldn't be more amazed when a real ghost tries to get in touch with her.

This is a serviceable plot, and although I'm not very impressed by Patrick Swayze as the ghostly hero, Demi Moore's subdued style and husky voice make Molly a likable and believable heroine. Credit also goes to director Jerry Zucker, usually a comedy specialist, for giving the film touches of strong visual imagination; the dream sequence right after Sam's death, for instance, has a touch of genuine chaos that's quite surprising.

What irritates me about the picture is its treatment of Oda Mae, the character Goldberg plays. In herself she's a strong, personable, feisty woman. But the film insists on making her into a caricature. She's the only person who's made to look physically ridiculous, with a crazy-looking outfit she wears during a major part of the movie; and her main function is to act as a servant for Sam, following his orders and speaking his words.

I'll grant that screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin has come up with a new twist on the old black-servant idea, but it's unfortunate that he didn't allow his one major African-American character the kind of dignity most of the white folks have. The problem becomes most acute during the climax, when Sam wants to touch Molly one more time, but has to use the body of a living person (namely Oda Mae) to do so.

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He ``enters'' the medium's body, her hand reaches toward Molly - and suddenly Oda Mae is mysteriously out of the movie, replaced by Sam for the remainder of the scene. We're meant to see this symbolically, of course, since the episode centers on Sam's desire, for which Oda Mae is just a vehicle. The real symbolism of the moment, however, is that white Sam counts a lot more than black Oda Mae, to the filmmakers and to the audience they want to reach.

I don't mean to suggest that ``Ghost'' is a hotbed of racist attitudes. Its problems are subtle ones - they've hardly been noticed by most reviewers - and grow less from conscious racism than from old Hollywood habits, so deeply ingrained that we're scarcely conscious of them anymore. Sad to say, it seems almost natural when (in another of the movie's lapses) the main Hispanic character is a hit man who looks as vicious as movie-studio resources can make him.

It's also true that Goldberg's presence, with its built-in charm and intelligence, lifts the film higher than it would otherwise go. It's due largely to her, I think, that ``Ghost'' is outpacing some blockbusters that were supposed to be the powerhouses of this season, including Paramount's own ``Days of Thunder,'' which combines a large budget with superstar Tom Cruise.

But two questions remain: Would audiences flock to ``Ghost'' even more eagerly if Goldberg's character (and other minority figures) were allotted as much dignity as the movie's white people?

And when are we going to see the movie that Hollywood never quite gets around to making - the one where Denzel Washington or Forest Whitaker plays a high-powered New York yuppie, Whoopi Goldberg plays his attractive girlfriend, and Patrick Swayze (or one of his many white colleagues) plays the funny-dressing, goofy-talking, poverty-row character who disappears from the movie during the climax?

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