On May 29, 1992, “Sister Act” opened in the U.S., and Whoopi Goldberg was finally given the spotlight. Granted, Goldberg had become an actress to watch after playing Celie in “The Color Purple” in 1985, and then a household name when she won an Academy Award for her comedic masterpiece Oda Mae Brown in 1990’s “Ghost.” But “Sister Act” still is, 20 years later, Whoopi’s most indelible starring role. It’s the crowd-pleasing fish-out-of-water vehicle most actors dream of eyeing when they stroll up to the plate for a much-needed hit.
It’s a simple premise — Reno showgirl catches mobster boyfriend offing his chauffeur, joins the witness protection program, gets placed in a convent, becomes “Sister Mary Clarence” and hijinks ensue — that is gleefully constructed in its first 15 minutes, but the ride is such dumb fun that viewers never mind its formulaic setup. Seriously, try and pull yourself away from this one when it’s on TV, and you’ve gotten sucked in to Whoopi’s wisecracks. So many of “Sister Act’s” one-liners are easy to spot from a mile away: when Mother Superior (Maggie Smith) tells the uber-skeptical Sister Mary Clarence, “There are three vows every nun must accept — the vow of poverty, the vow of obedience, and the vow of… chastity,” and Whoopi shakes her grand finger and says, “I am OUTTA here with that!”, it’s a broad, obvious joke, but one that the master comic effortlessly sells. “Sister Act,” after all, was not produced to be edgy or provocative, but to earn belly laughs from 6-year-olds and 60-year-olds, anxious to see what inconceivable trouble the foul-mouthed nun will get into next.
The cast around Goldberg is pretty flawless, as it needs to be for this movie to work: Smith balances the star’s brashness with her deadpan wit as the convent’s humorless head, while Harvey Keitel walks over from the set of “Reservoir Dogs” to play the slick bastard that Whoopi is trying to lock up. As the fellow nuns, Kathy Najimy is excitable, and Mary Wickes is crotchety. But “Sister Act” lives and dies with Whoopi, of course. After earning an unexpected ring with “Ghost,” Goldberg is in full Dwyane Wade attack mode here, making her outlandish character impossible not to root for. After Mary Clarence takes charge of the church choir and miraculously coaxes incredible vocals out of her pupils — “We call that an A, with an attitude!” — church passerby are soon packing the pews, in a musical sequence that is at once ridiculous and impossible not to appreciate. At the heart of it is Whoopi, shaking her ass in her holy habit and seemingly having a blast. It’s not just a great performance from an on-her-game African-American leading lady, it’s a DOMINATING performance, one that transforms an ordinary concept into a special one.
So, 20 years later, what is the cultural footprint of “Sister Act”? Well, there’s the Broadway musical that opened in 2011 and currently stars Raven Symone, as well as the 1993 sequel, “Sister Act II: Back in the Habit,” that is a joyful piece of popcorn cinema in its own right and introduced the world to some singer named Lauryn Hill. But more important than the film’s spinoffs is its commercial success without a two-dimensional male character in sight. Long before “Bridesmaids” got everyone talking about the power of women in comedy, there was Whoopi and a bunch of nuns, cracking wise and earning millions at the box office. Goldberg may have taken a few missteps in the following years (cough, cough, “Eddie”), but with “Sister Act,” she was able to appeal to all demographics without toning down her Whoopi-ness. “People don’t like going to church. Why? Because it’s a drag!” she says in “Sister Act.” “But we could change all that! We could pack this joint!” Pack this joint you did, Whoopi — and we’re forever grateful to be able to relive one of your high points.
Check out our favorite clip from “Sister Act,” where Whoopi and co. dazzle a packed church — and the Pope! — with some “I Will Follow Him”: