Tuesday, August 7, 2012

SUTS 2012: Sidney Poitier

The TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon is a month-long event corresponding with the Turner Classic Movies annual presentation, in which each day in August is devoted to the films of a different classic film star. The blogathon is hosted by Sittin' on a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard on Film. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the links at either site.

In 2009, a satirical novel came out called I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett, which is part parody of the actual Sidney Poitier's films and part examination on race and class in America, centered around a young man whose actual name is "Not Sidney Poitier," and he even looks like the actor to boot.

For a generation of moviegoers, to be Sidney Poitier, at least on screen, was to be a paragon, a symbol of blackness in general and male blackness in particular. He was not the first black Hollywood movie star, but his great success opened the door a little bit wider for those that followed.

Born in the Bahamas, he moved to Miami at age 15 and then New York at age 18, working odd jobs and serving briefly in the Army. In Harlem, he auditioned with the American Negro Theater, but his Caribbean accent proved an impediment, so he spent six months working on getting rid of it. Eventually he started receiving stage work, including a brief run on Broadway in an all-black version of Lysistrata.

In 1949, Poitier signed a contract with 20th-Century Fox and was cast in a film noir called No Way Out, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, which came out the following year. (He was 22, but told Mankiewicz he was 27.) He played an ER doctor who has to deal with a bigoted patient, played by Richard Widmark, with whom Poitier got along great during shooting. Poitier's character was originally going to die at the end, but producer Darryl Zanuck disapproved, believing his death served no purpose in the story, and the ending was changed. Ebony Magazine praised it for its direct addressing of everyday racial discrimination, though several states demanded re-cuts before showing it.

Poitier in 'Blackboard Jungle'
Poitier's performance lead to other roles atypical of black actors at the time (including his wild high school kid in The Blackboard Jungle), until he was offered the lead in the adaptation of the musical Porgy and Bess. The musical was deemed as insulting and demeaning to blacks at the time, and Poitier's friend Harry Belafonte (whom he once understudied for back in his theater days) had already turned the role down. Poitier, however, took the part because he feared that if he didn't, Porgy producer Samuel Goldwyn would stand in the way of the role he really wanted: Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones (1958).

The Defiant Ones was about two escaped convicts, one black, one white, chained together and forced to cooperate to survive despite their mutual distrust. At one point Kramer had cast Marlon Brando, but had to delay the start of production in order to wait for Poitier to be available. As a result, he lost Brando to another obligation the actor had. Tony Curtis was cast in his place. It was Curtis who insisted Poitier's name be placed above the title with his own. This would prove to be fortuitous, as Poitier's performance led to his first Best Actor Oscar nomination, making him the first black man to be nominated in that category. Though he lost, he would eventually go on to win Best Actor for his 1963 film Lilies of the Field.

Poitier w/Ruby Dee in 'A Raisin in the Sun'
Poitier thrived in the 60s, appearing in such popular films as A Raisin in the Sun, To Sir With Love, A Patch of Blue, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and the film with perhaps his most iconic role, In The Heat of the Night. Later in his career he turned to directing, helming such films as Uptown Saturday Night, Let's Do It Again and Stir Crazy.

There have been those in the past who have criticized Poitier's selection of roles, saying that at his peak he kept playing the same kind of flawless, saintly Negro character over and over again, and maybe there was some truth to that. Still, one should remember the time period: the late 50s and the 60s were a time when white America was slowly beginning to change the way it looked at blacks in general after hundreds of years of institutionalized bigotry, not to mention the slave trade. To return to the original theme of this post, to be Sidney Poitier, in Hollywood's eyes, was to finally recognize that blacks could be more than just maids and porters (and song-and-dance performers), an attitude that the civil rights movement - which Poitier contributed to - was expressing in no uncertain terms. And it's not like they were offering him many roles with more dimension.

Poitier in 'To Sir With Love'
In the late 60s and on into the 70s, Poitier took up writing and producing as well as directing, and even co-founded a studio with Paul Newman and Barbara Streisand called First Artists Corp., which produced such films as The Main Event, A Star is Born, The Getaway and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. In subsequent years, Poitier has received numerous honors and accolades, including being named a non-resident Bahamian ambassador as well as a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire; receiving an NAACP Image Hall of Fame Award, an honorary Oscar, and the Medal of Freedom (given to him by President Obama).

To be Sidney Poitier has come to be associated with dignity, distinction and inspiration.

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Look for more posts in this series throughout the rest of this month.

2 comments:

  1. Rich--

    My apologies for just now commenting on this.

    Excellent piece on a true master of his craft. I really appreciate your contributions to the blogathon. Thanks again!

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  2. You're quite welcome. The blogathon in general has been a big learning experience for me.

    ReplyDelete