b. Miami, Florida, 1927
There is no doubt in my mind that theories on conventional screen heroes have changed and expanded as time has gone on, and the overall quality of cinema has diminished greatly. I wish this wasn’t the case, but often times when I go to the movies, I am reminded of what I refer to as a bullshit state of affairs in motion pictures. Can it be rescued? Frankly, I can’t answer that question. All I know is that the vast majority of younger film directors working in film today seem to be trend followers of popular culture and nothing more. I don’t sense any depth, intellect or originality amidst the lot of them if you want to know the truth. Therefore, what can save us from the emotionally artificial, CGI obsessed future of movies?
It’s a twofold equation, and it goes something like this. We need to go back to human storytelling about real people. Just like it was back in the sixties, seventies and even as recently as the eighties. No more bullshit about spectacle ridden, fantasy laden special effects odysseys in which the human element always takes a backseat to real narrative conflict and character development. The sad part is that I am younger than the vast majority of filmmakers actually making these types of pictures today, so I know that I am actually a misplaced product of a bygone era. But in any event, there is only one solution. If we maneuver the scheme of things in reverse and focus on a style rooted in classical filmmaking, pictures will start to get better. And as long as we have artists like Coppola, De Palma, Scorsese, Spielberg, Friedkin, Mann and Bogdanovich leading the way, there is always the guarantee that we will occasionally see great films. Beyond them, yes, there are very good film directors. Even a solid handful that I genuinely like, but I would never put them in the same league as the gentlemen I just named above. Never.
So how about the stars of today? It’s curious to compare actors with directors when it comes to contemporary cinema because the difference is clear to me. Amazingly, we have some incredible young actors working in pictures today. Outstanding. But we need better film directors and a whole new approach that goes back to the basics when visual storytelling was not just something. It was everything. Maybe it will happen. Maybe it won’t. I will wait patiently and see. In the meantime, there is no way the stars of today can hold a candle to the truly important icons of yesteryear. No matter how good they are. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that so many of my cinematic heroes are individuals whose screen personas are defined by great acting and endless charisma. These are the people who own the screen they minute they walk into a room. So who are they? I would be completely at ease with mentioning the names of Cary Grant, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando and Clint Eastwood. Half a dozen. Oh, not quite. I am forgetting one, and he is inimitable for the style, grace and dignity he brought to every single picture he ever made. His name is Sidney Poitier.
It is peculiar being someone who was born in the early seventies as I was to mention an actor like Poitier as one of my personal film heroes because that is not the common case. My friends and contemporaries always seem to mention actors who are twenty or so years younger than Poitier as their screen idols and heroes. People like Ford, Stallone, Bridges, Washington and even Cruise. That is fine. I suppose these are the pictures they were raised on that moved and inspired them. Don’t get me wrong. I saw those films and enjoyed them as much as the next person, but I knew there were people from way before my time whose work was not only significant, it was downright brilliant. This is precisely why I have dedicated most of my adult life to educating myself and studying the works of classic figures of cinema like Novak, Brando, Sinatra, Lancaster, Peck and indeed the great Sidney Poitier.
It is incredible to think about how resonant the work of Poitier was right around the late fifties and early sixties. It was groundbreaking, intelligent and important. These are attributes that aren’t readily applicable to many actors of his generation. The fact of the matter is that my perception of Poitier in world cinema is probably less conventional than others, so I will distill it to the essence of what he means to me. He never struck me on film as being threatening in any way, shape or form. And yet, he was effortlessly commanding in whatever role he played. This is not just uncommon. It is absolutely miraculous. Poitier made the art of screen acting completely invisible by simply being. He assimilated the characteristics of his roles, and he consequently became those people. In any event, there must be something specific as to what I love the most about watching Poitier in films time and again. There certainly is. He is so consistently decent, articulate, handsome and reasonable that he always makes everyone around him in pictures look terminally foolish. It is astonishing to behold because there is no trace of superiority, disdain or condescending attitude when he does this. Poitier is the greatest of teachers about life and the human condition. It always shows in his work. But when did he actually begin in pictures?
He made his powerful debut in Joseph Mankiewicz’s “No Way Out” (1950). This is still a vivid and dramatic account of racial prejudice in the guise of a film noir thriller. Poitier played a graduate doctor assigned to a municipal hospital with a liberal administrator played by Stephen McNally. Two thugs, brothers, are brought in and the doctor operates on one because he detects something beyond a mere gunshot wound. The man dies, and his brother (Richard Widmark), a racist psychotic, vows that he will kill the doctor. He orchestrates a riot, but the dead man’s widow (Linda Darnell) realizes the stupidity of it all and moves to save the doctor. “No Way Out” still retains its strength as a scathing indictment of prejudice. Thanks to the excellent writing and direction of Mankiewicz, it is also a superior drama. Poitier was the one who ultimately stole the film, and better things were still to come.
Throughout the fifties, Poitier shone in a series of remarkably diverse and engaging roles. Ostensibly, they accomplished what they set out to do. They demonstrated his range and versatility within a vast array of genres. He was quietly memorable opposite Glenn Ford in “The Blackboard Jungle” (1955). Poitier followed this with an outstanding pair of action oriented, historically sound period pictures, Raoul Walsh’s “Band of Angels” (1957) and Richard Brooks’s “Something of Value” (1957) opposite Rock Hudson and Dana Wynter. That same year, he was superb opposite John Cassavetes and Jack Warden in the racially themed social drama, “Edge of The City” (1957), directed by Martin Ritt.
Director Stanley Kramer’s “The Defiant Ones” (1958) was something of an advance on Hollywood’s usual treatment of racial themes. Having said that, it may have come across in the screenplay and Kramer’s direction as being a bit too single minded for its own good. Thankfully, the chemistry between Tony Curtis and Poitier, the solid action scenes and some beautifully shot black and white cinematography helped to save the day. A chain was the clanking symbol which bound racist Tony Curtis to Poitier. They were cons on the run. The pair find themselves literally bound to one another when the truck in which they’re travelling to jail is involved in an accident. A bond and friendship forms between them as they try to survive together. Perhaps it goes without saying that “The Defiant Ones” is something of a cinematic product of its time. Nevertheless, it remains an exciting thriller and a significant picture in the rising filmography of Poitier.
Director Daniel Petrie’s “A Raisin in The Sun” (1961) primarily took place in a small, sunless Chicago apartment in the city’s all-black South Side. Petrie found enough invention and movement in his camera set-ups to make a virtue and a plot point of the claustrophobic setting. Lorraine Hansberry’s story was about a hardworking black family’s attempts to move out of a stifling environment and into a better area. Poitier is the son of the family, and he takes the $10,000 life insurance money that his mother receives on the death of her husband. He invests the money in a liquor store, but his partner absconds with the proceeds. At this point, the movie becomes one of the most charming, elegaic and heartwarming renditions on the power of familial bonding and togetherness that I’ve ever seen. It still holds well and the power of the movie resonates brightly to this very day. With Petrie’s assured direction and a supporting cast of players including Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands and Ivan Dixon, the picture remains one of the artistic highpoints in Poitier’s career.
A few years later, he joined forces with director Ralph Nelson for “Lilies of The Field” (1963). Not surprisingly, Poitier did the finest work of his career up to that point, and he deservedly won the Oscar for best actor of the year. He played a very jovial, footloose workman who bonds with a group of nuns. It was Poitier’s natural charm and way with comedy that saved the movie from falling into the trap of maudlin sentimentality. As a result, the themes of Christian unity, racial harmony and simple faith were intelligently expounded in a tale of how Poitier teaches English to a group of five East European nuns and helps them build a chapel in the Arizona desert. To this day, “Lilies of The Field” remains one of the most pleasant cinematic diversions of the sixties.
A few years later, Poitier gave a pair of his most subtly commanding performances in a couple of pictures that could not have been more different from one another. He found the necessary depth and warmth that elevated Guy Green’s “A Patch of Blue” (1965) far above the level of mere conventional melodrama. Even more impressively, in Sydney Pollack’s “A Slender Thread” (1965), he was a social worker in a Seattle crisis clinic who receives quite a serious phone call. To maintain maximum suspense and full throttle intensity, Poitier must keep a distraught, suicidal woman on the line (flawlessly played by Anne Bancroft) so that the call can be traced before she conks out after a supposed overdose of pills. The movie was a balancing act that worked primarily because the sparks between Poitier and Bancroft were so deftly handled and eloquently played.
The following year, Poitier was in one of the most intense Westerns of the decade. The film was Ralph Nelson’s “Duel At Diablo” (1966), and it remains one of the hardest, most unconventional Westerns I’ve ever seen. Based on Marvin H. Albert’s novel, “Apache Rising,” the picture had scout James Garner rescuing Bibi Andersson from marauding Indians, and taking her back to the fort where her husband, the sadistic Dennis Weaver, is waiting. Garner, horse-breaker Poitier and Andersson survive some savage attacks, making for some of the most thrilling action cinema of the sixties. The following year was big for Poitier from the standpoint of achieving personal artisitic successes. Three incredible pictures, and one of them turned out to be the Oscar winning best film of the year.
No question about it that Norman Jewison’s “In The Heat of The Night” (1967) deservedly took home the Oscar gold for best picture of the year. And yet, as I visit the movie again today, I find that it remains consistently watchable, and it is almost entirely because of the flawless performances given by Rod Steiger and especially Sidney Poitier. The by-the-numbers whodunnit plot of “In The Heat of The Night” merely formed the framework for an expose of racial bigotry in a small Mississippi town. The butt of the prejudice is Philadelphia’s number one detective Virgil Tibbs (played with immense dignity and passion by Poitier). He finds himself having to help Gillespie, a thick redneck police chief (Steiger), in an enquiry into the murder of ”the most important white man in town.” The crux of Stirling Silliphant’s exceptional script was the dominance game played by the white bigot and the black homicide expert from which the latter emerges victorious by solving the case. With good reason, “In The Heat of The Night” is one of the very finest American films ever made.
The same year, Poitier performed exceptionally well in a couple of moving and worthwhile ventures, James Clavell’s “To Sir, With Love” (1967) and Stanley Kramer’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967). He continued to work steadily and effectively throughout the sixties. He lent his skill and expertise to a marvellously efficient and crafty thriller in which he starred opposite the beautiful Joanna Shimkus. The movie was “The Lost Man” (1969), and it remains one of the lesser seen Poitier pictures that is absolutely worth seeking out.
The popularity of the Virgil Tibbs character proved to be infectious, and Poitier elegantly reprised the role in two action-packed sequels, Gordon Douglas’s “They Call Me Mister Tibbs” (1970) and “The Organization” (1971). Right around this time, there was a change. Poitier knew he wanted to expand as an artist. He felt the need to broaden his own creative horizons. Having worked with some of the finest directors in the history of cinema, the next step was obvious. Direction. It must be said that Poitier emerged on the scene as a director right around the time that Blaxploitation Cinema became so popular around the world. I love Blaxploitation films, but it is extremely important to recognize that what Poitier offered as a filmmaker went against the grain of preconceived expectations. It goes without saying that movies like “Shaft” (1971), “Slaughter” (1972) and “Coffy” (1973) remain timeless classics of the Blaxploitation genre. But Poitier’s movies were different in every way imaginable. Rather than offer what all the other filmmakers were doing as a means of following the pack, Poitier’s films focused more on character, situation and comedy. Thank God for these films. In truth, they are not an antidote to conventional Blaxploitation. They were simply a different stylistic approach to filmmaking, and his movies as a director have aged beautifully.
Poitier’s “Buck And The Preacher” (1971) was his initial effort as a film director and it remains a terrific debut for any filmmaker. First and foremost, he had a wonderful eye and a keen visual sense. But most importantly, as a great actor himself, he was extremely sympathetic to the needs of his actors. As a result, in any Sidney Poitier directed film you see, his actors always deliver some of the finest performances of their careers. With “Buck And The Preacher,” Poitier crafted an amiable Western in which he played a former Union cavalryman-turned-trail-guide who protects former slaves from labor recruiters as they head West. Enter Harry Belafonte as a con-man pretending to be a preacher, and the mood lightened as he and Poitier joined forces to defeat the odious villian played by Cameron Mitchell. The movie still remains a personal favorite of mine.
A few years later, Poitier joined forces with the great Bill Cosby. Together, they embarked on a series of cinematic adventures which are unlike any other films of the seventies. These were not conventional Blaxploitation comedy actioners. They were just great pictures, and the first of these films is still the best, as well as Poitier’s finest achievement as a director. The movie was “Uptown Saturday Night” (1974). Poitier was a factory worker and Cosby was a taxi driver. Together, they set out to recover a wallet containing a winning lottery ticket worth $50,000, stolen from them on the one occasion in their lives they decide to visit an illegal after-hours club. The set-up was riotously amusing, and the nonstop comic interludes which followed featured the greatest ensemble of players Poitier ever assembled including Harry Belafonte, Richard Pryor, Roscoe Lee Browne, Calvin Lockhart, Paula Kelly and Rosalind Cash. Phenomenal cast in one of my favorite films of the seventies. There was more great fun and clever storytelling to be found in the Poitier directed pictures which followed also co-starring Cosby, “Let’s Do It Again” (1975) and “A Piece of The Action” (1977).
As the eighties commenced, Poitier still had his eye on directing. “Stir Crazy” (1980) remains his most unexpected departure as a director, and it is still a somewhat compelling and oddly moving comedy starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in their second collaboration after “Silver Streak” (1976). Poitier seemed unusually sensitive and attuned to the different comic talents of his two stars. As a result, the element of chemistry between them is captured in a series of comic and moving setpieces that permeate the film after the caustic and ironic set-up that gets the two of them wrongfully thrown in jail. One is an aspiring playwright. The other is a would-be actor. In Arizona, they’re arrested for a robbery they didn’t commit, and the madcap hijinks that follow are laced with an unusual degree of pathos, despite the fact that the movie is also hilarious. Continuing his streak as a filmmaker throughout the eighties with films like “Hanky Panky” (1982) and “Fast Forward” (1985), he was noticeably absent from the silver screen. Millions of people from around the world at the end of the decade were sorely missing seeing Poitier the actor (myself included). Thankfully, he answered the call right around the decade’s end, and gave one of the finest performances of his career in a riveting outdoor actioner.
Roger Spottiswoode’s “Shoot to Kill” (1988) featured a botched robbery gone awry during the nerve jangling opening sequence. A thief turned murderer played by Clancy Brown is suddenly on the loose. Poitier had been absent from the screen as an actor for a decade, and he came back here better than ever. He looked terrific, and he threw himself into the movie’s numerous action scenes with uncanny vigor. He played a city cop who combined forces with a mountain guide (Tom Berenger) to apprehend the killer. The killer has joined a hunting party. As they traverse the Pacific Northwest, he kills all of them and takes the guide’s unsuspecting girlfriend hostage. The chase is on, and the picture emerged as more than just a comeback for Poitier. It was one hell of an exciting thrill ride.
Later that year, he was wonderfully moving and world-weary as the FBI agent who uncovers some startling information on River Phoenix’s parents in Richard Benjamin’s low key, underrated drama, “Little Nikita” (1988). It turns out that Phoenix’s parents aren’t true-blooded American but Russian spies or ”sleepers” who have been dormant for the last 20 years but have now been called to duty. How Poitier and Phoenix untangle the mysterious events and network of intrigue surrounding his parents was at the core of the smart screenplay by John Hill and Bo Goldman. But there was no doubt that the heart and soul of the movie was the tender and moving frienship that forms gradually between Poitier and Phoenix.
In the nineties, Poitier continued to work, and he gave a series of excellent performances. Some of the pictures he appeared in around this time were “Sneakers” (1992), “The Jackal” (1997) opposite Bruce Willis and Richard Gere and “Mandela And De Klerk” (1997). There was no one around this time in movies who was more deserving of a lifetime achievement award. Poitier had delivered an amazing body of work over decades, and he had broken so much new ground, acted in and directed so many wonderful films. Therefore, it was impossible for me to think of a more deserving recipient at the end of the last century than Poitier to receive a lifetime achievement award. In the Oscars for 2002, the honorary Oscar was given to Mr. Poitier, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I will conclude with a final thought on this extraordinary artist and human being. There is no actor in the history of movies who has been able to make me smile so happily and sincerely from one film to the next like Sidney Poitier. For me, that is not just something. It is everything.
By: Steven Kobrin