Sidney Poitier was an iconic cinematic legend and artistic giant. In a career which spanned over 60 years, Poitier found success in some of Hollywood’s most memorable films like Blackboard Jungle (1955), The Defiant Ones (1958), Porgy and Bess (1959), A Raisin in the Sun (1961), To Sir, with Love (1967), In the Heat of the Night (1967), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), and winning an Oscar for his work in the 1963 film, Lilies of the Field. Poitier was a versatile actor who brought a regal majesty to his roles, imbuing a stylish dignity to the parts; but he also had a sly sense of humor which he was able to bring to his lighter work. In the 1960s, whilst cities across the USA were seeing protests, rebellions, and tumult, Poitier was enjoying his greatest success, becoming a major box office draw. Along with his career as an actor and director, Poitier used his celebrity to draw attention to important causes, the Civil Rights in particular. At the height of his fame, he was an outspoken advocate for racial equality and he was one of the few widely popular film stars of Hollywood during the 1960s.
Though his screen persona and inherent elegance would sometimes limit him to roles that relied on his sleek looks and gravitas, he was able to transcend even the most idealized roles by giving them more depth, humanity, and tone than the scripts would have; Poitier was in an unenviable position: as being one of the few Black film superstars, he was saddled with a responsibility to be everything to everyone. It was unfair. White audiences didn’t want him to be a three-dimensional human being and Hollywood wanted him to be an emblem (and would treat him as a token at times), but Poitier overcame these constricts and created a filmography that is rich and varied.
Top 10 The Highlights of Sidney Poitier
Blackboard Jungle (1955) – an explosive and then-innovative film that looked to urban blight and racial tensions that arise in an inner-city high school in 1950s New York City. Much of the film’s legacy is wrapped in its unflinching look at the various struggles of city public schools; Blackboard Jungle is also known for its use of rock and roll on its soundtrack. As with most films that look to chronicle the various struggles that befall on the inner-city, Blackboard Jungle is rife with issues, namely a white savior narrative as well as exploitation of trauma. Poitier – in an early performance – plays a troubled teen who starts off as a rough antagonist to the film’s protagonist (Glenn Ford), before eventually growing and developing a truce and an allegiance. As with a lot of his roles, Poitier does deep, empathetic work.
Edge of the City (1957) – an early part of Poitier’s career, Edge of the City is a moving drama that is at-once profound and, yet still has issues that date it. The film is an important of the construction of Poitier’s screen persona – particularly, the perception of his nobility. Edge of the City talks about race and friendship as well as violence and cruelty. The script – written by Robert Alan Arthur – makes Poitier’s character a combination of ideals and norms and is typical of the “issue films” of the 1950s. Director Martin Ritt, a veteran of FDR’s WPA, and an artist who was caught up in the Hollywood Red Scare, put together a film that ticked the boxes of white liberal popular cinematic art of the mid-century. Even though Edge of the City would have a hand in some of Poitier’s casting issues later on, he gives a complex performance, doing wonderful work.
Porgy and Bess (1959) – The tragic musical – composed by George and Ira Gershwin – was brought to the screen by Otto Preminger. The film is an important, if curious, entry in Poitier’s oeuvre, as it wasn’t initially successful and subsequently, it failed to find a home viewing audience as well (substandard copies of the film are available). The script – written by N. Richard Nash, based on the libretto by DuBose Heyward – has a troubled story that includes difficult topics, including rape, poverty, murder, and drug addiction. Though by 1959, the movie musical was about to enter a difficult period in the genre’s history, the stark tragedy of the opera made for a difficult subject for a Hollywood musical. Poitier gives an impassioned performance (despite being dubbed by Met opera star Robert McFerrin) and is matched with the luminous, yet tragic Dorothy Dandridge.
A Raisin in the Sun (1961) – Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark stage drama was made into this important film that featured a searing, explosive performance as the troubled and complex Walter Lee Younger. The play is a pointed look at housing discrimination, economic and racial prejudice, and the importance of human dignity. Hansberry’s work remains a seminal piece of art that shines a much-needed spotlight social conditions that affirm racial and economic inequities. Poitier’s performance is truly magnificent in this film and he does personable work with his costars, Ruby Dee (as his wife, Ruth) and a truly towering Claudia McNeil (as the Younger matriarch, Lena). A Raisin in the Sun poses questions about the choices people are forced to make when they are desperate and in difficult situations and Hansberry refuses to offer pat, easy answers.
Lilies of the Field (1963) – This film won Poitier the Oscar for Best Actor in 1963. The Ralph Nelson film – based on William Edmund Barrett’s novella – is a sentimental story about a young man, Homer Smith (Poitier) who finds himself working with a group of nuns, helping them to build a new chapel. A wary, complicated friendship develops, particularly with Homer and Mother Maria (Lilia Skala), who believes Homer has been sent by God to help. Poitier deserves the Oscar for his performance, which is warm, funny, and deeply humane. Unfortunately, after 60 years, it’s clear that the role is somewhat one-note and reinforces the idea of Black people being dropped on this earth to help and serve others, particularly whites. Homer breezes into the nuns’ lives and because his empathy (as well as pride) is manipulated by the strong-willed Mother Maria, he sticks around to help the group, and then, just as quickly, he disappears after being of use. Lilies of the Field is engaging, mainly because Poitier’s warmth and multi-layered performance.
A Patch of Blue (1965) – like a lot of Poitier’s films, A Patch of Blue is another ‘issue’ film that tackles a topic and does so with a lot drama (though maybe this film can tip a bit into melodrama). Like many of his other roles, Poitier’s Gordon Ralfe is a kind, upstanding individual tasked to help save someone: this time a young, blind woman who is an abuse victim, nearly pushed to prostitution by her monster of a mother. The actor brings an intelligence to the role and though Guy Green’s script packs a lot of bathos to the proceedings, Poitier doesn’t let his work get buried by the seemingly dramatic plot. But what makes A Patch of Blueis the sensitive way in which Green tells this story of interracial friendship, maybe love, and Poitier gives a beautiful performance.
To Sir, with Love (1967) – One of the best high school movies ever, Poitier seems to have closed a loop of sorts, playing a student in a troubled American high school in Blackboard Jungle and in middle age, he plays a teacher at an East London school in To Sir, with Love. It’s not a perfect film – it does dip into sentimentality at times, and there are some predictable beats – but again, Poitier elevates the material with his graceful work. Because of Poitier’s popularity and star power, the film is considered a popular classic and a big hit, one of his most successful movies of his career.
In the Heat of the Night (1967) – Norman Jewison’s atmospheric, tense, and taught drama that has political and social relevance still today, particularly when we look at the relationships between criminal justice, the police, and Black Americans. Poitier is Virgil Tibbs, a talented police officer who is racially profiled in Sparta, Mississippi, but agrees to stay in the town to help the local racist police chief (Rod Steiger in an Oscar-winning performance) solve a murder. Jewison captures a simmering, terrifying Mississippi in which Tibbs is tasked to do his work in a hostile environment, continuously reminded of the town’s antipathy for his presence. It’s a great film that doesn’t aim to show redemption or happy answers about race – instead, it’s a suspenseful thriller that works as a backdrop to social commentary about the corrosive effects of racism and bigotry.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) – Director Stanley Kramer was known for his social critique films. For Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Kramer looked to interracial marriage (it’s important to note that during the film’s production, interracial marriage was illegal in 17 states). The film is a solid comedy that is notable for being the final pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn (who won an Oscar for her work). Poitier is very good in this film – though to be honest, his role is somewhat thin. He was posited as the ideal man with little-to-no flaws, so Poitier has to work hard to make his character interesting and stand out – which he does with some charming aplomb. More so than any other performance of his career, this role relies almost exclusively on his star power and movie star charisma.
For Love Ivy (1968) – Sidney Poitier put together this story and worked with Robert Alan Arthur, with whom he worked on Edge of the City for this romantic comedy that paired him with jazz virtuoso, Abbey Lincoln. The film was another popular hit for Poitier and it was a charming film, far lighter than most of much of his work during the 1960s. It showed that the actor as funny and very appealing; he’s a breath of fresh air.
In Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, social stratification and hierarchy define the stylized wilderness of the fictional Bronson Alcott High School. There’s an adopted caste system of social groups that move throughout the school, rarely overlapping with each other, and supporting the tiered world in which the film’s heroine, Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) rules from the top. Cher uses her popularity for her own betterment, but she also has flashes of noblesse oblige, understanding that her place of privilege also has its responsibilities. Though some unfamiliar with the film would dismiss Cher as an archetypal “dumb blonde,” it’s clear that though Cher may not be scholastically inclined, she’s a sharp and shrewd player in her world – a masterful manipulator of her circumstance, who has been able to flourish socially because of a combination of wit, guile, and dashing. The movie – based on Jane Austen’s comedy Emma – tells the story of social mobility and class warfare in the context of an affluent Beverly Hills high school.
Part of what makes the film so successful is Heckerling’s ability to write teenagers. Though 40 when she wrote the film, Clueless features sparkling dialogue that simultaneously lampoons and honours teenage lingo. The phrase “As if!” has entered the popular vernacular, and the film’s stylized take on high school life resonated with audiences in spite of the conspicuous wealth depicted in the film. The film easily transcends the familiar “teen comedy” or “high school comedy” trope. Cher ultimately emerges from this film as a flawed but enjoyable protagonist, as she proves to be a perfect guide to the world in which she’s perched near the top. The success of the film and its ingenious way of telling the story is due, in large part, to the talents of Heckerling, a veteran of teen comedies, and an auteur who has proven to be a formidable chronicler of teenaged life.
Amy Heckerling is celebrated for being one of the most consistent comedic directors in the 1980s and 1990s, helming mainstream comedies like the Look Who’s Talking franchise, National Lampoon’s European Vacation, and arguably her most important work (save for Clueless), 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a film that could be seen as a precursor to Clueless. In Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Heckerling takes on Cameron Crowe’s script about the intertwining lives of high school teenagers. She gives audiences an almost Altman-esque look at the California high school, and as with she did with Silverstone in Clueless, she pulls an iconic, breakout, star-making performance from a then-rising star Sean Penn (Fast Times was only his second film) In the best of her work, Heckerling has an uncanny eye for telling funny, tart stories that manage to be clever and intellectual, and yet firmly mainstream. Clueless is ultimate Amy Heckerling film that combines the filmmaker’s intellectual vigor, commercial instincts, and satirical eye.
Clueless came out in the summer of 1995 in the midst of a minor trend of Jane Austen dramatizations. This Austen-boom, so to speak, saw big screen adaptations of Austen classics such as Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Persuasion, and a more faithful adaptation of Emma. In Clueless, Heckerling takes the story of Emma: a rich young girl who meddles in the lives of others, and moves the story from 1815 England to 1995 Beverly Hills. Austen’s titular heroine is a spoiled woman whose life is choked with privilege. Due to her wealth, Emma doesn’t have to be married to earn wealth and security; and because her mother died, Emma assumed the role of head of her household. As a result, she’s bored and as a distraction, she turns to her community. Because she’s smart and beautiful, Emma is also very conceited and believes she can do no wrong, which inspires her to become a matchmaker, as well as, to engineer some social mobility. Hecklerling’s adaptation is pretty faithful, particularly, in how she brings Austen’s issues of class consciousness and highlights how timeless some of these issues are.
In Clueless, Emma is now Cher, though her concerns are largely the same. She lives in a giant Beverly Hills mansion, with a distracted father and must contend with the regular scolding of an older brother-figure. In her high school, Cher with her best friend Dionne (Stacey Dash), go through the hallways, leaders of their social pack. With her skill and acumen, Cher can manipulate those around her, including her teachers, who are susceptible to her charms. And similarly to when Emma found Harriet Smith, and worked on making her into a society lady, Cher finds her Harriet in Tai (the late Brittany Murphy), a genial outcast who “benefits” from Cher’s makeover. Though writers like Nore Ephron and Carrie Fisher have been likened to Austen – primarily for their ability to craft well-constructed comedies with biting wit – but Heckerling was able to capture Austen’s devastatingly sharp sense of humour and recast it in a 1990s setting. There are wonderful sight gags – the sight of cellphones plastered on people’s faces was hilarious back in 1995 – and the costumes (by Mona May) are cartoonishly over the top. Heckerling coats everything in a shiny, glossy, candy shell. But more importantly, Heckerling gives Clueless a strong narrator, who reports the various school cliques back to the audience, with an exhaustive breadth of knowledge and an unerring eye for detail. These different cliques rely on socio-economic status, gender, sexuality, cultural identity, and race. Though there’s nothing inherently better/worse about these different cliques, it’s clear that in Cher’s social circle, there’s strict guidance on when, why, and how members of various cliques interact.
In Austen’s Emma, the title character’s ultimate downfall comes when she realizes that true social mobility is impossible (at least in 1815 England) When Emma tries to raise her friend Harriet to that of her own social equal, other societal and economic factors outside of Emma’s control intrude. Emma learns that she cannot control everything in her society, despite her arrogance. In Cher’s case, social mobility works on a different level because 1990s Beverly Hills society is slightly more porous than 1880s England. Tai is able to pass successfully in Cher’s social circle because much of what marks someone in a certain social milieu are consumer-driven markers, namely clothes, makeup, and cars. Like most “misfits” in teen comedies, Tai’s conventional beauty is hidden under a modicum of frumpy, unstylish clothing, but after a makeover, she is Cher’s physical equal. In the sequences when Cher is working on Tai, the text also recalls another great literary figure, George Bernard Shaw, and his Pygmalion. Cher’s downfall, like Emma’s, comes when Cher learns that her skills at social planning are limited – though Tai is reasonably successful at aping high society, she also is a source of rancor when she rebels against Cher’s self-serving advice.
Like traditional romantic comedies, Clueless ends on a happy note. Cher, suitably chastened and wiser now, understands the errors of her way and gets the guy she’s meant to be with: not the handsome and dashing Christian Stovitz (Justin Walker), who ends up being queer; nor does she respond positively to the overtures of Elton Tiscia (Jeremy Sisto), whom Cher was grooming for Tai. Instead, like Emma is paired with the sensible George Knightly, Cher is paired with serious Josh Lucas (Paul Rudd), who brings out the best in her. In their pairing, Heckerling steps away from the Austen model (in which the rich and powerful Emma marries the even more rich and powerful Knightly), and instead engineers some smart social mobility: Josh, a “misfit” of sorts (which is why it makes sense that he and Tai found each other somewhat compatible) finds himself in love with the quintessential queen bee, who appears to be the antithesis of his self-serious and intellectual ideals; and Cher finds herself in love with Josh, a social introvert who rejects her way of life as shallow and unsubstantial. Both understand that they have “layers” – this is beautifully played out when Cher corrects Josh’s snobby girlfriend on a detail about Shakespeare’s Hamlet (though Cher’s point of reference is from Mel Gibson’s rendition of the play – a delicious, Heckerlingian way of braiding high and low art)
An important part of the lore in Clueless is the setting. Beverly Hills connotes wealth and affluence – but it can also mean nouveau riche and tacky. Heckerling’s characters constantly skirt and play with the boundaries that separate these concepts. Though the denizens of Beverly Hills are popularly seen as having access to high society, Heckerling does view these people with a tart eye. Cher and Dionne themselves seem impeachable – they understand the ins and outs of social grace and are therefore presented as the ideal, but the people around them, create a loud and colourful array of personalities that continuously push the boundaries of taste, elegance, and class, regardless of economic status. Young girls roam the hallways of Bronson Alcott High School, sporting bandages after nose jobs gifted to them for birthdays. A ladies’ restroom is awakened to a symphony of ringtones, as the collected group of young ladies each checks to see if it’s her phone that’s ringing. And the villain of the film, Amber Mariens (Elisa Donovan) eschews social niceties, openly mocking and bullying those she feels are social inferiors – the latter is especially important because though Cher also harbours snobbery, she isn’t as cruel when engaging with other cliques.
When Heckerling shows these lapses in the social rules, she’s highlighting just how superficial and arbitrary these restrictions are. These moments are meant to be funny and inject the film with much of its humour – especially when members of the cliques have to interact with each other (that is why the moments in the classrooms are so priceless) but also important because Heckerling is not only skewering a hierarchal system that is at base, unfair and without merit, but also, this is a sly case of Heckerling skewering her members of her own industry. The film would not work as it does if it was set in another setting. For example, Mark Water’s Mean Girls (2005) deals with many of the same themes as Clueless but the satirical edge is less cartoony, less camp, and less fabulous because instead of being set in the ridiculous Beverly Hills, it’s set in the more sensible Midwest. Heckerling is not only playing with a relatable subject – being under the bottom rung of the social ladder in high school – but she’s also playing with a recognizable subject: the stupidly rich people of Beverly Hills. She knows that audiences of Clueless were also raised on a steady diet of Beverly Hills 90210, and are very familiar with the tropes that come with a locale that is almost solely defined by the wealth of its residents.
Once Clueless was released, it was met with a warm reception by critics and achieved cult classic status. Its promotional material encapsulates what was thought of as “decadent, silly, rich” in 1995: The film’s main stars, Silverstone, Dash, and Murphy, standing on a grand, neo-classical staircase, covered in purple carpet, each with a cellphone near her face. The clothing is costumey and stylized, that is reminiscent of Patricia Field’s work (I was surprised that she wasn’t the stylist for the film) and the image is the kind of cartoony, rich Beverly Hills caricature that viewers immediately hang their expectations on; the gaudy trashiness of the staircase (I can’t tell what’s uglier – the black bannister or the gold fleur-de-lis) coupled with Silverstone’s absurd ensemble (she’s wearing a red mini dress and a feather boa – she’s dressed like a drag queen), clues us in that this movie is a giant goose to the posterior of Beverly Hills rich self-absorption.
On the ’12 Days of Christmas’ I’m sharing my favorite Christmas movies, albums, Christmas episodes, specials, one for each day until we get to Christmas Day.
There are certain parts of pop culture that are so lionized and ubiquitous that it’s difficult to assess its quality. Are these beloved bits of pop culture really great or is it just our memory, tinged with nostalgia? Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas is arguably one of the most important popular Christmas recordings of the 20th century. Tracks from the album – most notably Guaraldi’s pensive, shuffling take on the standard, “O Tannenbaum” and the original composition, “Christmas Time Is Here” – are licensed for countless television programs and played on the radio during the holidays.
Guaraldi’s soundtrack to the classic 1965 animated special captures Charles Schulz’s melancholic, somewhat sad take on Christmas. The special is a lovely piece of yuletide storytelling: the titular Charlie Brown is fretting because he’s feeling anxious about the holidays, in particular, whether he’s loved by his friends and whether the holidays have become too commercial. The skimpy, scrawny tree Charlie identifies with is a perfect encapsulation the charm behind A Charlie Brown Christmas. Schulz’s holiday stories are about the underdog hoping to persevere.
The score is perfect. Guaraldi’s soft, quiet work is a wonderful accompaniment to Schulz’s gentle story. It’s an odd album in that it’s a jazz record and a holiday record all at once – and save for some obviously Christmas tunes – it’s a record that isn’t tied to the holidays, and could have been a year-long album, not tied to December, had it not become such a Christmas icon.
Guaraldi takes on piano-playing duties himself and matches the slow, relaxed pace of the Christmas special. The poignancy of A Charlie Brown Christmas is summed up on the moody, thoughtful “O Tannenbaum.” It’s not the raucous, ebullient holiday music we’re normally accustomed to; instead, Guaraldi wants to capture the quiet moments during the holidays: the moments when we stop and sigh, looking at our loved ones in affection, taking in the twinkling loveliness of the Christmas tree. The instrumental take on “Christmas Time Is Here” is equally pensive and lovely. The jazzy “Skating” is set to a gently joyful piano that rolls slowly like a small trickle of water.
Though A Charlie Brown Christmas is a seemingly meek affair, Guaraldi throws in a few moments of spirit. “Christmas Is Coming” shuffles with some nimble piano playing. And of course, the sassy “Linus and Lucy” has transcended mere holiday music and has become legendary on its own merits (we can just picture the Peanuts gang grooving to the tune) And largely an instrumental album, there are a couple of tracks that are spiked with the joyfully tuneless warbling of a children’s choir, their off-key trilling sounding utterly charming and sweet in the genuine joy and fun; these kids’ amateurish approach to chanting the Christmas chestnut “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” is great to listen to because it feels like one has stumbled into a Christmas pageant.
After its release in 1965, the album’s legend grew exponentially as new generations embraced this record. Though many of the album’s tracks were licensed repeatedly their impact was not diminished by the sustained playing of the songs on the radio, on television, and during the holidays at shopping malls and department stores more than 50 years ago. Its sheer beauty lies in its wistful, lilting simplicity.
Something very important was happening. It wasn’t just about the music.
In the summer of 1969, hundreds of thousands of people convened on Mount Morris Park in Harlem to witness pop music history. For six weeks, some of Black music’s most powerful and amazing artists entertained large crowds with soul, jazz, pop, and gospel music. The 1960s were drawing to a violent and dispiriting close, with the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy. Rebellions ripped through the innercity and Black communities were targeted by the police. In this tumultuous context, the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival was a seeming salve to bring peace, love, and art to a community that was struggling for equality.
Despite the high attendance and the superstar caliber of the entertainers, the festival has slipped into unjust obscurity until the careful curation of Questlove, the drummer and frontman of the hip-hop band, the Roots. A reported four hours has been whittled down to a tidy two hours, most of the performances truncated to accommodate interviews with attendees as well as participants. Though it would’ve been great to see the performances in full – and I’d love to see the full four hours – Summer of Soul is a fantastic tribute to a beautiful moment in pop and contemporary history when artists of different genres were able to get together to give happiness and escape to their audiences.
The talent that graced the stage for the festival is dizzying. By the late 1960s, soul music was going through an evolution that saw the gospel-influenced popular music taking on psychedelic sounds that reflected the times. This evolution was illustrated with a performance by the successful pop-soul group the 5th Dimension which was singing their big hit “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” from the Broadway musical Hair. Members Billy Davis, Jr. and Marilyn McCoo are on hand to talk about their participation in the festival and how important it was for the group, which was dragged by criticisms that they were “too white.” In one of the film’s many moving moments, McCoo is moved to tears as she watches a younger version of herself with her bandmates performing at this once-in-a-lifetime event.
Along with the Fifth Dimension, other legendary acts like Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder narrate their performances. Staples, in particular, has a great account in which she talks about performing with gospel great Mahalia Jackson, when the two were introduced by a young Jesse Jackson to sing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Staples and Jackson duet on the spiritual with a transcendent power that is simply breathtaking. The Edwin Hawkins Singers also provide a spiritual highlight in the film with their classic “Oh Happy Day.”
Though the church songs were among the most moving, the film chronicles pop superstars Stevie Wonder, David Ruffin, Sly and the Family Stone, and Gladys Knight acknowledging that their involvement with the festival was an important turning point in their careers in which they assessed the direction of their sound. Wonder – who was a mere 19 years-old when performing at the festival – reminisces about his participation in the show and how it informed the kind of artist he wanted to be as an adult. Ruffin, of the Temptations, who is shown performing a mind-blowing version of “My Girls” (though his vocals are sandpapery and rough, he hits some gravity-defying whistle notes), represents a bridge between the respectability politics of the Motown assembly line and its tux and evening gown aesthetic to the more modern sounds of the festival. An important highlight of the film is the appearance of Nina Simone who commands the stage with a regal presence. After a performance of her song “Young, Gifted, and Black,” Simone recites a poem to the appreciative crowds, reading the fiery and powerful lyrics of David Nelson of the Last Poets.
One of the things that Summer of Soul indicates is the intersection of politics and the music festival. Organizer Tony Lawrence is portrayed as a canny and impressive impresario who is able to parlay his talents to network with and ingratiate himself to political, cultural, and business leaders of the time. New York mayor John Lindsey is portrayed as a sympathetic ally to Lawrence’s agenda, appearing at the festival, being coined a “blue-eyed soul brother” and several interview subjects testify to Lindsey’s allegiance to the Civil Rights Movement.
The participation of activists Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Denise Oliver-Velez is an excellent way to firm the connection between the use of art in promoting social justice and racial equality. Hunter-Gault, a journalist for The New York Times, spoke in the film to the importance and power of embracing the word “Black” and its coinage being so significant at the time; scenes in the film moved away from the concert stage to beauty shops, barber shops, boutiques, as the media began to cover different forms of Black beauty, including hair and fashion, which took its roots from Afro-centrism. These are very important scenes that highlight the importance of the festival and how it was was one part of a larger tapestry of a response to the racism and oppression that met Black and brown people.
When I saw the film, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos innovated space tourism. During the festival, man walked on space. In a smart juxtaposition of reactions, the film showed the news media gauging the interest in the lunar landing: white respondents were enthusiastic, marveling at the technological innovation; Black respondents were less impressed, highlighting that the high cost of these endeavors could be directed toward urban renewal and to combat homelessness and poverty. This instance is only one of many when dark parallels are found: police brutality, communities reacting to violence with rebellion, politicians neglecting the concerns of communities of color. What Summer of Soul does best is not only capture a beautiful moment but the conditions that made such a beautiful moment necessary. Attendee Musa Jackson summed it up best when he remembered, “It was incredible. Families. Fathers. Mothers. Kids running around – I was one of those kids. Beautiful, beautiful women. Beautiful men. It was like seeing royalty.”
In a way, it was a matter of trying to come to terms with a reality that I sensed from these movies that I’d seen from 1945 on to 1957. But I did away with the convention of the time.
When assessing Martin Scorsese’s career, most will cite Raging Bull, Mean Streets, or Goodfellas as his greatest achievements. Reading through a series of top ten lists, and the predictable entries appear: The Wolf of Wall Street, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Departed, Mean Streets. The most controversial entries could be Casino or The Age of Innocence. Few people will mention New York, New York, his foray into the movie musical, which saw the director try to introduce the traditional Hollywood musical to the New Hollywood of the 1970s. Like much of his work, the film carries themes of anger and ambition – though instead of framing it in the crime world, he couches his concerns in post-war show business. Urban decay is an important thread throughout his films – the decay that brings about organised crime, but in this case, Scorsese wards off urban blight in his hermetically-sealed fictional world that at-times resembles a lush box of Valentines Day candy. It was his first big-budget spectacular that found the director helming a project that cost over $14 million, a seemingly instant ascent from his more modest productions. Despite the resources and talent involved, New York, New York is sad case of a brilliant director with a brilliant idea that almost pulls it off.
New York, New York is Scorsese’s attempt to bring Vincent Minnelli or Stanley Donen into the 1970s, whilst still maintain the verisimilitude of his filmmaking style. It’s an uneasy marriage because Minnelli, Donen, Busby Berkeley, Charles Walters filmed in a highly stylized, artificial manner. Their movies suspended reality. Characters would break into song in the middle of conversations, with extras joining in intricate choreography, while invisible orchestras back them up. The costumes were often grand, and the acting was pitched higher, as if they were performing on a Broadway stage. Aesthetically these movies looked different, too, because they were often filmed on sets simulating cities like Paris, New York, or Los Angeles. And these sets presented these urban landscapes as being tidy, clean without litter, homeless people, fights. MGM’s exaggerated aesthetic also followed into how the characters dressed and looked – the makeup was heavy, lips were ruby red, cheeks candy apple-hued, hairdos were elaborate and constructed.
Scorsese was part of a film movement that purposely moved away from this artifice. His critical success in the 1970s saw a reaction to the old Hollywood system and it was moving away from the antiquated studio system. The studio system had been crumbling for quite some time, done in by the rise of television as well as changing tastes in audiences, influenced undoubtedly by the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, feminism, as well as the Vietnam War. Scorsese, along with his peers including Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Cimino, and Michael DePalma confronted the raw, ugly, violent realities that plagued urban settings, and explored the societal and emotional causes of the violence. Because the New Hollywood was free from the Hays Code era, these films were free to depict violence as well as once-taboo subjects like prostitution, rape, abortion, murder. The violence was confrontational, and audiences weren’t allowed to escape it.
So, in some respects, New York, New York is a brave film in Scorsese’s canon because it’s a film that looks to unite the disparate movements in film. Scorsese makes a loving Valentine to the MGM musical, leaving visual cues and homages throughout the film, as well as, reaching for the kind of grand spectacle that he hadn’t tried before (he never dealt with a film that boasted hundreds of extras and a lavish score and an army of backup dancers) It’s his A Star Is Born or Singin’ in the Rain and he shows his love, not just for old Hollywood, but for music and performance. What the movie proves is that Scorsese is very good at staging a musical number. And Because Scorsese was prone to take risks, he not only set out to make a postmodern Hollywood musical, but an epic one at that, which clocked in at nearly 3 hours, and boasted a 10-minute musical number in the middle. He trusted that his audiences would be drawn into the spectacle.
If New Hollywood rejected the artificial trappings of Old Hollywood, Scorsese showed he had a nostalgia and a love for it. Because the film was such an undertaking and a novel one, Scorsese had no precedent to look to. It’s borrows heavily from Minnelli and Donen, particularly in some of the obviously artificial street settings which are painted backdrops, but he didn’t want to abandon the emotional truth that New Hollywood achieved. Scorsese had a hard time encapsulating the film, demurring, “I don’t know how to define it. I mean, I had an idea, on the one hand to embrace the artifice in a good sense, the artifice and the beauty of the old Hollywood, with room enough for a new way of looking at life.”
As mentioned earlier, New York, New York is a product of Scorsese’s cinematic upbringing and a clear influence on this film is George Cukor’s 1954 showbiz musical drama A Star Is Born. Scorsese’s plot resembles Cukor’s in that both films deal with a marriage that disintegrates due to fame and fortune. The film looks at the fractured relationship of two talented performers, who struggle to stay together because of warring ambition, ego, and a terrible clash of personalities. As their fame grows, so does their inability to be married. And despite Scorsese’s efforts to embrace the Old Hollywood aesthetic, he also presents an unflinching view of domestic rancour and domestic violence that are a seeming bad fit for the idealized world of a Hollywood musical. It’s this unexpected juxtaposition that gives the film its intended emotional power – musical numbers are inherently joyful and there are sharp tonal shifts when the film moves away from a musical number to a scene of domestic strife.
The plot of the film is straight forward: On V-J Day in 1945, brilliant, but mercurial saxophonist Jimmy Doyle (Robert DeNiro) spots comely USO singer Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli) from across a crowded nightclub and he instantly falls in love. The world is rejoicing the surrender of the Japanese, and the film’s open shows lots of possibility and optimism. It’s here that it’s most like an old Hollywood musical. Scorsese has wide shots of rapturous celebration on sets that are obviously fake (Scorsese would become famous for filming on the streets of New York City), and cinematographer László Kovács works with the director to create a lush, sumptuous look to the film that resembles flattering glamour shots.
Francine and Jimmy get together and despite her initial frostiness, she falls for him. She unwillingly tags along to an audition that goes badly because of Jimmy’s temper, and she saves it by urging him to play to her crooning. The two discover that they share an easy chemistry that eventually translates to a successful touring act. As their careers progress their love becomes doomed by their talent, ego, and competitiveness, and eventually their marriage falls apart. After Francine gives birth to their son, Jimmy abandons them, and goes on to a distinguished career as a jazz musician, whilst she becomes a successful musical comedy star and entertainer. Scorsese employs neon-soaked montages to show us the growing success of Jimmy and Francine’s act but slows down the action to individual moments of tension and rancour to highlight the ruptures in their union – including an anxious scene in which the two are rehearsing in front of a band and their strained relationship spills over to how they interact with their band musicians.
As the film reaches for stylistic goals – namely, successfully blending two disparate movements in cinema as well as a panoramic and epic scope for a director who never worked at this scale before, Scorsese tried to inject some of his signature features into the film, namely the raw, seemingly improvised nature of the actors’ performance. One thing that must be said about the Hollywood musical is that it appears staged and meticulously plotted. With New York, New York, Scorsese avoided this tactic namely by confining the musical numbers to diegetic performances in the film as opposed to gigantic musical numbers in which characters randomly burst into song.
This reach for a more urgent, spontaneous tone in the context of a gigantic production like New York, New York was difficult to pull off. The intimate scenes between his lead actors managed to retain some closeness but Scorsese struggled with successfully mingling the two styles. “Basically,” he said, “I tried to deal with the style I was experimenting with…I wanted to push the improvisation more.” This proved difficult though because during the colossal production, “sets are being build or dismantled and you got 500 extras,” making it hard for Scorsese to his improvised method.
But he does manage to pull it off in isolated parts of the film, namely due to the chemistry he shares with his frequent collaborator Robert DeNiro, who matches Scorsese’s New Hollywood aesthetic. Unlike matinee idols of Old Hollywood, DeNiro was an actor who looked and sounded like a real person, removed from the idealized notion of masculine beauty. He rarely played heroes and his acting was informed by the Method style which resulted in idiosyncratic work that often felt dangerous, nervy, and prone to sudden explosions. Scorsese was able to work with DeNiro to give New York, New York a volatility that is usually lacking in a Hollywood musical. Ronald Reagan, a former actor himself, though a consummate product of the Hollywood system, once decried Method acting as “dirty” and in a certain sense, he’s right. Because Hollywood musicals require a certain stylized reality, gritty, emotionally complex performances like DeNiro’s are rare and subvert the standards of a Hollywood musical. When DeNiro is on screen, especially in his discordant scenes with Minnelli, Scorsese coaxes a performance that is akin to a tight spring that threatens to jump at any moment. He’s at once menacing, yet beguiling, and manages to cut through the thick, lacquered gloss and remain real even if he’s pacing on a train platform with a painted train in the background. Scorsese’s goal was to explore the tension that arises with the “kind of naturalistic behaviour of the actors within the confines of an artificial-looking film.”
And the film does look very artificial at times. When the film opens to the celebration and the crowd of revellers, a spotlight lingers on a pair of saddle shoes that trod on a filthy newspaper, heralding the surrender of the Japanese. The camera pans back to take in the large crowd that is surging through the New York street, it looks fake – the sidewalks too uniform and new (no cracks or pockmarks), the buildings on the side of the street to fabricated and flat. The proportions look off, which Scorsese did deliberately, finding slight details like street curbs being too high or the Manhattan skyline being painted part of the challenge when trying to impart sincerity in an artificial setting. There’s a scrubbed, polish look to New York, New York that is a marked difference from Scorsese’s other films from the 1970s.
And if DeNiro is Scorsese’s way of disrupting the artifice with gritty realism, the casting of Liza Minnelli is an homage to that artifice as well as to the lore of the Hollywood musical. Not only is Minnelli a musical star like her character, but she’s a direct link to the Golden Age of Hollywood – her parents Vincent Minnelli and Judy Garland are two of the era’s most important figures. Unlike DeNiro, Minnelli doesn’t convey a deep and profound authenticity. She’s patently showbiz in the way that she delivers her lines – her nervous smiles and comic delivery feeling forced and rehearsed as opposed to her co-star’s more instinctual performance. Minnelli isn’t an actress so much as a personality and therefore Scorsese does wonders with her when he directs her in the musical numbers as he is able to show her off at her best, when she is singing and dancing. It’s when she’s called upon to face DeNiro that Scorsese’s attempt to marry two disparate modes of filmmaking makes the film truly fascinating because DeNiro’s work is so authentic that he appears to just be, whilst Minnelli’s more affected showbiz work feels stylized and exaggerated. And because Scorsese is so interested in looking at the tension between these two ways of acting, the film actually benefits from this clash.
The other thing that must be looked at when examining New York, New York are the musical numbers. Scorsese isn’t a natural for musical films, but he was more than up to the task when he took on New York, New York. Because of the film’s length and its challenging material, it’s clear that Scorsese was not only interested in making an interesting musical, but an important one. This is clear because he also includes a long, 10-minute musical number that breaks up the film and signals Francine’s success as a musical comedy star. As mentioned earlier, New York, New York owes a lot to A Star Is Born and Singin’ in the Rain. Both older films are also considered “important” musical films, and both have extended musical numbers that act as centrepieces in the film. In Cukor’s A Star Is Born, it’s the “Born in a Trunk” medley, in which Judy Garland’s character, a Vaudevillian, tells her rags-to-riches story through an extended musical number that runs over 15 minutes and acts as a showcase for Garland’s singing, dancing and performing talents. In Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain, we see this in Gene Kelly’s “Gotta Dance” number – an extended bit that is a fictional Broadway show that Kelly’s character stars in, that again serves to highlight the star’s prodigious musical talent.
The key musical number, “Happy Endings” is part of a film-within-a-film. At this point in the plot, Francine and Jimmy have split up, and Francine’s gone on to become a major star. The fictional film is a vehicle and the musical number serves as a vehicle for Minnelli as well as for Scorsese to show his versatility and ability to helm a large and spectacular sequence. Never has Scorsese had so many elements to join on the screen. There are dancers, musicians, and actors, with large elaborate sets as well as intricate choreography. Filming these kinds of sequences is difficult because so much of the impact of these moments depend on how the visuals come off, and Scorsese scores handsomely. The sequence starts with Francine’s character playing an usher who imagines herself to be a musical comedy star, and she’s discovered by a smooth-voiced crooner who steps out of her way just as she’s about to ascend into superstardom. As is common with these long medleys, there’s a choppiness to the proceedings, but Scorsese handles these shifts in between songs and scenes masterfully, ably aping the kind of smooth work that his predecessors have done. And even though Scorsese thrives on depicting gritty intimacy, he’s also a master at showing off a spectacle, as seen in the finale of the “Happy Endings” sequence when the camera pans to a large staircase, with Francine descending slowly and gradually being inching closer to the camera. She’s wearing a red, over-the-top evening gown, and she’s flanked by dancers in sequined ruby. The colours come off, popping, as Scorsese chooses deep, jewel tones for his palette to mimic the extravagant colours of the Hollywood musical (without resorting to the drippy, juicy garishness of Technicolor).
There are visual cues in the musical number in which Scorsese also harks back to the classic Hollywood musical. These bits are subtle, but unmistakeable. Most notable is how he recreates a version of the “Gotta Dance” sequence from Singin’ in the Rain, that featured Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. The famed musical number took place in a bar with bright red walls that matched Charisse’s outfit. Scorsese pays homage by having part of Francine’s number take place in a nightclub that is also blood red, with dancers in the background gyrating rhythmically to the jazzy big band music.
It’s these stylistic choices that make New York, New York work despite it all getting away from Scorsese’s control. Because the film is a love letter to a bygone era, it slightly tips into corny area – especially when we’re seeing Minnelli on screen. Her scenes when she’s performing are unabashed showbusiness, and Scorsese indulges in his ardour for that more stylized type of direction. When he’s filming Francine’s recording session of “But the World Goes Round” he lovingly frames her in a dramatic spotlight, the world nearly pitch-black around her. She’s dressed in a (relatively) simple outfit of a white top, with sparkly jewellery at her shoulders and throat, and she’s heavily made up, with the period hairdo, and it’s here that Scorsese is really trying to recall Judy Garland. Minnelli’s singing – a throbbing, vibrato-laden belt – is reminiscent of Garland’s and the two look eerily alike in the number, and Scorsese pulls off a neat trick in getting Judy Garland (or at least a decent facsimile) to perform in a film in the 1970s. It’s his homage to Garland’s “The Man That Got Away” from A Star Is Born, in that he reaches for a moment – through a torch song – to move the plot forward by emphasising both the song’s optimism as well as melancholy (which are two qualities that define Minnelli’s screen persona) to narrate how the two characters are forced to adapt to their difficult circumstances – alone, away from each other – and despite it all, the world does move on. It’s in the “But the World Goes Round” number that Scorsese really taps into emotional intensity of the film’s message about perseverance. The song starts of slow, a shuffling pop ballad that becomes increasingly frantic as Minnelli starts to build up crescendo – it’s as if Scorsese doesn’t really believe in the message of perseverance and wants to convince himself and the audience by having Francine turn the number from a bluesy pop song into a full-throated anthem, which has Minnelli practically roar near the end (when she belts out the word “sound” so overcome is she with both the song’s message and her leather-lunged voice, she grips her head as if it were about to explode). Scorsese reaches transcendence in this moment and New York, New York doesn’t feel like a canny pastiche anymore. As beautifully as “Happy Endings” comes off – and it’s a masterful job – there is a feeling of effort behind the number, as if Scorsese wants the audience to know the gears moving behind the production. But he achieves seamlessness with “But the World Goes Round” showing off a stylish and rakish quality to his work that is far removed from its usual harsh grittiness.
In interviews, Scorsese talked about his love for films, especially when he was growing up. He came of age as a film goer during the Golden Age of Hollywood, consuming MGM and Warner Bros musicals but he’s become one of the most important figures of New Hollywood. But he doesn’t approach the older style with smugness but true affection which is why New York, New York should have worked. It isn’t snarky and though it’s mean at times (this is especially true in the DeNiro scenes), he doesn’t mock the Hollywood musical. He would take on the theme of entertainment later on his career – The King of Comedy is a notable example of his take on showbiz and celebrity culture – and his previous film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is also about a fledgling singer (though one with far less natural vocal resources) and so much of New York, New York is about wanted to achieve a certain goal and being frustrated. It’s a fitting theme to parallel Scorsese’s reach in making this film. Like Francine and Jimmy, Scorsese is a talented individual who is a master at what he does, but he also has an oversized ambition that threatens his output. At times, the film feels like a challenge or a dare that Scorsese has done on himself, to see if he can make the kind of film that Stanley Donen or Vincent Minnelli were able to.
The end of New York, New York is interesting because he again he wants to lovingly mesh the realism of contemporary filmmaking with the glossy fabulousness of a Hollywood musical. Usually in a Hollywood musical, the film ends on a high note – literally, if the musical signs off with a musical number. Often the cast will gather at the end to belt out the final tune (often the title tune) and we’re almost treated to a curtain call. The classic Hollywood musical was usually a musical comedy – something to work as escapist entertainment to distract audiences from the Great Depression or WWII. Though audiences sought escapist entertainment in the 1970s, Scorsese wasn’t interested in distracting his audiences, which is why New York, New York comes off so strange.
In the final sequence, we have Minnelli perform the title tune, written by her long-time collaborators, John Kander and Fred Ebb (who penned the songs for Minnelli’s Oscar-winning turn in Cabaret) By the end of the film, both Francine and Jimmy are established in their respective careers. He comes to see her at a nightclub and she’s singing the theme song. The song’s lyrics speak to the kind of cockeyed – sometimes foolish – optimism that people hold on to when they move to a large city like New York. It’s a city that is fabled to be a city of opportunities. People from nowhere appear there and with some luck and hard work, they can become successes. That is what happened to Jimmy and Francine who become big stars, despite the many obstacles (most self-induced) that get in their way. Like with “But the World Goes Round,” Minnelli invests the song with her brand of razzle dazzle showmanship. It’s here that we don’t really see Francine anymore, but are watching Minnelli. Unlike the optimism in “But the World Goes Round,” the optimism in “New York, New York” is sincere and hard-won. In the former musical number, she’s working overtime to convince herself and her audience, and she’s always near failure; but with “New York, New York” it’s far more of a triumphant call. Again, Scorsese shows his facility with filming musical numbers, though this scene is far simpler and less infused with meaning than “But the World Goes Round.” It works as a red herring, to reassure audiences that they’ll have a happy ending. But Scorsese wisely subverts this convention by having Jimmy and Francine stay apart. Jimmy wants to get back with Francine and leaves her a note, but she responds by ignoring it, leaving him waiting for her, until he realizes that she’s not coming back. Therefore, the musical ends on a bit of a deflating note, as we don’t close out with another rousing number – one in which our star pumps her fist in the air in victory – but instead we see two sad people, resigned to their fate, move on.
Watching New York, New York, one must admire Scorsese’s chutzpah in choosing to make such a strange film. The concerns of the film, mainly succeeding in show business while trying to maintain a self-destructive marriage doesn’t necessarily feel like a Scorsese film. He will go on to become synonymous with hard-bitten crime dramas that chronicle urban blight and urban decay, particularly the violence that results from urban blight, but he would also stretch himself again, surprising audiences by directing a lush period drama, The Age of Innocence or the grand historical epic, Kundun. But New York, New New York stands apart because of its audacity and nerve. The movie musical was facing an identity crisis in the 1970s as it was having to compete with gritter, more substantial fare, and critically and commercially, the film failed to find a large audience (though it has a small, cult following) A major hallmark of Scorsese’s filmography is about characters being too real and too recognizable; too much is shown. His characters are rarely ideals, and in fact, they often operate as either anti-heroes, villains, or as avatars to highlight moral depravity or destruction in an urban setting. New York, New York is an outlier in the film because rarely did Scorsese reach for such visual pleasure in his films. He wanted New York, New York to look beautiful, in its oft-deco splendour, and eschewed much of his usual themes of destruction and decay. He wanted the film to be a genuine addition to the genre’s canon and not operate as a dated, antiquated relic, but be vital in the landscape of 1970s cinema. That is why along with shedding much of his grittiness, he also avoided much of the genre’s squeaky cleanliness. Instead he pioneered a combination of two – something that has rarely been done before. And even if the film has a few more misses than hits, it’s still an admirable achievement to appreciate.
You’d be forgiven if when watching the beginning of The Owl and the Pussycat that you think you’ve slipped into some weird, dark, alternate universe. When George Segal’s nebbish writer Felix meets Barbra Streisand’s prostitute Doris, she accuses him of being a peeping tom and a pervert. But she also hurls some intense homophobic abuse. Yes, we’re hearing Barbra Streisand, the woman for whom the phrase gay icon, was coined, screech “fag” and “fruit” at the top of her voice – and it’s not musical. It’s a jarring experience, like seeing Santa Claus burn down a Christmas tree.
The Owl and the Pussycat is a 1970 comedy based on the stage play by Bill Manhoff. Adapted for the screen by comic genius Buck Henry (The Graduate) and directed by Herbert Ross, a veteran of stage and film, the movie is a romantic comedy that explores a kacked odd couple in the intellectual Felix and earthy Doris. Like in most romantic comedies, our two protagonists can’t stand each other when they first meet: Felix is forced to room with Doris when he drops a dime on her hooking; thrown out of her flat, she invades his, throwing his life in a mess by getting him kicked out of his apartment, too. The two are then forced to find shelter at Felix’s pal, Barney (Robert Klein), and as Felix and Doris get to know each other, their sharp differences threaten any moments of growing tenderness. Their relationship goes through some thaw but quickly revert to hostility when Felix’s innate snobbery rubs against Doris’ defensiveness.
Because the film is based on a stage show, it feels stagey and episodic, despite the great effort by Henry to expand the story and adapt it to the big screen. The romantic relationship between Felix and Doris seesaws back and forth, becoming somewhat tedious and predictable. Too much time is spent on the shared ugliness of the characters’ worst traits and it’s unclear why exactly the two end up together. Though Felix grows to appreciate Doris’ dignity and emotional intelligence and Doris comes to appreciate Felix’s intellect, their consummation of their union doesn’t feel truly earned (nor does the happy ending)
But The Owl and the Pussycat works more often than not because George Segal and (especially) Barbra Streisand sell the hell out of the somewhat meager material. Segal is a blustery coil of anxiety and tension; and in a relaxed and natural performance, Streisand is hilarious and delightful. Ross’ vision of New York City is gritty and kind of ugly, an apt representation of the pre-gentrification of Manhattan that turned New York into a adult theme park. It would a few years before films by Nora Ephron, Rob Reiner, and Woody Allen would turn New York City into a romanticized, idealized playground for rom-coms. The streets are littered, the shops all are dingy pawn ships, there are hookers prowling the streets, hoods threaten people with violence, and the sidwalks are lined with nudie bars. Despite the grit of the settings, there is still a whimsy to the film – a weird thing to say about a movie in which our lead characters have to escape a band of marauding thugs – and the inevitable happy ending (prefaced by an indulgent and not-too-successful back and that turns physical in Central Park) seems appropriate enough. Though the sexual politics are kind of all over the place, Streisand’s Doris is surprisingly autonomous and with a solid, three-dimensional characterization. She tries to improve herself (a threadbare trope, of course, but still), and though she’s a take on the hooker with a heart of gold, Streisand’s gregarious comedic persona adds a depth and humanity to the role. Her good work, along with the strong performance by Segal make for a charming – if very dated – diversion.