In Tribute to Cinematic Giant, Sidney Poitier

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.

The cover of Sidney Poitier’s memoir
Sidney Poitier: The Measure of a Man- A Memoir
(Harper San Francisco, 2000)

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.

Blackboard Jungle [DVD] [1955]
Blackboard Jungle
(dir. Richard Brooks) MGM, 1955

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.

Edge of the City
Edge of the City
(dir. Martin Ritt) MGM, 1957

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.

Porgy And Bess (1959) (Region 2)
Porgy and Bess
(dir. Otto Preminger)
Columbia Pictures, 1959

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.

A Raisin In The Sun [DVD] [1961] [2003]
A Raisin in the Sun
(dir. Daniel Petrie)
Columbia Pictures, 1961

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.

LILIES OF THE FIELD
Lilies of the Field
(dir. Ralph Nelson) United Artists, 1963

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 Blue is the sensitive way in which Green tells this story of interracial friendship, maybe love, and Poitier gives a beautiful performance.

A Patch of Blue by Warner Home Video by Guy Green
A Patch of Blue (dir. Guy Green) MGM, 1965

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.

To Sir, with Love
To Sir, with Love
(dir. James Clavell) Columbia, 1967

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.

In the Heat of the Night (The Criterion Collection)
In the Heat of the Night
(dir. Norman Jewison)
United Artists, 1967

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.

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? [DVD]
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
(dir. Stanley Kramer)
Columbia Pictures, 1967

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.

For Love of Ivy [DVD] [US Import]
For Love of Ivy
(dir. Daniel Mann) Palomar Pictures

Steven Spielberg loses the plot with his take on J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan mythology with his shambolic Hook

Steven Spielberg’s 1991 film Hook is a bizarre interpretation of J.M. Barrie’s classic children’s tale Peter Pan, supposing what would happen if the evergreen adolescent left Neverland and grew up. Built around the sprawling talents of the late, great comedian Robin Williams as Peter Pan, the film tries to pull all kinds of 90s hot topic issues – working parents, quality time, kids being estranged from their parents – and fit them into the familiar story of the band of Lost Boys who live in the fantastic Neverland in perpetual childhood.

Hook
DVD cover of the 2000 edition of Hook

Before its release, Hook had a troubled production, namely in the ballooning production as well as Spielberg’s strained relationship with Julia Roberts, who co-starred in the film as Tinkerbell. For a great recap of just what went wrong with the making of Hook, please go to the brilliant podcast, I Hate It, but I Love It, and listen to the Hook episode. Hosts Kat Angus and Jocelyn Geddie do a hilarious job of running through the difficult time the people behind Hook had making the film.

The turmoil behind the scenes do somewhat translate onto the screen. When watching Hook, it’s a dizzying experience, but not necessarily in the good way. As if to prove just how great the movie could be, Spielberg assaults his audiences with an over-the-top visual experience. The sets look gaudy and messy, with what seems like thousands of extras spilling everywhere.

The story – written by Jim V. Hart and Malia Scotch Marmo from a story by Hart and Nick Castle, revisits Barrie’s legendary character, but this time Peter Pan is a middle-aged corporate lawyer. Played by Robin Williams who is given free reign to indulge in both sides of his comedic persona: the sentimental, heart breaker as well as the whirling comedy dervish. As the adult Peter (known as an adult as Peter Banning), is the kind of businessman that films love to vilify: the kinds of busy dads who ignore their kids and are obsessed with their work. He’s seen as a ‘bad dad’ because he misses all of his kid Jack’s (Charlie Korsmo) ballgames. Jack’s resentment is important because it feeds into one of the main conflicts of the film: the constant back and forth between father and son. This story line is one that’s been explored many times in films, particularly ones aimed at family audiences: one in which we see a neglectful father who prioritizes his work over his relationships with is children.

Spielberg – a director known for his penchant for emotional manipulation in his mainstream, family films – does a lot of exploration of a child’s disappointment with his distant parent. It’s this disappointment that allows for Peter Pan’s nemesis, the titular Captain Hook (a preening and campy Dustin Hoffman) to exploit the strife between Peter and Jack. The sad thing about Hook’s machinations is how easy it is for him to push all of Jack’s buttons, teasing all of his justified grievances against his dad.

But this is a lot of “Cats in the Cradle” stuff in this film which bogs down what could have been a fun film. Instead, it adds an unnecessary dreariness to the film, that juxtaposes badly with the Disneyland opulence of the set and the muggy Our Gang antics of the very 90s-era Lost Boys. The problem with Spielberg’s version of the Peter Pan fantasy is that he gets lost in the slick, overblown Hollywood excess.

Are there moments that salvage this film? Precious few, but there are a few. Williams does some good, personable work in the film when being Peter Pan. He was a performer that could impart an impish, beguiling twinkle beneath the furious comedy explosion. There’s also a lovely performance by Maggie Smith, too, who does her usual scene stealing work (and there’s a very predictable twist to her character’s backstory that I won’t share here)

When Hook was released, it was met with a pretty mixed critical response but it made lots of money. But in retrospect, it’s not a great film and it’s a missed opportunity to make something interesting. Unfortunately, Spielberg seems more interested in impressing us with the special effects and elaborate sets as well as with the heavy-handed family drama. What is missing is an interesting or novel take on the legend. Even if he’s pulling the story into the 1990s, Hook‘s main story is still essentially a tired retread on the familiar tale (done with fare more finesse by Walt Disney in 1953). Though, the film has some nostalgic value – particularly with the updated (though now-dated) look at the Lost Boys (Dante Basco steals his scenes with sheer charisma as the spiky haired, punky Lost Boys leader, Rufio) – it’s a mess, one that needed some serious editing and pruning (the 142-minute running time is criminal, by the way). There’s also something particularly obnoxious about kids depicted in family films in the early 1990s (overly sassy or precocious and in love with crass humor) and the Lost Boys seem to epitomize that trend. It feels like Spielberg at his most cynical and paint-by-numbers as the cinema fairy dust that he sprinkles in his family films feel like dust.

In retrospect 30 years later, Spielberg has admitted that he’s disappointed with the film. There’s a contradictory feeling from the film that it’s at once overzealous in its attempt to wow us but simultaneously lazy in its execution. Despite the superstar caliber of the cast, icons Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, Julia Roberts, and Maggie Smith are seemingly abandoned by their director, leaning into shtick, with Smith managing to conjure up some cinema magic. Though Spielberg is a master at spectacle, it feels as if Hook got away from him; it’s a shambolic mess and one that is fascinating to watch in all of its confused wrongness.

The American Dream is very expensive in ‘Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House’

The American Dream has celebrated social mobility and has encouraged people to strive to build a nuclear family, move to the suburbs, and to buy their own homes. In the 20th century, the American Dream was largely linked to the post-war Baby Boom generation, who returned from WWII after fighting in war that tipped the world into unbelievable chaos. Men came back from war, wives returned to the home from the munitions factories, and families moved en masse to the suburbs.

In the 1948 comedy Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House, the American dream is attached to home ownership. Jim Blandings (Cary Grant) is a successful advertising executive who tires of living in a seemingly cramped apartment in Manhattan, and has his eyes on a larger home in Connecticut. Along with his wife, Muriel (Myrna Loy), Jim sinks a small fortune to rebuild a dilapidated home to bend to their respective desires.

The film is narrated by Bill Cole (Melvyn Douglas), the Blandings’ attorney and their best friend. With mordant humor, he describes aspects of living in the city, using euphemisms when noting things like the crowd, the crush, and the noise. As he uses flowerly language ironically (he refers to New York as “cradling” its denizens), he makes a point that there are 7 million people living in the city. When extolling the “carefree, orderly existence” of New Yorkers, we immediately see a chaotic scene of a traffic jam, complete with a cacophony of car horns; the subways are referred to as a “transportation system, second to none in passenger comfort” though what we see are teems of people, pushing and shoving to squeeze into crowded subway cars; overcrowded diner counters are called “quaint, sidewalk cafes” whilst a beach inundated with sunbathers is praised as a place for “peace and privacy” for nature lovers. The juxtaposition of Bill’s narration to the very-skewed presentation of the city set the scene for the film’s rising action. In the exposition, we are shown a New York that Jim Blandings sees – uncomfortable, loud, dirty, and unyielding.

But the script – written by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, based on Eric Hodgins book – doesn’t push to make rural living any easier. And that’s where the main thesis of the film lies: that to stake one’s claim will cost a lot of money. When watching Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House, we have to allow for several mitigating forces before simply enjoying the film. The main issue to raise is race, gender, and class. Jim Blandings is a middle-class white male, so he has the economic freedom to take his family – a wife and two daughters – and move to the suburbs (though it’s not mentioned, there’s the implication that his home is in an-white area) As the film lurches from one economically disastrous episode to another, we see that Blandings has the financial resources and freedoms to ride through these problems.

And there are a lot of problems with Mr Blandings’ dream house. For one, the original house has to be stripped down because it’s leaning like a tower in Pisa. There are water issues and in a comical exchange, Blandings finds out that there is solid rock near the foundation of his home, that may require blasting. To his lawyer’s dismay, Blandings is willing to sink more money into the project, in his goal to attain the kind of goal, inherent in the American Dream.

Though Blandings has a brief moment, a minor-epiphany in which he wonders why he wanted to do this major life shift in the first place. After all, he pours money, seeming without end, to what appears to be a money pit (Money Pit is a 1986 remake of this film). And whilst Bill advises his friends throughout the film that the free spending is a bad idea – and he was against the purchase in the first place, he comes around, noting, that even though he thought the project was doomed at the start, he thinks that maybe “you do buy with your heart and not your head. Maybe those are the things that really count.” He sees that the Blandings have managed – at great expense – to carve out their own place. There’s an implication that there’s something of the pioneer or settler in Jim Blandings, that he has tamed the rough, unforgiving wilderness for his family (with the assistance of laborers and lots of money) He also highlights a part of the American Dream that is key – making something of your own. In the beginning of the film, Jim and Muriel discuss their apartment, possibly remodeling it, but it’s an aborted idea because they’re renting. It’s impossible to do much with their living space because they don’t own it. So Bill sees that by escaping city life and city dwelling, Blandings has achieved the part of the American Dream that is so important – being able to assert oneself. Blandings has successfully become the king of his castle.

One aspect that seems to escape viewing of the film, in the context of the American Dream, is work. Blandings’ work as an ad executive plays as a parallel to the main plot of the house build. At work, he’s struggling with an account, for a brand of ham called WHAM. He spends much of the film, toying with puns and rhymes to fix his issue. It comes not from a colleague, but from his maid, a Black woman named Gussie (Louise Beavers), who joyfully announces, “If you ain’t eating WHAM, you ain’t eating ham!” Gussie saves the day and the account, and her effort gets her a mere $10 raise (one hopes she made some more coin as the model for the WHAM print campaign, but I wouldn’t hold my breath) Because this film is set in 1948, we’re looking at a time when Jim Crow laws were still in effect in Southern States, Black voters were still disenfranchised, and women – and women of color, in particular – weren’t included in the professional workforce. So the American Dream looked far different for someone who looked like Gussie, and we don’t get to see her “side” of the story because the audience isn’t interested. The tone of the film – even if it strained to remain a comedy – would shift into dark satire, if we got the POV of Gussie, a Black woman, working for a privileged and entitled white family, with a patriarch who thinks nothing of swiping her intellectual property for a financial windfall. So much of Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House is about the American Dream, but it’s a very specific American Dream – one that is largely white and middle-class. Blandings escaped the hustle and bustle of New York City because he could. Most of the people swallowed in the throbbing crush of the subways cannot afford to buy acres of land and to build a house from scratch. In Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House, we see that the American Dream comes with a hefty price tag, but we also are reassured that our hero can afford it.

Jean Hagen is the underrated hero of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’

Singin’ in the Rain will always be remembered for individual musical numbers featuring members of the cast. The starring trio – Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds – are song-and-dance professionals and are made immortal by sequences in the film that take advantage of their hoofing skills. Kelly will be forever known for the title sequence, in which he sings and dances with abandon as it’s pouring; O’Connor, on the other hand, is heralded for his comedic “Make ‘Em Laugh” number, in which he throws himself – literally – into an energetic and athletic dance routine that has the guy running up the side of a wall; and Kelly and O’Connor join Reynolds for the jaunty “Good Morning” in which the three stars extoll the virtues of staying up late with your pals.

Because Singin’ in the Rain is a musical comedy, the most potent images of the film are the songs. That means one cast major cast member, Jean Hagen, is unjustly swept up in the film’s legend. Her character, the villain of the piece, is rather unlikable, especially when compared to the three protagonists of the film – who are so cuddly, they practically look like teddy bears, and as a result, Hagen becomes a footnote when discussing the film and its merit.

That’s a shame. Hagen’s Lena Lamont is a refugee of the silent movie era, who is trying her best to survive the advent of talkies. Like many silent movie stars, Lena succeeded because she is beautiful and had charisma. But when sound was introduced, she, like a lot of stars, was suddenly in trouble because she had an ugly, screech of a voice that was thickened with a gun moll accent. Unlike Kelly’s Don Lockwood, she wasn’t able to make the transition smoothly because she lacked his smooth vocals and nimble moves.

As a result, like most people who are panicked and in danger, she lashes out and engages in destructive behaviour, namely bullying Reynold’s contract player Kathy Selden, and terrorizing those around her with her mercurial attitude. Because she’s a movie star who has been coddled and pampered during her career, she feels entitled to be protected by the studio.

And she’s not wrong. At her peak, Lena made millions for the fictional Monumental Pictures and was integral to the success of the Lockwood and Lamont films which made her and Don superstars. So it’s understandable that Lena feels the studio owes her loyalty and protection. When the studio hires an elocution coach (Kathleen Freeman) to smooth out and iron out Lena’s supposedly wayward vowels, we see a fight to make Lena more palpable for film audiences.

But what that really means is that the suits behind Monumental are trying to tamp out any remanence of Lena’s working class background, because that’s what actors have to do to succeed in Hollywood: lose their ethnicity or evidence of modest, whether that means changing their names, getting rid of their accents, concocting fake background stories, even shaving down their noses.

The film doesn’t really examine the inherent ways how this custom is fucked up. We’re meant to sympathise with the studio heads. When Don deadpans to the camera at the sound of Lena’s honking voice, we laugh at her ineptitude and thin, “Man, they’re so fucked.”

And Hagen works all of this wonderfully in the film. Unlike O’Connor and Kelly, she doesn’t merely work off of star power and charisma, but creates a fully-realized comic portrayal, an homage to Judy Holliday’s work in Born Yesterday, but without Holliday’s sweetness. Hagen steals all her scenes as she barrels through, nearly operatic. Though the film executives in the film wince at her harsh voice, it’s what makes the portrayal so memorable. Hagen uses the voice to assert herself, to ensure that she makes an impact, as she doesn’t have the opportunities that her costars do.

At the time of its release, Hagen’s performance was justly lauded and she was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress (which she lost to Gloria Grahame for The Bad and the Beautiful). As the film’s reputation and legend grew, attention to Hagen’s performance shrank. The film’s iconic status now lies in its music – especially Kelly and O’Connor. Obviously, they deserve the critical acclaim they receive for the film, as without them, it’s unclear whether the film would be as successful or entertaining. Both Kelly and O’Connor are not only great song-and-dance men, but they are also skilled comedians (especially O’Connor), and can handle the films moments of mirth beautifully: “Moses Supposes” – the musical number which depicts Don’s elocution lessons – is easily one of the funniest musical performance captured on film. But Hagen isn’t gifted with a musical number or set piece designed around her. Instead, she’s doing the heavy lifting in the acting department, matching Kelly and O’Connor with a comedic performance that is funnier and more authentic in its motivation and range. And therefore, repeated viewings of Singin’ in the Rain should once again restore Jean Hagen’s reputation as giving one of the funniest performances in one of the greatest movie musicals of all time.

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