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.
August 6 would have been Lucille Ball’s 109th birthday. The legendary comedienne was born in 1911 in Jamestown, New York. Before finding limited success as a b-movie actress, Ball was a working model, putting her leggy good looks to good use. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, she was the epitome of a working actress, paying her dues, and building up a career as reliable presence. Though her early film career would be primarily defined by her time at RKO, she also was a MGM player, briefly, before turning to television.
Though she had a solid run as a film actress, it’s television that really took advantage of Ball’s unique talents. Though she appeared in comedies as a film star, nothing in her largely indifferent film career would indicate a comic genius. Pairing with her husband, band leader and actor/singer, Desi Arnaz, Ball would go on to star in a show that mined much of her real life.
Arnaz and Ball met on the set of 1940 musical comedy Too Many Girls. Ball had a leading role, whilst Arnaz had a minor role. The two saw their respective film careers stall and saw television as a way of cementing their careers. As a side career, Ball found success as a radio star, performing in a situation comedy My Favorite Husband. The popularity of the show prompted CBS to spin it off to television, but executives were hesitant to agree to Arnaz’s casting as Ball’s onscreen husband until the success of the pair’s vaudeville tour.
My Favorite Husband became I Love Lucy. Ball starred as the titular Lucy Ricardo, a starry-eyed housewife who pined for a bigger life outside her ordinary life in Manhattan. Arnaz played Ricky Ricardo, a band leader who constantly squashed his wife’s ambition for stardom. They lived in an apartment building owned by their best friends, Fred and Ethel Mertz (William Frawley and Vivan Vance). The show followed the various machinations Lucy dragged herself into, with Ethel being her reluctant accomplice. The show’s writers – Jess Oppenheimer, Bob Carroll, Jr., Bob Schiller, Madelyn Davis, and Bob Weiskopf – looked to Ball’s and Arnaz’s real life to inform the characters of Ricky and Lucy.
The show was a vehicle for Ball’s comedic talents. She was a great actress and a brilliant physical comedienne. A master at slapstick, many of the episodes were merely opportunities for the writers to put Ball into an improbable situation. Most of the adventures Lucy found herself in, were due to her wishes to get into Ricky’s act. Both Fred and Ethel were former vaudevillians, and often were invited by Ricky to perform at his nightclub. Despite Ball’s competence as a musical comedy performer, Lucy was a terrible singer. While Ricky, Fred, and Ethel would harmonize pleasantly at the family piano, Lucy would intrude in their harmonies with her ear-splitting bray.
The show was a wonderful reflection of America in the 1950s. In the post-war boom, families were finding themselves participating in the unprecedented prosperity and a rise in financial stability. As Ricky and Lucy found themselves successfully experiencing social mobility, like millions of urbanites, they moved to the suburbs.
I Love Lucy was a huge hit and it’s become ubiquitous in American popular culture. Lucy’s various messes have become classic television: Lucy does a TV commercial, Lucy stomps on grapes, Lucy working on a conveyor belt. It’s the commitment to the character and the plot that made these outlandish moments believable. Lucille Ball was a brave comic who did not worry about looking ugly. Her model-good looks were assaulted by pies, paint, water and whatever else the writers chose to throw at her. Her gorgeous – but expressive – face was malleable and rubbery. Her tall, statuesque body was battered and bruised. Her physicality was her instrument and she was a maestro.
I Love Lucy is a classic. It ran for six seasons with a couple of hour-long specials that followed. After Ball and Arnaz split up, Ball followed up with The Lucy Show, a sitcom that was very popular, but did not live up to the earlier show’s legendary status. But in that show, there were moments that rivaled the work she did on I Love Lucy. The Lucy Show lasted for a number of successful seasons, earning Ball a pair of Emmys.
After The Lucy Show, Ball starred in a third sitcom, Here’s Lucy, this time with her two children, Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz, Jr. The show was a big hit, as well, though hasn’t aged as well as her first two efforts. There were some inspired moments on the programme, but it was far too beholden on trendy topical gags of the late 1960s, early 1970s, which makes the show seem corny.
Whilst on I Love Lucy, Arnaz and Ball capitalized on their TV superstardom to star in two film vehicles, The Long, Long Trailer (1954) and Forever Darling (1956). And by 1968, Ball was an established comedy legend when she starred opposite Henry Fonda in the hit, classic comedy film Yours, Mine, Ours.
After Here’s Lucy, Ball made appearances on several TV specials, TV movies, and variety shows and on Broadway in the hit musical Wild Cat. In 1974, after heavily campaigning for the role, she beat out Angela Lansbury the title part in Mame, which was a notorious flop.
But despite the disappointment of Mame, Ball entered the 1980s as a grande dame of comedy, inspiring female comics after her. Women like Marlo Thomas, Mary Tyler Moore, Candice Bergen, Debra Messing all owe a great debt to Ball’s legacy. When hosting a tribute to Three’s Company (Ball was a huge John Ritter fan), she extolled the virtues of the show by saying it simply wanted to make people laugh. And that’s what Lucille Ball was all about: making people laugh. What made her so endearing is that even though she was getting herself in ridiculous fixes, we loved her because she was so lovable. Ball was famously strict and hard-working; she was known as a relentless and blunt taskmaster on the set, but on screen, she was endearing and charming. When she popped her eyes open because a nutty idea popped in her head, we knew were in for a great time. For over sixty years, we all loved Lucy.
Lucille Ball’s greatest hits:
Stage Door (1937), directed by Gregory La Cava and starring Katharine Hepburn and close Lucy pal Ginger Rogers, this film is definitely an ensemble piece, with Ball playing a small, but important role. The film’s a bit of a dated melodrama, but Ball is a standout among a solid cast.
The Ziegfeld Follies (1945), an MGM extravaganza with lots of big stars like Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, and Gene Kelly doing their thing. Lucille Ball was never the biggest musical comedy star, but she was a solid hoofer. In her number, she’s done up in pink feathers, brandishing a whip over chorus girls done up as black cats. It’s over the top and ridiculous, but she looks amazing.
The Dark Corner (1946), directed by Henry Hathaway, this film noir is a very good, tense thriller. Much of Ball’s film career before TV was fitful and ragged, so this excellent mystery is lost, which is a shame. It’s an excellent, suspenseful thriller with Ball doing a fantastic job in the lead.
Sorrowful Jones (1949), directed by Sidney Lanfield, this is the first pairing of Ball and Bob Hope. It’s a small, minor film in both Ball’s and Hope’s filmography, but notable for the first time the two comedy legends get together.
Fancy Pants (1950), directed by George Marshall, this is the second time Ball was paired with longtime collaborator Bob Hope. It’s a funny comedy of errors that relies heavily on the chemistry of its two stars.
I Love Lucy (1951-1957) *”The Diet” (Season 1, Episode 3, dir. Marc Daniels) – one of the many episodes that has Lucy try to “get into the act” this episode isn’t regarded as highly as others but has a lovely scene in which Lucy feels competitive and insecure around the chorine auditioning. Seeing their skimpy outfits, Lucy starts to roll up her sleeves, pant legs, and shirt, to show off her middrift in a vain attempt to look about 10 years younger. It’s a funny scene because it combines Ball’s expert ability to be funny, but you also feel so bad for Lucy. *”Lucy Thinks Ricky Is Trying to Murder Her” (Season 1, Episode 4, dir. Marc Daniels) – not an important episode – it stretched credibility that Lucy would think Ricky is trying to kill her because she was so engaged with a mystery novel. Still it’s important because it was the first episode written/produced. *”The Audition” (Season 1, Episode 6, dir. Marc Daniels) – this episode is important because Lucy does the Professor sketch, which was taken from Ball’s vaudeville act with Arnaz. It’s a hilarious bit that is the first time on the show that we get to see Ball’s genius (as well as Arnaz’s underrated skills as the straight man) *”Lucy Does a TV Commercial” (Season 1, Episode 30, dir. Marc Daniels) – a classic episode with the wonderful Lucy auditioning for a commercial for Ricky’s TV show. The sponsor, Vitameatavegamin, is a tonic. In the audition Lucy goes through a series of takes, not knowing the tonic is 23% alcohol. Ball’s performance as Lucy progressively gets sloshed on the stuff is nothing short of brilliance: from the first moment she tastes the foul liquid and shudders it’s a masterclass in comedy. Her slurred speech and her growing inability to get through the copy is hilarious. This bit is rightly lionized as one of the best episodes on television. *”Job Switching” (Season 2, Episode 1, dir. William Asher) – another key episode in the Lucy lore – Lucy and Ricky get into an argument about who has it worse, men or women, and to settle the debate the men switch jobs with the women. Lucy and Ethel enter the workforce, whilst Ricky and Fred become homemakers. The episode is an early look at gender roles and a woman’s place in society. Part of the post-war boom was the female workforce contracting when the husbands returned from the war and the wives went back home. For some women, WWII was a moment of enlightenment and freedom with opportunities to make their own money and earning their own independence. In “Job Switching” the script looks at the tension between contemporary women and their husbands. It’s an important question. The episode peaks with Lucy and Ethel finding themselves working at a candy factory, barely keeping up with a conveyor belt that is forcing the girls to swipe the chocolates off the belt, secreting them in various places on their bodies, including their hats, and stuffing candy in their mouth. The chaos is heightened by the girls’ inability to keep up, with more candy spewing out of the machine, and in desperation, they do their best to keep their boss from discovering their failure in cupping each piece. It’s a hilarious scene with Ball’s beautiful face contorted grotesquely as she shovels candy in her maw. By the end of the episode, both sides see that the grass is greener, and order is restored. Ricky and Fred see that domestic life is harder than they appreciated and Lucy and Ethel learn to appreciate their lot in life. Obviously, the gender politics are a bit cracked and very dated, but it’s a hallmark of the series, where the characters join together in a pat resolution. *”Lucy Is Enciente” (Season 2, Episode 10, dir. William Asher) – a great episode with a wonderful moment in which Lucy lets Ricky know that she’s pregnant. Not knowing how to tell him, she drops him a secret note during a performance at his nightclub, and he sings “We’re Having a Baby” not knowing who the lucky couple is, moving from table to table, until he spots Lucy. The moment when Ricky learns it’s they who are expecting is beautiful, with Ball giving a touching performance as her resolve melts and she’s left in tears of happiness. So much of I Love Lucy is raucous slapstick, that these quieter moments are very appreciated. *”Lucy Goes to the Hospital” (Season 2, Episode 16, dir. William Asher) – one of the smart things the show does is incorporate Ball’s real-life pregnancy into the diegesis of the show. Later on, when an actress is pregnant, sitcoms would do the hammy business of hiding her bump behind bulky coats or giant boxes. In the case of Ball, it was simply folding her pregnancy into the show. The episode is good, but notable because the viewership it scored: nearly 75% of viewing audiences watched Lucy give birth. . *”Lucy Tells the Truth” (Season 3, Episode 6, dir. William Asher) – a strong entry with a brilliant scene, in which on a dare, Lucy is forced to tell the truth, so Ethel sets her up to fail by asking personal questions in front of their group of friends. One-by-one, Lucy devastates her friends with offensive truths, with Ball doing a rare deadpan, understated performance that works wonders. *”Mr and Mrs TV Show (Season 4, Episode 5, dir. William Asher) – usually Lucy is trying to outsmart Ricky, but in this case, it’s Ricky who’s the schemer. When the Ricardos are chosen to film an ad in their home for a TV sponsor, Ricky leaves out the fact that the sponsor, Phipps Department Store, demanded that Lucy be part of it. After a rehearsal, in which Lucy performs beautifully, extolling the virtues of Phipps, she finds out the truth, and to teach her husband a lesson, she drags the store and then appears in rags when asked to show off one of Phipps designer dresses. Unbeknownst to her, the ruined rehearsal was actually a live broadcast. Ball’s appearance in bedraggled rags is hilarious, especially when in an earlier scene, she swanned into the scene looking stunning. *”Ethel’s Hometown” (Season 4, Episode 16, dir. William Asher) – one of the cool things about I Love Lucy, is that it was a serialized sitcom, and nurtured long story arcs. To revitalize the show during its 4th season, the writers had the Ricardos and Mertzes travel to Hollywood for Ricky’s film debut. On the way to California, the gang stops along the way, one of the stops being Ethel’s hometown of Albuquerque. Vivan Vance was a brilliant comedienne in her own right, and supported Ball wonderfully, but it was nice to see Ethel being the center of the plot. Once back in her hometown, Ethel lies to her family and friends, letting them thin it was she that was the big star of New York, not Ricky. As a result, the town wants to fete Ethel, ignoring Ricky, Lucy, or Fred. To get back at her, they ruin her solo stage debut by upstaging her, during a performance of an operetta. As Ethel obliviously warbles the dated number, the rest of the gang perform vaudevillian bits of comedy behind her, like Fred appearing a number of times on stage, each time with a progressively larger houseplant, or Ricky giving us a sight gag of a ‘man eating tiger’ by eating a tiger-shaped cake. It’s an inspired performance with all four cast members getting into the act. *”L.A. at Last” (Season 4, Episode 17, dir. William Asher) – big guest stars often ruin a show, as they’re merely stunt casting. Lucille Ball wasn’t averse to guest stunt casting herself, leaning on her famous pals to perform on her shows. But in this episode, the cameos work perfectly. Eve Arden has a brief moment that is hilarious and William Holden lends his Hollywood charm. In the episode, Lucy, Fred, and Ethel are at the Brown Derby, with the girls rubbernecking each time a celebrity passes by. Holden happens to sit in a booth near them, ordering lunch. Instead of leaving him in peace, Lucy surepticiously stares at him, stealing glances. Instead of having them thrown out or leaving, he decides to give her a taste of her own medicine, and stares at her. Unnerved, Lucy decides to leave, dragging her friends with her, but not before accidentally knocking a waiter carrying creamy desserts into Holden, covering him with whipped cream. Later on, Holden – clean now – runs into Ricky and the two come back to the Ricardos’ hotel, as a surprise for Lucy. Once she realizes that Holden is there – and predicting Ricky’s fury – she greets the Hollywood legend with a fake putty nose. We see Ball’s process as a comedienne, especially in rare – but brilliant moment of improvisation – when Holden accidentally sets the fake nose on fire and Ball dips her nose into a cup of coffee to uproarious to laughter. The Hollywood episodes were great because the movie stars that appeared were great sports, playing off their celebrity, and playing with Ball. *”The Fashion Show” (Season 4, Episode 20, dir. William Asher) – Lucy wants an original gown by Don Loper (appearing as himself), but Ricky’s budget won’t let her get the dress she wants, but as luck would have it, she’s invited to be part of a Mrs Hollywood fashion show. Wanted to tan her porcelain complexion, Lucy instead burns herself, but appears, regardless, though it’s a problem because the suit Loper gives her is a tweed suit, scratching mercilessly at her tender, burned skinned. It’s an interesting gag, a minor callback to Ball’s prior career as a model. *”Harpo Marx” (Season 4, Episode 28, dir. William Asher) – a minor episode that his classed up by the collaboration of two comedy genius: Harpo Marx and Lucille Ball. The script had Lucy and Ethel in a fix because their friend from New York is visiting, and expecting a parade of movie stars, due to Lucy’s exaggerated accounts in her letters. Wearing costumes and masks, Lucy and Ethel pull off the ruse. The brilliant scene in which Marx and Ball mirror each other is a must-watch. It’s a great way to see the two brilliant performers at their best. *”Lucy Visits Grauman’s”/”Lucy and John Wayne” (Season 5, Episodes 1, 2, dir. James V. Kern) – John Wayne wasn’t known for his comedy chops, but in his appearance, he proved to be a funny presence, despite his intimidating looks and forbidding screen persona. Lucy and Ethel want the ultimate Hollywood souvenir: John Wayne’s cement slab at Graumann’s. They accidentally destory it before they can return it, and an appalled Ricky calls in favors to get Wayne to recreate the cement slab. Through a comedy of errors, a number of slabs are destroyed accidentally, with the good-natured Wayne agreeing to multiple takes. *”Staten Island Ferry” (Season 5, Episode 12, dir. James V. Kern) – another minor entry, a precursor to the European episodes. I chose this episode because it featured a rare pairing of Lucy and Fred alone together. Usually the scripts had the couples paired up or in other instances, the girls together and the boys together. In this instance, we see the chummy, almost-paternal chemistry that William Frawley shared with Lucille Ball. In this episode, Fred announces that he cannot go on the cruise to Europe because he suffers from sea sickness. To help, Lucy agrees to accompany him on the Staten Island Ferry to cure him of his sea sickness. They board, armed with some sea sickness pills, and Lucy discovers as the trip goes on, that she suffers from seas sickness, too. Reminiscent to the Vitameatavegamin bit, Lucy starts to get progressively wobbly and drowsy as she pops the pills like candy with a frustrated and concerned Fred trying to keep his friend standing. It’s a very funny scene. *”Lucy Gets a Paris Gown” (Season 5, Episode 20, dir. James V. Kern) – like in the California episode, in which Lucy was eyeing a Don Loper gown, in Paris, Lucy of course wants a gown. She and Ethel scheme to get a gown by going on a hunger strike, with Ricky capitulating until he learns her hunger strike was fake. To get back at her, he and Fred get dresses made from potato sacks, and they gift them to the girls as original Parisian designs. The girls hit the Parisian streets, strutting like models, to the bemusement of the locals. The sight of the ridiculous dresses is very funny, made even funnier by the girls’ obliviousness. *”Lucy’s Italian Movie” (Season 5, Episode 23, dir. James V. Kern) – another classic moment. Offered in a role in an Italian film, Lucy decides to go Method and visits a vineyard and is roped into stomping grapes for wine. As she stomps away, a vineyard employer is nonplussed by her, and grows wary as Lucy finds the experience unpleasant, and wants to climb out of the vat. The two quickly start to squabble as the worker won’t allow Lucy to shirk her duties. Their fight becomes physical as they start to push each other around, throwing grapes at each other, wrestling in the mess. It’s a hilarious moment, again, a probably improbable situation made believable by the sheer force of Ball’s performance and her commitment to the sketch. *”Lucy Does the Tango” (Season 6, Episode 20, dir. William Asher) – though the show was still very good in its sixth season, the move from New York to Connecticut marked a slight dimming in the show’s consistency. Though the move reflected the American Dream of moving to the suburbs, it indicated a subtle shift in the Ricardos, essentially making them middle-aged suburbanites. In this episode, the gang has to deal with country matters – raising chickens – but showbiz is still looming in their lives, as Ricky commutes to New York to work at his nightclub. To fool Ricky into thinking their egg farm scheme is working, Lucy buys a bunch of eggs, and in a scene that recalls Lucy stuffing her shirt with candy, Lucy crams a bunch of eggs down her blouse. Ricky drags Lucy into a quick tango rehearsal, that climaxes with him slamming his torso into hers, in a passionate embrace, causing the eggs to smash, resulting in one of the funniest scenes in the show’s history (it reportedly was the longest laugh recorded in sitcom history)
The Long, Long Trailer (1954), directed by Vincent Minnelli, this film was a star vehicle for Ball and Arnaz during the height of their I Love Lucy megastardom. It’s not a great film, but funny and charming. Arnaz is a straight man to his costar, but gets a nifty comic bit in a malfunctioning shower, but the comedic heavy lifting goes to Ball. The lean plot has the two playing Baby Boomers who buy a ridiculously long trailer for a cross-country trip, with predictably disastrous results. The characters differed little from Lucy and Ricky and the script was no big shakes, but it’s still an important and diverting entry for Lucy enthusiasts.
The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (1957 – 1960) *”The Celebrity Next Door” (Season 1, Episode 2) – Tallulah Bankhead is a grande diva of the stage and is an oversized personality in much the same way Ball is. It’s interesting to see Ball stand head-to-toe against a female legend on par with her. In the hour-long comedy specials, we see the Ricardos and Mertzes get into various adventures, usually with celebrities. Unlike the occasional guest appearance on I Love Lucy, the guest shots on these episodes weren’t always great and didn’t feel organic to the plots. Bankhead’s appearance is funny in that the script gives her opportunities to play off her gin-soaked image. The two spar beautifully. *”Lucy Goes to Alaska” (Season 2, Episode 8) – another minor episode that is made memorable by a near-classic scene in which Lucy is trying to get comfortable in a hammock. The gang goes to Alaska and stay in a small hotel room with not enough beds. Ricky gets a folding bed, Fred gets the regular bed, Ethel sleeps on the floor in a sleeping bag, and Lucy gets the hammock. Ball performs this scene beautifully, repeatedly slamming her body on the ground as the uncooperative hammock throws her.
The Lucy Show (1962 – 1968) *”Lucy Puts Up a TV Antenna” (Season 1, Episode 9, dir. Jack Donohue) – in her second sitcom, Lucy returns as Lucy Carmichael, a widow living with her kids and best friend, Vivian (Vivian Vance), and her kids. It’s a blended-family type of sitcom that essentially felt like an extension of I Love Lucy – only without Fred and Ricky. The show had many of the same people behind I Love Lucy, at least in the first few years, which explains why the first couple seasons were very good. In this episode, Lucy wants to fix an antenna in her house, and ropes Vivian with her money-saving scheme, resulting in the two women balancing themselves on the roof. Ball’s and Vance’s performances are incredibly natural, despite the absurdity of the situation. *”Together for Christmas” (Season 1, Episode 13, dir. Jack Donohue) – a sweet episode that looks at how blended families forge new holiday traditions. It’s nice to see how Lucy and Vivian create a family unit of their own. *”Lucy and Viv Put in a Shower” (Season 1, Episode 18, dir. Jack Donohue) – this episode is a classic on par with I Love Lucy. A lot of the schemes that Lucy and Viv found themselves in were motivated by a desire to save money. They were two single women with a fixed income, raising kids, so it was important for them to cut corners when they can. The writers have the ladies build a shower – again, we’re meant to believe this improbable situation and it’s credible because of Ball and Vance, both of whom are great and natural. The shower scene is great – the two ladies are rank amateurs and lock themselves in the shower, with the water rising, with the two women treading water before finding themselves swimming around like they were in a fish tank. *”Lucy Conducts a Symphony” (Season 2, Episode 13, dir. Jack Donohue) Lucille Ball would’ve been a great silent comic. Her type of comedy lend itself to pure physical humor. In this episode, Lucy steps in for Viv’s musician cousin, a percussionist, who is disabled by a bout of hypnosis, which means Lucy has to join the symphony. Predictably, disaster follows, as Lucy’s incompetence at performing leads her to annoy the real conductor who lives in pique, which means, Lucy has to take over. It’s a great scene, very funny, with a charming tuxedoed Ball again selling a silly scene with a brilliant commitment to the situation at hand. *”Lucy and John Wayne” (Season 5, Episode 10, dir. Maury Thompson) – Wayne is a funny guy, as long as he isn’t tasked to do too much. In this episode, he plays himself as he did in I Love Lucy. At this point in The Lucy Show, Lucy has moved from upstate New York to L.A. Getting onto a movie set because of a studio pal, Lucy intrudes on the filming of a John Wayne picture. Appalled at a fight scene that she found too realistic, she jumps into action, trying to rescue Wayne, throwing punches and accidentally smashing a bottle over Wayne’s head. Lucy Carmichael, like Lucy Ricardo, was a pushy star-watcher, but in this case, she doesn’t have a Ricky to tame her, so she’s allowed to run amok in Hollywood, pestering the celebrities. Ball does good, solid work, and it’s a funny episode.
Here’s Lucy (1968 – 1974) *”Lucy the Fixer” (Season 1, Episode 14, dir. Jack Donohue) – in her third sitcom, Lucille Ball is Lucy Barker, a widowed mother of two teenagers, who works with her brother-in-law, Harry Carter (a brilliant Gale Gordon). The kids are played by Ball’s two children, Lucie Arnaz and Desi Aranz, Jr. The premise is fairly simple: Lucy works with Harry and finds herself on adventures with her kids, much like the fixes that Lucy Ricardo and Lucy Carmichael fell into. Unlike I Love Lucy or The Lucy Show (in its early seasons), Here’s Lucy is wedded with its era, and lots of the episodes date badly, as the scripts grappled with generation gap. Ball was still a megastar with huge influence, but she was also tied to the Golden Age of television, as the landscape was engaging with issues like the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, feminism, the sexual revolution. Here’s Lucy was never political, but the presence of two teens meant that there were lots of jokes about adults born near the turn of the century trying to figure out their baby boomer babies. In “Lucy the Fixer” Lucy causes disaster at Harry’s house by trying to fix a broken lamp. The setup for the sketch isn’t terribly involved, but the sequence – carefully and very well-choreographed means that the scene unfolds happily. Lucy starts to pull cords and wires, breaking holes in Harry’s drywall, with Harry’s growing frustration and rage bubbling over. At this point, Ball’s timing is still intact, though her expanding role behind the scenes means that she’s more reliant on cue cards when performing – at times, it’s clear she’s reading off scene. But the scene unfurls quite beautifully and is a very minor classic in the Ball canon. *”Lucy Meets the Burtons” (Season 3, Episode 1, dir. Jerry Paris) – again, more stunt casting, this time Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, at the height of their tabloid celebrity. Both are tanned to a lacquered mahogany brown and are clearly reveling in their stardom. Taylor, a longtime friend of Ball’s, is a very funny woman who is very good natured about her fame and image. At this point in her career, she’s no longer a serious or vital actress but a professional celebrity. And though Burton is a well-respected thespian, he does nothing incredibly taxing or moving in this work, but like his wife, is game. The episode isn’t particularly well-written or well-acted, but is important because it’s a moment when Ball as celebrity blends with Ball as actress and comedienne. *”Lucy is N.G. as an R.N.” (Season 6, Episode 17, dir. Coby Ruskin) – the last couple seasons of Here’s Lucy were haphazard affairs, largely inconsistent and not up to Ball’s usual standards. This entry in the final season is very good and an indicator of what direction the show should have gone in: an ensemble piece, with Ball working with a company of actors. In this episode, Lucy is called upon to take care of her friends, all of whom are sick: Harry injures his knee, Mary Jane (Mary Jane Croft) breaks both her arms, and daughter Kim is felled with the flu (Lucie Arnaz). Lucy is tasked to nurse them, and there is a great, congenial, convivial tone to the show.
Yours, Mine, Ours (1968), directed by Melville Shavelson and based on a true story (!), this story has Ball play a middle-aged widow with eight children fall in love with Frank Beardsley (played by Henry Fonda), a widower with ten children. They marry and combine their prodigious brood to hilarious results. The film is quite good and Fonda and Ball do good, personable work together. Ball has some choice slapstick moments, including a drunken scene at a dinner table that is a minor classic.
In 2001, when honored by the American Film Institute with its lifetime achievement award, Barbra Streisand mused about the other recipients, including Bette Davis, who had made over 80 films. On stage, Streisand pointed out that she had only made 16 films up to that point.
“I’ve always wanted to be an actress,” she said. “Ever since I can remember.” She added, “My dream was to be a classical actress. I wanted to play all the great parts. Hedda Gabler. Nora in A Doll’s House. Shaw’s and Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. But tonight, I stand before you, not having done any of it. I got sidetracked, I guess. I couldn’t get a job as a dramatic actress, so I started to sing.”
The speech gets at Barbra Streisand’s film career – a wildly successful career that still hasn’t fulfilled all of its potential. Because Streisand didn’t look like her peers – like Sandra Dee or Audrey Hepburn – because she had a distinct, unique, if unconventional beauty, she wasn’t seen as a leading lady. Instead, she was the strange and unique kook. A weird beatnik who had streaks in her hair, Cleopatra eye makeup, and a funky thrift shop aesthetic.
Her film debut is considered one of the greatest film debuts in film history. In a role that she created on Broadway, she played Fanny Brice to Oscar-winning perfection in the 1968 musical comedy, Funny Girl (dir. William Wyler) The film is still the one that uses Streisand’s unique talent in the best way. It was a musical at a time when the genre was dimming, yet it became a classic hit. The myth of Brice was inextricably braided into Streisand’s public persona. When looking in the mirror, covered head-to-toe in leopard print, Streisand smirks, “Hello, gorgeous,” introducing herself as a movie star, blurring the line between film and reality. Streisand has a kindred spirit with Wyler, who films his star like a consummate Broadway producer. When she’s belting “Don’t Rain on My Parade” on the ferry at the end of the film, a star is born.
Because of the resultant superstardom from Funny Girl and her recording career, Streisand became a leading lady in the 1970s, starring in a string of hit films, casting her as the romantic lead, opposite handsome matinee idols like Robert Redford, Kris Kristofferson, and Ryan O’Neil. The Way We Were, The Main Event, What’s Up Doc?, and A Star Is Born defined 70s pop mainstream cinema.
What’s Up Doc? is arguably her best performance during her 70s movie star era. Peter Bogdanovich was able to emulate the screwball comedies of the 1930s with unerring, accurate skill, recalling Howard Hawks at his best. As Judy Maxwell, Streisand is a sexy, loopy gem, a furious comedy tornado. She never reached the comedic heights of What’s Up Doc? again.
In the 1980s, Streisand made only two films – her most notable being her directing debut, Yentl (1983), based on a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer about a young woman who dons men’s clothing to continue her education, which is reserved for me. Yentl was a labor of love for the diva – she not only directed the film, but starred in it, help write the screenplay, and produced the soundtrack with Michel Legrand and Alan and Marilyn Bergman. The film was an ambitious work, admirable in her reach. She wanted to tell the story of the importance of education and knowledge, as well as, the power of fatherhood. Streisand’s relationship with her stepfather was notably difficult, and her birth father died young, leaving her with feelings of abandonment and emotional issues that she seemed to approach with Yentl.
Her other film of the 1980s, Nuts was a notable effort, in which Streisand found herself working with powerhouses like Richard Dreyfuss, Maureen Stapleton, Eli Wallach, and Karl Malden. It was a Method movie and it was one of Streisand’s most challenging roles. It would be the final time that Streisand would essay a role that pushed her talent. Nuts is a laudable effort, one that Streisand took very seriously. She took on scoring duties as well as producing and starring in the film.
By the 1990s, Streisand established herself as an entertainment legend and power player. A successful world tour and an extended career of best-selling albums were a great companion to her film efforts of the 1990s, including 1991’s The Prince of Tides, her second directing effort. Based on the novel by Pat Controy, the film was a box office hit and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture (though she was notably snubbed for best director) In retrospect, the film shows the director at her best and worst. She’s very good at getting excellent performances from her actors and she’s also solid at framing a scene. She has an eye for lighting and using visuals to paint a beautiful picture – her use of water in the film is especially skillful. There’s also a violent scene of rape which Streisand handles with adept taste, restraint, and honesty.
Unfortunately, The Prince of Tides would also become the film that would mark Streisand as a self-serving diva. Though much of this criticism is rooted in sexism, there is some validity in questioning Streisand’s choices with the film. Her character, for example, is a supporting player in Conroy’s book, but is expanded to a lead in the film. She also frames herself in gauzy, lovingly lit shots as if she were shooting an album cover. Her performance in the film is sound, but she’s overshadowed by the searing work of Nick Nolte and Kate Nelligan, who play fractured survivors of abuse.
The other film that Streisand directed – her last to date – is 1996’s The Mirror Has Two Faces. Unlike The Prince of Tides or Yentl, The Mirror Has Two Faces is remarkable in its lack of ambition. It’s a straightforward, mainstream romantic comedy. Streisand directs it as if she were Nora Ephron, Rob Reiner, Garry Marshall, or any mainstream rom-com film director. She also stars in the film, and though it’s not a particularly memorable performance, it’s a good reminder that there was a time when she was a very funny actress. The most notable thing about The Mirror Has Two Faces was that it resurrected the career of film legend Lauren Bacall, who played Streisand’s vainglorious mother. The movie tells the story of a brilliant Columbia University professor (Streisand) who is unlucky in love. Through the machinations of her sister (Mimi Rogers), she’s paired with a handsome, if rumpled, math academic played by Jeff Bridges (the latest in a string of handsome blond onscreen lovers). The film does ask some pointed questions about standards of beauty – though Streisand’s vaulted vanity never allow her to ever look homely or unattractive, so the big makeover reveal (complete with exercise and beauty montage over a Richard Marx power ballad) doesn’t have the impact it should.
For the last few years, Streisand’s focus seemed to be on her music and touring. She made sporadic appearances on film, most notably as Rosalyn Focker in the Ben Stiller comedy franchise Meet the Fockers and Little Fockers. The films weren’t great art by any means, but in Meet the Fockers, Streisand was able to flex her comedy muscles again, playing in the sandbox with stars Stiller, Robert DeNiro, and Dustin Hoffman. She also starred alongside Seth Rogan in the road comedy Guilt Trip, leaning into the Jewish mother stereotype. Though Streisand was enjoyable in these films, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher why she chose these middling projects to break up long blocks of absences in her film career.
As earlier noted, Streisand’s a major figure in 20th century cinema with a relatively thin resume. Her contribution to film isn’t one classic film, but instead, as moments. It’s her crooning the title theme song from The Way We Were. It’s her tearfully belting through “My Man” in Funny Girl. It’s her, in a crunchy perm, wearing a peasant blouse, staring down a crowd in A Star Is Born. In interviews, Streisand has repeatedly insisted that film making is far more fulfilling and rewarding to her than making music, but her film career is seemingly inseparable from her music career. Whilst she was deserving of the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, it’s fitting that her thank you speech did address that her career – though wildly successful – is still one of untapped potential.