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.

Stephen Rebello is serving all kinds of hot, piping tea with ‘Dolls! Dolls! Dolls! Deep Inside “Valley of the Dolls,” the most Beloved Bad Book and Movie of All Time’

A Shelf Full of Books

Valley of the Dolls is a sloppy, campy mess of a book that was made into a sloppy, campy mess of a film. Director Mark Robson had a rough assignment. Make something watchable from something patently unwatchable. Though there were lots of great intentions, Robson’s project was doomed. But the film is memorable for reasons that have little to do with the film’s quality. It has a tragic connection to cast member Sharon Tate’s murder; it also is known for being a devastating blip in the increasingly depressing oeuvre of Judy Garland; and the final product has emerged as a much-derided camp classic, one that is endlessly studied, dissected, and quoted by drag queens.

The source material for the film was written by Jacqueline Susann, an author known more for her uncanny ability in selling books than writing them. A vivacious and beautiful woman (who tried her hand at becoming…

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Albert Brooks finds Debbie Reynolds the role she deserved almost 50 years in her career

In 1996, two film legends enjoyed the some of the best reviews in their careers: Lauren Bacall starred in Barbra Streisand’s romantic comedy The Mirror Has Two Faces and Albert Brooks resurrected Debbie Reynolds career in his comedy Mother. While Streisand’s film used Bacall’s glamour and history, Brooks unearthed a little-seen side of Reynolds’ screen persona and underrated talents. In Mother, Brooks exposed a sly and hidden comedic talent that went unused for decades.

By 1996, Debbie Reynolds was a Hollywood icon, but a large chunk of her legend was tied up in her screen persona, her time as a refugee from the Golden Age of Hollywood, and her general razzle dazzle aesthetic. Aside from Singin’ in the Rain or maybe The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Reynolds film career was more of a busy blur. By the 1990s, she was more famous for being Princess Leia’s mother.

So Mother is an excellent vehicle for the actress. When Brooks was casting the film, he wanted a 50s film icon to play the titular character – a passive aggressive, somewhat repressed woman who has left emotional scars on her son’s self-esteem and his career. Former first lady, Nancy Reagan was Brooks’ choice. Before becoming a politician’s wife, Reagan was known as Nancy Davis – a 1950s Hollywood b-movie actress who would fall in love and marry the future California governor and POTUS, Ronald Reagan. Unlike Debbie Reynolds, Nancy Reagan never found much success as a film star. Though she was interested in the film, she ultimately passed because of her husband’s ailing health.

Though I think Reagan’s casting would’ve made the film very interesting, ultimately, it was good luck that Reynolds was available, instead. Though Reagan was a moderately gifted actress, she didn’t have the resources necessary to pull off a tricky role like Beatrice Henderson. I’m sure age and experience would have lent Reagan a gravitas and presence, but Reynolds wasn’t just relying on her star quality and her legend – she gave a fully- realized performance as Brooks’ emotionally icy mother.

Brooks’ script has him cast as John Henderson, a science-fiction author who is going through a midlife crisis. His career is stalled because he’s suffering from writer’s block, and his romantic life has hit a wall after two divorces. Trying to figure out where dysfunction came from, he looked toward his mother. Wanting to discover why his life is such a mess, he informs Beatrice that he’ll be moving in.

The film finds comedy in the Odd Couple dynamic between John and Beatrice. A middle-aged man, twice-divorced, and rather set in his ways, finding fault in everything his mother does. The script – penned with the late Monica Johnson – finds comic cold in highlighting the yawning gulf between John and Beatrice. The years apart had only hardened the differences between the two – John’s a vegetarian and Beatrice is a food hoarder. The first evening they’re together, she tries to feed him three year-old cheese, ensconced firmly in her freezer like the corpse of a wooly mammoth. She’s left nonplussed by his persnickety habits. His insistence on trying to unknot their relationship is confusing and threatening.

As Beatrice, Reynolds imparts the role with a tart mix of flinty steeliness and cheery obliviousness. There is also a great bit of daffiness. As John’s involved scheme gets stranger, she responds with a baffled deadpan. And Reynolds’ physicality – she’s very sweet-looking, makes her moments of passive aggression more powerful and painful. As John is mining his past, he brings up the various moments that Beatrice inadvertently hurt his confidence. She’s not an unfeeling monster – we see flecks of regret that she semi-successfully buried.

As an actress, Debbie Reynolds found greatest success in light comedies. In Mother, she uses that deft comic touch when playing Beatrice. Brooks does an excellent job of pulling out the comedian in Reynolds. Most of the uproarious moments come when the two are at odds, especially in a situation caused by Beatrice’s single-minded eccentricities. For example, the shopping sequence is a work of beauty. As the John and Beatrice stroll the supermarket aisle, he pesters her with his high-minded, armchair analysis of Beatrice’s idiosyncrasies, including her thriftiness. Their lack of understanding is perfectly encapsulated by their emotional tug-of-war over fancy, organic, $10 jelly. The frugal Beatrice, a Great Depression baby, scoffs at the notion of buying artisanal jelly, which John feels is an indication of her lack of self-worth. Resentful of being psychoanalyzed in the jelly aisle of a grocery store, she snaps, “Just because I don’t want to spend $10 for bullshit jam has nothing to do with what I feel about myself.” The image of wholesome-as-Apple-pie Debbie Reynolds hissing “bullshit” in a supermarket is an indelible one, but that is exactly what is so powerful about Reynolds’ performance.

Though Brooks isn’t as interested in engaging with Reynolds’ star history as Streisand was with Bacall, it doesn’t mean he can ignore the star baggage the actress brings to the role. He wanted an ideal 1950s actress – someone who projected warmth and sunniness, so that the casual cruelty feels all the more cutting and brutal. Her face – still cute – is sunny and open, but it can be clouded by confusion, hostility, and exasperation. When John expounds on some philosophical parental revelation, Beatrice is able to register the hurt and anger. Beatrice isn’t a woman who indulges in self-examination, as doing so would disrupt a carefully-constructed armor to shield herself from ugly truths – mainly, that she resent motherhood for interrupting her dreams of being a writer. Her angst and hostility were directed at John, a writer, who represented the kind of life and career she could have had if she didn’t get married and have children.

When Mother was released in late 1996, the film was warmly received, but Reynolds got unanimous praise for her performance, one that surprised many who saw the actress toil away in thankless supporting roles for years. To Brooks’ credit, he wrote a complex and complicated role for an older woman and made sure that the character wasn’t merely a plot device, but a character in her own right. It’s a rare character and one that should be celebrated and remembered fondly.

 

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