Saturday, February 20, 2016

Sidney Poitier, Screen Legend.

TO SIR, WITH LOVE.  That title of his 1967 box office hit applies to the feelings millions of us have today as we wish Sidney Poitier a very happy 89th birthday.  How often I've dreamed of having the opportunity to interview him.  If I got only the privilege to meet him and shake his hand, I would do so with tears of joy streaming down my face.  That's how significant his work has been and continues to be to me.  I was born and raised in South Los Angeles when it was still called South Central.  Some of my favorite memories of family time involve Sidney Poitier.  I guess it's no surprise that whenever one of his new movies was out, we'd get into the Plymouth on a Friday night and head for the nearest drive-in movie theater so we could see movie star actor Sidney Poitier on the big screen.  How proud we all felt to see him up there.
My little sister and I would be in the back seat with our pajamas on underneath our clothes while our parents, of course, sat in the front seat.  I also remember how we all sat anxiously looking at the big box of lights and wires called a "television" in our living room and how Mom and Dad whooped with glee and pride when Anne Bancroft read that Sidney Poitier was the winner of the Best Actor Academy Award for 1963's LILIES OF THE FIELD.
Bancroft was so thrilled that she gave him a congratulatory kiss right then and there on live network television!  That was big deal back then, a time in which TV execs were neurotic and nervous about interracial moments of physical affection for fear of losing sponsors.  Seriously.
Sidney Poitier had already made Hollywood history as the first black man to be nominated for the Best Actor Oscar thanks to his performance as the tough escaped convict handcuffed to a racist white convict in 1958's THE DEFIANT ONES.  Our family also gathered at that same TV to watch a special network news telecast one day.  It was Dr. Martin Luther King's March on Washington -- and Sidney Poitier was there with his dear friend, Harry Belafonte.
Here's Dr. King, Harry Belafonte, civil rights activist Asa Philip Randolph and Sidney Poiter.
By the time the 1966 western DUEL AT DIABLO rolled in, our family had grown.  My sister and I had a little brother.  When Mom and Dad felt he was old enough to handle a walk-in movie theater instead of being in the backseat of our Plymouth, we went to see Sidney Poitier and James Garner in Duel at Diablo on a rainy Sunday afternoon.  What a fun experience, the five of us seated in a movie theater row and enjoying that action-packed western.

Sidney Poitier didn't just act.  He became a film director.  He directed two friends who were with him at Dr. King's March on Washington -- Harry Belafonte and actress Ruby Dee.  She was Poitier's leading lady in the original 1959 Broadway cast of the landmark play, A RAISIN IN THE SUN.  They recreated their roles in the 1961 film adaptation.  Ruby Dee got her one Oscar nomination for a film released in 2007.  It was American Gangster starring Denzel Washington.   She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Poitier directed the 1972 western, BUCK AND THE PREACHER.  Poitier played a wagon master and Belafonte co-starred as a con man Bible thumper with some funky teeth.  You need to see Ruby Dee in this movie.  She's the wagon master's wife who wants to just leave and ride to Canada where black folks can live in peace.  She should have been a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for Poitier's Buck and the Preacher.

In the turbulent 1960s, Mr. Poitier was a major box office star.  The first black film performer to crack that color wall with lead roles.  People of all colors went to see movies that starred Sidney Poitier.  He starred in two of the five movies that were Oscar nominees for the Best Picture of 1967 -- GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER and IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.  Both were big hits with critics and moviegoers alike.  The other nominees were BONNIE AND CLYDE, THE GRADUATE and DOCTOR DOOLITTLEGuess Who's Coming To Dinner earned 10 Oscar nominations.  Katharine Hepburn won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in it.  In The Heat Of The Night won the Oscar for Best Picture and Rod Steiger, Poitier's co-star, won the Oscar for Best Actor.  Beah Richards, with a sophisticated role in Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, became one of the first black women to get a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for a role in which she did not play a maid. She and Poitier had scenes together in Guess Who's Coming To Dinner and in the racially-charged Southern murder mystery, In The Heat Of The Night.

I've long felt that In The Heat Of The Night should've brought Mr. Poitier his third Oscar nomination for Best Actor.  He is absolutely outstanding as Detective Virgil Tibbs.  Here's some other Oscar history:  The night those Oscars were given out, the ceremony had been postponed for the first time ever.  The ceremony and telecast were postponed two days because of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.

1949 was a good year for Joseph L. Mankiewicz.  He won Oscars for directing and writing 1949's A Letter to Three Wives.  1950 was also a good year for him.  Mankiewicz won two more Oscars -- this time for directing and writing All About Eve.  His All About Eve also took the Oscar for Best Picture of 1950.  Mankiewicz got another Oscar nomination for that year.  He was nominated for writing 1950's NO WAY OUT, a groundbreaking racial drama starring Sidney Poitier as a hospital doctor.  The doctor is conflicted because the job demands that he care for a racist wounded criminal (played by Richard Widmark).  Movie audience of the 1930s and 40s had not been used to seeing a black actor as an doctor in an urban hospital with white fellow doctors.  According to an interview Sidney Poitier gave to the Los Angeles Times last year, some Southern areas refused to show the film.  Some. Not all.
Although they did not get screen credit, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis also appear in No Way Out as two of the doctor's relatives.

It's February 20th, 2016.  No Way Out airs at 8p Eastern tonight on Turner Classic Movies (TCM).  See the screen legend early in his film career.  Before he made Hollywood history with his Oscar win.  Before he got a special lifetime achievement Oscar in 2002 -- the same year Denzel Washington and Halle Berry took home Oscars for Best Actor and Best Actress.

Again...Happy Birthday to actor, director and social activist Sidney Poitier.  Thank you, sir, for reflecting the best of us.

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