Monday, April 10, 2017

Oscar History with Sidney Poitier

1968.  For the first time ever since they started being aired on television, the Oscars had been postponed.  They were postponed to April 10th from their scheduled April 8th date.  Gregory Peck made the announcement for the Academy that the Oscars were being postponed due to a national tragedy -- the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4th.  His funeral was a live network TV news telecast.  Several Hollywood celebrities had attended Dr. King's historic March on Washington in 1963.  Stars such as Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte had friendships with Dr. King.  In the 1960s, Sidney Poitier made Hollywood history.  He was the first Black man to get an Oscar nomination for Best Actor and he was the first to win.  He won for the 1963 feel-good comedy, LILIES OF THE FIELD.  In that decade, he was the first Black performer to be a top box office draw.  He had three hit releases in 1967 alone:  TO SIR, WITH LOVE in which he played a high school teacher in Great Britain, GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER co-starring Hollywood legends Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and the murder mystery/racial drama IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.
Director Norman Jewison, a man who is passionate about civil rights and racial equality, tells how racism was a hot button issue in location arrangements for IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.  Find the VANITY FAIR article "How Southern Racism Nearly Ruined One of Sidney Poitier's Most Iconic Movies."  Yes, Mr. Poitier had won an Oscar but he was still a black man in America.  He did not want to travel below the Mason-Dixon line to shoot the movie.  He and Harry Belafonte had experienced a scary situation while driving through Georgia.  Their car was chased and they were threatened.  IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT had Poitier as Philadelphia police officer Virgil Tibbs investigating a murder in Sparta, Mississippi.  He had to work with a "redneck" police chief played with Oscar-winning excellence by Rod Steiger.  Read the article.  Poitier did go down South for shooting. Jewison reveals that they had to stay in a Holiday Inn, the only place that accepted African Americans.
America was in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement when IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT was being made.  Dr. King had done the Selma march and the March on Washington.  In the tender GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, the father to Poitier's character is stunned to meet his son's Caucasian fianceé and mentions that interracial marriage had recently still been illegal in several America states.  IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT showed a modern-day racism, some evil archaic attitudes and why the Civil Rights Movement was painfully important.  Watch it again and really pay attention.  After the famous slap scene, one of the town's white residents tells the sheriff that the previous sheriff would've shot Tibbs dead and claimed self-defense.  It didn't matter that Virgil Tibbs was a fellow cop.  He was a black man.  Two of the five films to get Oscar nominations for Best Picture, GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER and IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, starred Sidney Poitier. Another first for a black actor.  (But he never got another Oscar nomination after LILIES OF THE FIELD.)  The month that the Oscars ceremony was scheduled to air on network television, Dr. Martin Luther King was shot and killed by a racist assassin.  Here's Dr. King with Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier.
 Take a look at this Oscar history in 1968 for films released in 1967.  It's the award for Best Picture.

What history!  The winner is announced, the first camera shot we see is one of Sidney Poitier with Rod Steiger backstage.  Steiger had won the actor for Best Actor.  Then we see the remarkable Walter Mirisch accept the Oscar and make a speech.  Hollywood great Walter Mirisch, now 95, attended this month's Turner Classic Movies Film Festival in Hollywood for the 50th anniversary screening of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.  Actress Lee Grant was also in attendance. She was wonderful in her scenes with Poitier as the wife of the murdered man.
Screen legend Sidney Poitier was in the audience.  Quincy Jones, who did the music for the 1967 classic, and director Norman Jewison were also present.  I wish I could have been there too.
Julie Andrews announced the Best Picture winner in 1968.  Starting in the 1990s, it's been rare to see a woman solo onstage announce the Oscar winner for Best Picture.  Why, I don't know.  But after Barbra Streisand announced DANCES WITH WOLVES as the 1990 Best Picture, women have usually been paired up a male to announce the Oscar winner for Best Picture.  Like Faye Dunaway this year with Warren Beatty.  However men have been onstage alone to award the Best Picture Oscar.

In the old days, the envelope containing the name of the winner or winners would be handed to the celebrity, as you saw in the clip.  Then things changed.  The celebrities were handed the envelopes backstage and walked out with the envelopes to open after reading the nominees.  Keeping to the old way would could have prevented the now-historic huge mistake this year when the Best Picture Winner was announced.  It wasn't the fault of Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty.  The man responsible for the envelopes backstage was live-tweeting and not fully paying attention to the work in progress.  He was not doing his job.

It's fun to watch a classic and perhaps live-tweet or chat in person in a room with pals as you're watching.  But I feel that you shouldn't overdo that.  Pay full attention to a classic occasionally.  Watch it as if you're in a theater.  Save the trivia facts for later. Let the art totally absorb you the way the filmmakers intended it to.  It's a different experience.  Trust me.  You will discover new things about films you may seen dozens of times already.  Look at IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.

The famous slap scene was a slap in the face of racism, a slap that is still relevant today.  "They call me MISTER Tibbs!," the famous Sidney Poitier line, was a declaration for all us black people that we are worthy of respect and validation for the hard work we've done to distinguish ourselves on a social playing field that has not always been level.  If you're white and have seen that classic film several times and you love Sidney Poitier in it, do you have black friends?  Have you ever talked to them seriously about their experiences in life as a black person?  Have you ever talked to them about how they could relate to Virgil Tibbs in the movie?  That film, that work of art, could open some meaningful dialogue.

TO SIR, WITH LOVE...GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER...and IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.  There were no black film critics on TV then to talk about Sidney Poitier's three box office hits then in 1967.  Today, seeing black film critics on network TV news programs or syndicated entertainment news show is still a rarity.

Fifty years later, the slap still resonates in this era of "Black Lives Matter" and "Oscars So White."  Hollywood has had to check its own practices regarding diversity and inclusion.  On the TCM Film Festival red carpet, Quincy Jones told TCM contributor Illeana Douglas was a blessing it was to do the music for IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT because Hollywood was not hiring black composers.  TCM host Ben Mankiewicz discussed the racial significance of the film with Walter Mirisch.

I grew up seeing Sidney Poitier movies.  Seeing Sidney Poitier on the big screen and the TV screen made me feel so special, so proud. His work is extremely respected and appreciated by our African American community.  It would've been great to see a black contributor on the TCM Film Festival red carpet asking questions about IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.  Hell, I'd have done it.  I'd have flown myself out there, found my own lodging and worked on that red carpet for free to be present for the 50th anniversary screening of IN THE HEAT OF NIGHT.

Because the 1968 Oscars telecast was postponed out of respect following the assassination of Dr. King, I would've asked Mr. Mirisch, Mr. Quincy Jones or Ms. Lee Grant if Dr. Martin Luther King saw IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT and, if so, how did he feel about the work that his friend, Sidney Poitier, did in it.

Watch TCM for highlights from the IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT festivities and check out VANITY FAIR for that interview of Norman Jewison on "How Southern Racism Nearly Ruined One of Sidney Poitier's Most Iconic Movies":

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