Sidney Poitier was the star we desperately needed him to be
Who did more with less? From whom were we expected less than more? Who had more eyes and more daggers, more hopes and fears and intentions directed towards his person, his skill and, by extension, his people? Race shouldn’t matter here. But it has to be, since Hollywood has made the case with its race. Film after film, he insisted he was the black man of white America, which was fine with him, of course. He was black. But Sidney Poitier’s radical shock was his fame’s emphasis on “the man.” Human.
Let’s say Poitier had a good 20 year star career, from 1958 when “The Defiant Ones” came out, to 1978 when the last of his hit trilogy starring Bill Cosby left theaters. He made about one movie a year, many of which are unforgettable. On the one hand, it’s fame. On the other: Poitier achieved its greatness partly as a matter of “despite”. He achieved everything he did knowing what he couldn’t do. I mean, he could’ve done it – could’ve played Cool Hand Luke, could’ve been the graduate, could’ve done âBullitt,â could’ve been Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. There are maybe a dozen roles, crownings, that no one would have offered Poitier because he wouldn’t have been good for the role.
I believe with all my heart that Poitier was as crucial in the odyssey of freedom and equality for black Americans – for personality – as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, as Martin Luther King Jr. A clear descendant of Douglass’ rhetorical brilliance, he spoke the white words but with his own mouth. His projected image spawned what is now a galaxy of other black actors, acting as diverse and on many levels as a mall.
Black artists in this country carry the curious and hilarious burden of history. Their work must move forward; answer, question, sit with, and not know. Take, risk. Do not only more, but often the most. He must also thwart and dispel; it must come undone. Poitier was the great failing of American art.
In the movies, the black figures were cheerful statues – hoisting luggage, serving food, looking after children – meant to adorn a white American’s dream. Acting could be a prison affair. Poitier arrived at the start of the civil rights movement, in time to bring out the black image of the prison of the pre-war eras and of the minstrel. He was hardly the first to try. He just drove more people further than any other artist. Of course, what followed instead was complicated: a sort of prisoner swap.
This business of undoing is delicate. The defaulter must be both historical and bearer of history. Thus Poitier was accused of being all sorts of Uncle Tom, because the task of undoing tended to require collaboration with whites. It is what they have done or what has been done in their name that must be undone. The collaborative act opened all parties to the opprobrium of their respective peoples. On September 10, 1967, at the height of Poitier, this newspaper published a scathing article by Clifford Mason which asked: “Why does white America love Poitier?”
Poitier’s best friend was Harry Belafonte; even he had his worries. “Sidney exuded a truly holy calm and dignity,” Belafonte wrote in his memoir, “My Song.” âI didn’t want to tone down my sexuality either. Sidney has done this in every role he’s played. I don’t want to put all the rap on race. Sidney is a wonderful actor, and he has mesmerized audiences with all of his performances. But he knows as well as I do that these nuances were fundamental to his success. This holiness was John Guare’s delightfully bitter “Six Degrees of Separation” joke – that a sure way for a con artist to enter the hearts and homes of Manhattan’s white elite was to pass himself off as the son. BCBG de Poitier, the father of four daughters.
The Poitiers gallery, made up of highly educated, bright and attractive figures, was to be fit to enter white houses, but also attractive to worried blacks that he might think himself too good to dine at home. It was as much of an enigma in 1958 as it was, say, half a century later, when the country conducted an experiment to discover the appropriate measure of darkness for a president. Like Barack Obama, Poitier was punctual, culturally. He became the star he made because he was the star we desperately needed him to be. And even then he couldn’t please all of us.
It remains to imagine how much bigger could have been. No romances – none where the woman was not literally blind, as she was in “A Patch of Blue”, none where the problem was not the romance itself, where the romance was not in trouble because of him. Nothing with Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe or Doris Day. No one has dared to use it in a love story to make previous stars of Cicely Tyson or Ruby Dee, or greater Diahann Carroll, the love of their offscreen life. The cinematic romance he and Carroll had in 1961’s “Paris Blues” was a timeshare with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Poitier has been denied opportunities that we can never prove he was turned down.
We can reasonably deduce, however, that it could have been bigger than it was. But he also managed to be as tall as he got, which in itself is a wow. He had the best 1967 and 68 of them all. Three box office hits – âTo Sir, With Love,â âIn the Heat of the Night,â âGuess Who’s Coming to Dinner,â two of them competing for Best Oscar nominated film (âHeatâ a won), Oscars for two of his co-stars.
Years ago, when cinema was still the dominant art form in the country, the American Film Institute released a countdown of the greatest stars of all time who debuted before or in 1950. The number one in the men’s category was not Sidney Poitier, who just hit the list deadline. (It was Humphrey Bogart.) He wasn’t even # 10. (Charlie Chaplin.) No, the big American movie star was at No. 22, just ahead of Robert Mitchum and behind three of the Marx Brothers.
But let’s apply some cynical pressure here. What did the people who made Poitier 22 on this list of the greatest actors think he justified being still so high? There were 49 other people, split evenly between women and men. He is the only non-white person. Even now, I suspect that Poitier’s legacy has really reduced to its primacy. And that’s not nothing either. He was summoned to symbolize black America, on his own; receive kudos from his white peers when they made him the first black man to accept their Oscar (for building a church for German nuns in “Lilies of the Field”). And so the milestone is achievement.
Poitier’s primacy is what puts him at the top of all home and front page pages on the day he died. But what does he leave? Very well! – that’s what makes him the greatest. Like all the big stars before him – Clark Gable, Bette Davis, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Mae West – Poitier gave birth to being in a movie. His less inspired line readings retain a spark of passion. Each word – words which could sometimes constitute the dregs of the English language (“the agonies, the torments, the humiliations … all these elements are the natural elements from which the key is forged”, said Poitier, like the enslaved insurrectionist Rau mingled -Ru, in the indescribable “Band of Angels” of 1957 – seemed to come from his head.
His most daring work turned out to be a sustained performance of himself. I know: it’s the only job of a star. But that of Poitier was an ego that he forged, sculpted and refined, an ego which, if it bore only the scent of an insular education, carried a note of exotic mystery. Even when they dressed him as a space pimp in “The Long Ships” he wasn’t just a movie nigger character, like the ancestral cartoons that made him necessary and the car full. tough guys who thrived in its wake – the Sweetbacks, Wells and Priests, Hammers and Dolemites. No one had known someone like him before. It is enough to listen to the meter of its rhythm, the melody of this one. When he spoke, you heard a symphony. Its lack of a location gave it the same advantageous appeal as other stars without a location.
The game he played required every inch of his long body – for exuberance, rapture, prudence, solemnity and rage. In no conventional sense, a character from Sidney Poitier has never danced successfully. (When he is cutting a mat, you should keep a tourniquet close at hand.) Yet all of his characters move forward with grace and poise. Part of this is training; he was our most famous Black Method actor. The rest is just him. Clenched fists and mid-walk pivots, arms clenched and arms open – it was all his own ballet. They were signature movements, a star making an exclamatory punctuation of its being, wearing itself in cursive. The signature of what this country has always sworn to be.
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