The meaning of Sidney Poitier’s historic 1964 Oscar

The obituaries of Sidney Poitier, who died last week at the age of ninety-four, inevitably began with his Oscar for Best Actor in 1964. This Oscar, the first in the category awarded to a black actor, made of Poitier the Jackie Robinson of Hollywood, a decisive moment for the Academy, for the cinema and for generations of black audiences. Years later, accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes, Oprah Winfrey remembered being a ten-year-old girl, watching from her linoleum floor in Milwaukee, “The most elegant man I have ever seen took the stage. I remember his tie was white, and of course his skin was black. And I had never seen a black man be celebrated like that. And I’ve tried many, many, many times to explain what a moment like this means to a little girl, a child watching from cheap seats, as my mother walks through the door tired of cleaning. other people’s homes. But winning the Oscar was a more complicated experience for Poitier, who was already walking a tightrope as Hollywood’s only black morning idol (with the possible addition of Harry Belafonte), and his symbolism grew. coagulated over decades.

So far, only one black actor had received a competitive acting Oscar: Hattie McDaniel, for his role as Mammy in “Gone with the Wind” (1939). McDaniel had been branded as a sassy maid throughout her career, and the Oscar tied her even more to a stereotype that (thankfully) was falling into disuse. Poitier, born in 1927 and raised in the Bahamas, represented new possibilities. His prominent role was in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “No Way Out” (1950), as a doctor treating a racist white patient. The film set the mold for Poitier: a bright, crisp professional whose exceptional skill and serenity make him “acceptable” in the white world, and who is often bound by circumstances to a racist counterpart. It was a big improvement over the roles of Mammy and Stepin Fetchit that came before Poitier – and he had the megawatt charisma to pull it off – but it became a different kind of trap. His characters were rarely able to show sexuality or anger. To maintain his impeccable image, he went out of his way to keep the public from being aware of his multi-year extramarital affair with Diahann Carroll, whom he met while filming “Porgy and Bess”, released in 1959. (Compare that to the ever-publicized film affair between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.) At this point, he felt a heavy representational burden. “As I see myself, I’m an average Joe Blow Negro,” he told the Time. “But, as the cats in my area say, I cry for all of us. The same year, he was nominated for an Oscar, for “The Defiant Ones”, in which he plays a fugitive from a chain gang who is handcuffed to a white convict, played by Tony Curtis. It was the first Best Actor nomination for a black man, but, as Curtis (who was also nominated) wrote in his autobiography, voters “weren’t going to give an Oscar to a black man or a Jew. “. He was right: they both lost to David Niven, for “Separate Tables”. Like his character in “The Defiant Ones”, Poitier has been handcuffed to a white industry, unable to move forward without the other.

The role that pushed him to cross the line was, surprisingly, in “Lilies of the Field”, a sweet and laid-back film based on a short story by William Edmund Barrett. Inspired by the Walburga sisters, who fled Hitler’s Germany to form an outpost in the Colorado wilderness, the book told the story of a traveling black handyman who stopped near a dilapidated rural convent , where the nuns, believing that God sent him (“Gott ist gut», We shout), enlisted him to build a chapel. Published in 1962, this simple tale of common humanity reflected the idealism of the Kennedy years, and who better than Poitier to title the film version? “I was driven to change the world as far as me and mine were concerned,” he wrote in his 1980 autobiography, “This life. ““ I was driven to do the impossible. ”(If you’re looking for an autobiography of Poitier, by the way,“ This Life ”is many flatter than his memoir as a senior statesman, “The measure of a man. ”) The film was shot in fourteen days, on a shoestring, and he carries his politics lightly; critic Bosley Crowther wrote that Poitier’s character “might as well be a white man”. But in 1963, in the wake of the March on Washington, United Artists saw the opportunity to sell the film as a parable of tolerance. Poitier had attended the March among a group of movie stars, including Charlton Heston and Marlon Brando; Hollywood was still fretting about the blacklist era, and the industry’s adherence to the march was, the Time observed, an “indication that some creative leaders in the film industry have decided it is time to join the nation.”

“Lilies of the Field” opened in October 1963 and has enjoyed modest success. Its ethic of rapprochement was made more urgent after the Kennedy assassination, as the film was playing its second month at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles. It expanded in December, with a “Call to All Churches” campaign aimed at religious and civic clubs. Despite this, Poitier refused to campaign for an Oscar nomination, telling columnist Sheilah Graham: “I am an actor, not a politician. Nevertheless, at the end of February 1964, he was nominated for best actor. In Washington, President Johnson had taken over the Civil Rights Act, initiated by Kennedy. In February, he went to the Senate, where a group of southern lawmakers launched an obstruction that would last for an extraordinary 75 days. If there was ever a time for Hollywood to pick sides, it was okay then. Suddenly, “Lilies of the Field” became, in the words of Los Angeles Time’ Oscar’s prediction, “A Tribute to a Negro in a Negro Conscious World”. The city’s sense of righteousness has united so strongly around Poitier that one of its competitors, Paul Newman (“Hud”), announced that he would skip the ceremony and support it.

Poitier considered himself “a black horse, so to speak” and considered not attending. In the end, he decided that “it would be good if black people saw themselves competing for the highest honor,” he wrote in “This Life”. As he sat in the audience, sweaty and alone, he was seized with fear of winning and saying something “silly”. He recalled his inner monologue: “Think, Sidney, think, time is running out! Everything I say has to be the truth first, and it has to be something smart and awesome that will leave the people in this room and the millions watching at home – leave them all rightly and irrevocably. impressed by the intelligence and decorum of a black actor, Sidney. Poitiers. The line he found, and book Moments later, on stage at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, was loaded with meaning: “Because it’s a long journey up to this point, I am understandably indebted to countless people. . . . “

As the Time summed up the hype: “The explosion for Mr. Poitier was recognition not only of his talent, but also that Hollywood felt guilty about the color barriers of the past, some of which still exist here.” Poitier was dubious. The day after the ceremony, he sat on a hotel sofa and told a reporter, “I like to think this will help someone. But I don’t believe my Oscar will be some sort of magic wand that removes restrictions on job opportunities for black actors. In the Bahamas, the city of Nassau hosted a procession of cars and an honor banquet. In New York City, the city declined requests for a ticker parade, but Poitier was invited to city hall to receive a medallion from the mayor. When two journalists kept asking him questions about civil rights, he replied, “Why don’t you ask me human questions? Why is all you asking about the nigger in my life and not my acting? It was a rare example of his exasperation boiling to the surface, and he immediately added that he had no intention of offending.

Poitier’s post-Oscar period has been fruitful but frustrating. “I was now considered a staple in the world of cinema,” he writes, “but my fellow black actors, almost for a man, were trapped in a drought of inactivity and unemployment that undermined and soured any satisfaction they had. they had been able to draw from the success of only one of us. As with McDaniel, the price had crippled it, especially as times have changed. In 1967 he starred in three films, whose combined box office receipts made him America’s No. 1 star: “To Sir, with Love”, “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who is coming to dinner ”(Poitier, incredibly, wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for either of them, although his white co-stars Rod Steiger and Katharine Hepburn both won.) In each, he played a black man. “Civilized” whose extraordinary helps to illuminate the regressive white. characters who are forced into his company. Perhaps no celebrity could encompass the cross cultural currents, but Poitier, in its heyday, found itself ripe to be shot. This September, the Time ran a amazing column, by black writer Clifford Mason, titled “Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier Then?” Returning to the Oscar-winning role of Poitier, Mason predicted that “until the day of complete honesty, white critics will gladly drag a double standard and applaud every ‘breakthrough’ in films like ‘Lilies of the Field’ like so many. Americans – style, democratic goodwill This is what the road to hell is paved with.

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