Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Sidney Poitier and the Role of Actors

I just finished Mark Harris' impressive and well-researched Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood about a week ago and I urge anyone who's interested in the history of cinema or the Academy Awards to read this book. You will seriously not be able to put it down. From Rex Harrison and wife Rachel Roberts's drunken antics on the set of Doctor Dolittle to the critical bitchfight between Bosley Crowther and Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris and company over Bonnie and Clyde (why don't critics ever have fights like this anymore? this seemed to happen every other week in the 1960's and 70's) to Stanley Kramer's failed college campus trip to speak with students about the "progressiveness" of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner there is not one wasted sentence in the entire book.

The parts that really got me thinking, however, where the sections discussing Sidney Poitier and the growing frustration from the black community that he was taking on the same roles over and over again: a desexualized black man who helps the white people not be racist. People wanted Poitier to use his fame to play roles that idealized the new politicized black man that was beginning to come into vogue in the mid-60's.

1967 was, arguably, the last big year for Sidney Poitier as a movie star. And when I mean big, I mean big. Not only did he star in two of the eventual Best Picture nominees (the winner, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner) but he was also cast in a third (Doctor Dolittle- his character was eventually dropped due to length issues) and starred in the enormously popular To Sir, With Love.

I personally love Sidney Poitier. He radiated movie star charisma at a time when it was starting to go out of fashion. I feel really bad that he was constantly degraded for something that was out of his control. People wanted him to take on more politicized roles, but that wasn't part of his charm and appeal. As one author pointed out (I can't recall his name), who wrote a negative article about Poitier during this time period that was discussed at length in Pictures at a Revolution, at the time he wanted Poitier to be Humphrey Bogart but he was really more like Cary Grant. It would be equivalent to the gays telling Neil Patrick Harris to stop doing "frivolous fluff" like How I Met Your Mother and only choose roles that show gay men as not taking shit anyone's shit and to start marching in every gay pride parade between Australia and New York. It's not exactly fair, is it?

When will people realize that it is an actor's job to perform and not to be forced to give opinions about global (or domestic) matters that concern them. It's all fine and dandy if you can do both, but some people just can't take that burden. It is a total shame that the people of 1967 couldn't realize this and started considering Poitier as past his time and a relic just when he was starting to come into his own as an actor.

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