Sunday, March 2, 2014

The most poignant example of a Hollywood life at closure: Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier
Carol Forsloff---A woman known for her humanitarian virtues walked out on stage with a man known for his gentleness, acting skills and his being a "first" in many ways in the movie business, and Sidney Poitier's presence offered the most poignant moment of the Academy Awards, a moment that made folks recognize the value of a good life of a good actor as it nears its closure.  It stands in stark contrast in recalling that moment, then reflecting on the life of another African American man, Bill Cosby, who became synonymous with success following the tumultuous period of the 1960's and the struggle for African Americans to have new opportunities in entertainment.

Poitier was born in Miami, Florida in 1925, grew up poor, was a delinquent in his youth, then spent sometime in the military before moving to Hollywood with the ambition to become an actor.

Sidney Poitier's films were memorable when they were made for many reasons.  He performed with Tony Curtis in the Defiant Ones, a film that was made in 1958 before the civil rights movement that propelled him even further in filmdom, as opportunities increased with the times.  But that performance with Curtis allowed both black and white audiences to see the conflict that existed between the races and yet the coming together in friendship during the escape from prison until capture.

Poitier's early performances type-cast him in films that had previously been made with African Americans, including Porgy and Bess.  He was, however, an actor beyond the stereotypes.  Although his character was strongly identified as having struggles related to race, he stepped out of the stereotypes in ways that endeared him to audiences of all complexions.  And some of the films were considered particularly daring and controversial, as he acquired status as one of America's great actors.

A Patch of Blue brought Poitier as the romantic interest of a white girl.  The girl was, however, blind and Poitier the hands-off benefactor who brought the young woman from the psychological bleakness of abuse by her mother to the realization of her own self worth.  Poitier was the hero who never kissed the girl, and therefore his character proclaimed the African American as rising above the ordinary and becoming value as an intimate friend.  As with his previous film, the Defiant Ones, the trusted friend became one through the adversity of the other characters who found the Poitier character with the strength and moral strength to love beyond race and therefore show others that the racial divide is an artificial one.

To Sir with Love found Poitier cast again as a loving teacher, someone with the courage to take on some of the delinquent youth of the town, then turn them around with his captivating yet down-to-earth teaching style that allowed the young people to be themselves and actualize their talents in a good way.  He was the teacher as hero, and once again his character was revealed as a special and gifted individual, where race was less an issue that the difference in culture between the Poitier character and the young people.

Poitier's role as the carpenter who helped a group of nuns moved him beyond racial stereotyping and won him an Academy Award for his leading role in the film Lilies of the Field.

It was, however, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner that made Poitier's star particularly bright, as audiences flocked to see a new film with a black man and white woman not just in love but engaged to be married.  Poitier's character, a Ph.D scientist, was again a superman of sorts, with superlative manners and diction, values that required him to obtain parental permission for marriage, and who rose above the mundane in an extraordinary film that starred Kathryn Hepburn and Spencer Tracey as the girl's parents.  The central thesis of the film had to do with prejudice, but how a liberal man, Tracey's character, had to sift through his own conscience and stereotypes about race in order to offer his blessing on the marriage between his white daughter and the black man, Sidney Poitier.

Poitier went on to be cast in other films, with In the Heat of the Night one of his most notable, as the film became so popular it was made into a television series.  Over the years Poitier would play in the movies, but less so as time past.

The Academy Awards is one of those special nights when many people turn off their Internet and telephone devices and fix on the television show that highlights the best of the movies made all over the world.  While the Oscar winners were announced one by one, the most emotional moment for many in the audience was likely Sidney Poitier, no longer the young man of his brilliant films, standing beside Angelina Jolie as he read very slowly from the prompts a few short words before making an Oscar announcement near the end of the more than 3 1/2 hour extravaganza.

He faltered on the words.  He moved slowly on the arm of  Jolie.  But as he walked, then spoke those few words, there was a special feeling in those moments.  Here was a man whose films had captured America's struggles racially, who was identified as the country's best African American actor, who had lived through the hard times when the casting of men of color meant limited roles.  And his presence brought the appreciative applause from the Hollywood audience that a man of his acting stature deserves.  Yet at the same time, his faltered and failing steps were a reminder of his age and age-related issues, and that the time to savor his presence on film may be forever but his real presence in such a formal way will likely lessen even more in the next few years.

The contrast with Cosby is remarkable.  Cosby's life has been surrounded with controversy over allegations that he raped a number of women, using sedatives to make them drowsy or sleeping in order to take advantage of them.  These allegations have made it difficult for Cosby to maintain an image of one of America's best-known television fathers.  For Poitier, however, the good guy image remains, cemented once again by Hollywood peers.

The salute to Poitier goes beyond film-making to the history of the movie-making business and its rise from a community that reflected the racial divisions of the day to a community where leading actresses and actors of color are celebrated every year.  The poignant moment of Poitier at the Academy Awards allows the view of movie's history and captures the real man as well, but a man who offered many people a beautiful actor whose films will continue to teach and entertain.