Sidney Poitier turned 90 years old a couple of months ago, and is now the oldest living recipient of the Academy Award for “Best Actor”.
His family was from the Bahamas, where they were farmers, and his dad also was a cab driver in Nassau. They would regularly go to Miami to sell produce, and Sidney was born there two months prematurely, making him a U.S. citizen. You could call him an “anchor baby”, I suppose, except that the family returned to the Bahamas a couple of months after the birth, when Sidney was healthy enough to go.
The family did send him back to Miami when he was 15 to live with his brother, as he had become something of a troublemaker, and he moved to New York at 18, first sleeping in a bus terminal toilet, and taking work as a dishwasher, where a waiter taught him to read the newspaper.
He joined the American Negro Theater, but was received poorly by audiences as he had no singing ability, something that they expected of all performers. He got his chance in movies in 1950, at age 23, in “No Way Out”, and then had increasingly important roles until he became the first actor of African descent to be nominated for a competitive Oscar in 1958, for his work on “The Defiant Ones”.
He won the Oscar for “Best Actor” in 1963, for “Lilies of the Field”, a movie I liked mostly because of his magnetic screen presence. I can still see him consuming that soft-boiled egg the nuns gave him for breakfast, expecting him to perform heavy physical labor all day on that fuel alone. One gulp, no chewing, and a challenging glare that wordlessly shouted, “That’s it? You must be joking.”
Fifty years ago, in 1967, Poitier appeared in three big films with a race-relations theme, something he had obviously become the go-to guy for. He was in “To Sir With Love”, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”, and “In the Heat of the Night” in that year. If I asked you who played the lead in any of these three, you’d say Sidney Poitier, right? I certainly would.
You saw it Gillespie. What are you going to do about it?
“Sir” and “Dinner” are predictable, and, in my opinion, forgettable, though in 1967 they passed as groundbreaking and important “social statements”. Kind of embarrassing and cringe-inducing, looking back from today’s perspective.
I just saw “In the Heat of the Night” again the other day, though, and it stands up quite well. It evokes the time and place vividly and convincingly, has sharp dialog and a complex plot. It’s diminished mainly by the sequels and T.V. adaptations that attempted to capitalize on its success.
Rod Steiger put his indelible stamp on the whole “southern sheriff” character/caricature (who could forget that rapid-fire gum-chewing?). But it’s Sidney’s movie, all the way.
Both “Heat” and “Dinner” were nominated for the “Best Picture” Oscar in 1968 (movies released in 1967), and “Heat” won the award.
In addition to Best Picture nominations, both “Heat” and “Dinner” also had a Best Actor nomination, but in neither case was Sidney Poitier the guy nominated. Spencer Tracy was nominated for “Dinner”, and Steiger was nominated and won the award for “Heat”.
Weird. And, it must be said, probably racist. By this point, Poitier was starting to get a little criticism for playing an “over-idealized” version of the Black Man, and one with de-emphasized or non-existent sexuality, but that’s not much of a reason to exclude him from even being nominated when neither of these pictures is anything at all without him, and not his fault in the first place.
And to add insult to injury, he didn’t even get a nod for “Supporting Actor” that year. Cecil Kellaway was nominated for “Dinner” (seriously?), and Poitier got no recognition at all for “Heat”.
For the “Academy”, the lesson here is Sic Transit Gloria Mundi: your worldly honors are fleeting. No one really needs you to validate their work, and the silly pronouncements at your annual orgy of self-congratulation speak more negatively about yourselves than positively about those you flatter.
And for Sidney Poitier, Tempus Fugit. It was a long time ago – hard to believe fifty years have passed in the blink of an eye.