Thursday, January 13, 2022

Sidney Poitier Finds the Perfect Field for His Singular Talents


Sidney Poitier’s recent passing makes a tribute recognizing his great, distinctive career essential, but among so many riches, where does the attention go? Reviewing his unbelievable banner 1967 year, which in terms of public success may be the greatest year ever had by an actor, with three massive hits (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, In the Heat of the Night and To Sir, With Love) including the year’s Best Picture Oscar-winner in the mix, leading to Poitier taking (according to the Quigley poll) the #1 position among the top box-office stars in 1968, would be a good bet, along with his intense, dominating work in his breakthrough, 1955’s The Blackboard Jungle, or maybe his distinctive work via his first major role in 1950’s No Way Out. Poitier’s equally-impressive dramatic work in 1958’s The Defiant Ones, wherein he made history by becoming the first African-American to gain a Best Actor nomination, also warrants recognition, but his charming, relaxed performance in the film that actually won Poitier his Oscar, director Ralph Nelson’s ’s warm, ingratiating 1963 comedy Lilies of the Field, a small-scale (Nelson had to put his own money into it to get the film made) United Artists release that proved so endearing to audiences it became the sleeper hit of the year, offers an ideal example of Poitier at the top of his craft as an actor with a rare, extraordinary screen presence.

As Homer Smith, the roaming, free-spirited handyman whose finds himself involved with a group of German nuns and their plans to build a chapel, Poitier flawlessly utilizes his gifts for comedy and drama, while radiating decency and kindness essential to the role, as well as possessing movie-star looks and magnetism that add much to Homer’s all-around appeal. He’s as focused as in other, more intense parts (such as his fantastic performance recreating his stage role as Walter Lee Younger in 1961’s A Raisin in the Sun), but there’s a playfulness and good-nature Poitier instills in Homer not always allowed in his idealized leading man roles, especially after he became a huge star upon the phenomenal critical and commercial reception to Lilies. From Homer’s first encounter with the nuns, who appeared to be isolated in the desert miles from civilization and clearly need assistance, you know Homer is destined to turn the car around after stopping for water instead of abandoning them, due to the benevolence and earnestness Poitier has already established are fundamental traits Homer possesses. By the time Homer starts teaching the nuns some English after dinner, a viewer is hooked by the film’s scenario, and with rapt attention observes Homer and the nuns on their journey through the rest of the film.

Homer states he is “just passing through” several times early in the movie, and Poitier is great at showing Homer’s moral conflict regarding what action he should actually take while repeatedly stating he needs to leave. Poitier also is often creative in his approach to dialogue- check out the scene wherein a hungry Homer, who has had limited meals with the sisters, orders his first full breakfast in some time and, in a heighted stated of ecstasy, colorfully explains to a barman and soon-to-be confidant, Juan (agreeably played by Stanley Adams) what he wants to eat and then, after partaking of some prime orange juice, whispers “very nice, very nice,” with the greatest satisfaction imaginable. Poitier’s uncanny charisma is in beautiful synch with role throughout, whether Homer is kicking up his heels with the locals during a fiesta, stubbornly refusing their help as he determinedly sets his mind to build the chapel unassisted or teaches the nuns the film’s theme song “Amen” (wherein Poitier is dubbed by the song’s composer, Jester Hairston) with a mega-watt smile and beguiling gusto.

Lilia Skala also does much to keep the film’s tone charming and believable as Mother Maria, the alert, stern and crafty ally (and oftentimes antagonist) to Homer. Although there are opportunities for “too-cute” moments in regard to the nuns' interactions, with steely resolve Skala assures Mother Maria remains identifiably human, while keeping her sister sect in line regarding any excessively adorable outbursts as they go about their daily work. Also, Skala and Poitier are wonderful in vividly illustrating the cat-and-mouse nature of their relationship, with Mother Maria pretending to only understand anything the increasing frustrated Homer says that will benefit her agendas while interpreting his comments to suit her, when she’s not flat-out ignoring his requests to be paid for his work so he can move on, leading to many jovial scenes of conflict wherein, nevertheless, the burgeoning unity between the two characters is clearly communicated as efforts to reach the main goal of creating the chapel are addressed. Although Mother Maria rarely betrays warmth with Homer as she constantly bellows orders at “Schmidt!” and critiques his best efforts, by looks and gestures Skala and Poitier fully express the respect and loyalty the unlikely duo foster towards each other, and this growing bond becomes deeply touching as the film reaches its graceful finale.

Director Ralph Nelson, investing all his skills and resources to bring his passion project to life (he truly deserves that “Ralph Nelson’s Lilies of the Field” title seen during the opening credits), does a wonderful job in maintaining an earnest tone to a narrative that could easily have become too fanciful and maudlin in the wrong hands. There’s a lovely simplicity to the story, which Nelson embraces while also addressing some bigger themes within its framework, such as the transitory nature of relationships, racial concerns of the era (which are briefly touched on in a direct, unpretentious manner), and how remarkable things can be accomplishment when community spirit and teamwork intertwine. Nelson, backed by Jerry Goldsmith’s lively score and first-rate cinematography by Ernest Haller that provides a sense of “you-are-there” to the rural scenes, is particularly good at illustrating the positive, proactive nature of the locals as they progressively band together with an “all for one” attitude to realize the group’s primary objective. Outside of helming the film with a sure touch, Nelson also does a solid job in front of the camera as Mr. Ashton, who gives Homer a job and ends up also supporting his efforts with the nuns.

The surprising success of Lilies throughout 1963 (after its May release) led to the film being in pole position for awards recognition as “The Little Movie That Could.” This proved to be the case, with screenwriter James Poe picking up the Writer’s Guild Award for his unassuming, on-target script (based on the William E. Barrett novel), the film placing among the National Board of Review’s Top Ten, a Berlin Film Festival Best Actor prize for Poitier, Golden Globe Awards for Poitier and for “Best Film Promoting International Understanding,” then five Oscar nominations, including a Best Picture nod and ones for Skala, Haller and Poe to go with Poitier’s historic win in a very competitive year (with Albert Finney in Tom Jones and Paul Newman in Hud two of his chief contenders). Poitier’s impressive, skillful handling of Lilies’ protagonist allows Homer to resonate as one of the most appealing heroes found in a 1960’s film, and makes it clear exactly why the movie was immediately revered by audiences (I once had a friend fondly recall she didn’t realize the film was in black-and-white until halfway through a first-release viewing, as she was so immediately caught up in the storyline) and has lingered thereafter.

And a kind word to Cara Williams, who passed away on December 9th at 96. A distinct presence in films and television, with flaming red hair and big flirtatious eyes that matched an often-good humored manner onscreen, Williams reached her career peak with an Oscar nomination costarring alongside Poitier and Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones; however, for this viewer Williams will live on fondly in memory for the terrific moment in 1959’s Never Steal Anything Small wherein, as the wonderfully-named Winnipeg Simmons, she jaunts around a car showroom insisting “I’m Sorry, I Want a Ferrari” to James Cagney, as the racketeer friend in desperate need of Winnipeg’s help. The film has intermittent charms, but once seen “Ferrari” is hard to get over (Cagney querying “Desoto?” with William’s retorting “Oh, go da. . .” is a high point). A recent Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber, which showcases the film’s vivid Cinemascope color design, afforded the chance to watch the number anew about 40 years after first catching it on t.v. during an idle Sunday afternoon, and the assets of “Ferrari” remained as undiminished as those of the 1959 vehicle in question, with Williams’ saucy, earthy delivery responsible for a large portion of the vibrant number’s enduring impact. 


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