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    Happy Birthday and Amen

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    On Valentine’s Day, Sidney Poitier was given the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Fellowship Award for his long and heralded career. Over this past weekend, he marked his 89th birthday. Whether publicly or privately, Poitier’s talent has always been cause for celebration and his movie legacy is chock full of that quality being bandied about in this year’s Oscar® discussions: diversity. Twilight Time is already home to two of the three films from his golden year of screen popularity: To Sir, with Love and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (both 1967, like his Academy Award®-winning Best Picture In the Heat of the Night). Building on those two much-loved box-office successes, we now add another tall edifice to our community, the church that Poitier’s itinerant handyman Homer Smith erects for a group of refugee nuns and their fellow Catholics in a dusty Arizona town. Lilies of the Field (1963) is a heartwarming, feel-good story that avoids most feel-mushy pitfalls that might have soured the telling, thanks to the sincere, careful and compassionate skills brought to bear by the project’s chief engineer, producer-director Ralph Nelson, and the adaptation’s architect, screenwriter James Poe (adapting William E. Barrett’s novel). It’s a fable about how outcasts – the aimless, wandering African American Homer, the isolated East German escapee sisters improbably stationed in the American desert, and the poor white and Latino parishioners (as well as some open-minded nonbelievers) – find new faith or rediscover the dormant faith in themselves via a common goal. It’s got the feel of both a scrappy independent film (Nelson mortgaged his house to help buttress its completion, when the studio backing came up short) and a sweeping pioneer epic, and audiences fell for it big-time. Poitier was not the first actor approached to play Homer; his long-time friend Harry Belafonte had earlier turned it down. But when the offer – well below his current star salary – came his way, the actor decided to take a role of the dice, and a percentage of the gross that would amply reward him later on. As Mark Harris’s incredibly astute Pictures at a Revolution puts it: “Almost nothing of Poitier’s character is revealed in the film’s script; he is a holy stranger who arrives, helps, teaches, learns, and leaves.” But the superlative teamwork, cultural stirrings, just-plain star charisma and release timing paid off in five Academy Award® nominations for Best Picture (producer Nelson), Supporting Actress (Lilia Skala as the flinty Mother Superior), Adapted Screenplay (Poe), Black-and-White Cinematography (the great Ernest Haller) and Actor (Poitier, his second after one five years earlier for director Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones). When Poitier won his Academy Award® on April 13, 1964, he assumed the role of the first African American to win as Best Actor, declaring “it has been a long journey to this moment,” a tip of the hat to his 13 years in movies as well as to race relations of the era. But the honor did not sit well with him. Harris writes: “He was well aware that, as much as the sight of a black man holding an Oscar® statuette for the first time might move many black and white Americans, his win would be used to sell a preposterous falsehood, the spurious notion that the movie industry had solved its own race problem and was now pointing the way for the rest of America.” “Did I say to myself, ‘This country is waking up and beginning to recognize that certain changes are inevitable?” Poitier would later recall about that evening in The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography. “No, I did not. I knew that we hadn’t ‘overcome,’ because I was still the only one.” Indeed, many years would pass until he would not be the only one, and filmmaking honors would gravitate toward some and, as the uproar about the current Academy Awards® attests, not to others. Fortunately and formidably, Poitier moved on – diversifying into more acting, then producing, directing, writing and evolving into a philanthropist and world figure. To which we say Happy Birthday and Amen. Featuring an Audio Commentary by film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman and an Isolated Score Track (with some effects) showcasing Jerry Goldsmith’s flavorful score, Lilies of the Field debuts on TT hi-def Blu-ray March 15. Preorders open March 3. And there will be more TT travel with Poitier down the road.