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Sidney Poitier

Man, Actor, Icon

Aram Goudsouzian

Publication Year: 2004

In the first full biography of actor Sidney Poitier, Aram Goudsouzian analyzes the life and career of a Hollywood legend, from his childhood in the Bahamas to his 2002 Oscar for lifetime achievement. Poitier is a gifted actor, a great American success story, an intriguing personality, and a political symbol; his life and career illuminate America's racial history. In such films as ###Lilies of the Field#, ###In the Heat of the Night#, and ###Guess Who's Coming to Dinner#, Poitier's middle-class, mannered, virtuous screen persona contradicted prevailing film stereotypes of blacks as half-wits, comic servants, or oversexed threats. His screen image and public support of nonviolent integration assuaged the fears of a broad political center, and by 1968, Poitier was voted America's favorite movie star. Through careful readings of every Poitier film, Goudsouzian shows that Poitier's characters often made sacrifices for the good of whites and rarely displayed sexuality. As the only black leading man during the civil rights era, Poitier chose roles and public positions that negotiated the struggle for dignity. By 1970, times had changed and Poitier was the target of a backlash from film critics and black radicals, as the new heroes of "blaxploitation" movies reversed the Poitier model. In the 1970s, Poitier shifted his considerable talents toward directing, starring in, and producing popular movies that employed many African Americans, both on and off screen. After a long hiatus, he returned to starring roles in the late 1980s. More recently, the film industry has reappraised his career, and Poitier has received numerous honors recognizing his multi-faceted work for black equality in Hollywood. As this biography affirms, Poitier remains one of American popular culture's foremost symbols of the possibilities for and limits of racial equality. In this analytical biography of Sidney Poitier, Goudsouzian analyzes the life and career of Hollywood's only black leading man during the civil rights era, from his childhood in the Bahamas to his 2002 Oscar for lifetime achievement. In roles that contradicted Hollywood's black stereotypes, Poitier played men of moral virtue and middle-class values, helping to reassure a broad political center that racial peace was possible. By the late 1960s, Poitier was America's favorite movie star and an icon of racial enlightenment, but he soon suffered a blacklash from film critics and black radicals as the new heroes of "blaxpoitation" movies reversed the Poitier model. Goudsouzian shows how Poitier's career and personal journey illuminate American racial culture from the 1940s to the present. This biography examines the remarkable life and career of Sidney Poitier--a gifted actor, a great American success story, an intriguing personality, and a political symbol. The book covers Poitier's childhood in the Bahamas, his stage experiences in New York, his Hollywood successes in the 1960s (including the Best Actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field), the setbacks of the 1970s, and the new directions in the 1980s and 1990s. Poitier received the 2002 Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement. In the first full biography of actor Sidney Poitier, Aram Goudsouzian analyzes the life and career of a Hollywood legend, from his childhood in the Bahamas to his 2002 Oscar for lifetime achievement. Poitier is a gifted actor, a great American success story, an intriguing personality, and a political symbol; his life and career illuminate America's racial history. In such films as ###Lilies of the Field#, ###In the Heat of the Night#, and ###Guess Who's Coming to Dinner#, Poitier's middle-class, mannered, virtuous screen persona contradicted prevailing film stereotypes of blacks as half-wits, comic servants, or oversexed threats. His screen image and public support of nonviolent integration assuaged the fears of a broad political center, and by 1968, Poitier was voted America's favorite movie star. Through careful readings of every Poitier film, Goudsouzian shows that Poitier's characters often made sacrifices for the good of whites and rarely displayed sexuality. As the only black leading man during the civil rights era, Poitier chose roles and public positions that negotiated the struggle for dignity. By 1970, times had changed and Poitier was the target of a backlash from film critics and black radicals, as the new heroes of "blaxploitation" movies reversed the Poitier model. In the 1970s, Poitier shifted his considerable talents toward directing, starring in, and producing popular movies that employed many African Americans, both on and off screen. After a long hiatus, he returned to starring roles in the late 1980s. More recently, the film industry has reappraised his career, and Poitier has received numerous honors recognizing his multi-faceted work for black equality in Hollywood. As this biography affirms, Poitier remains one of American popular culture's foremost symbols of the possibilities for and limits of racial equality.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-9

Contents

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pp. 10-11

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Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-xii

This book began when I was a student in the Department of History at Purdue University, under the direction of Randy Roberts. He taught me his approach to writing history, and his guidance shaped every stage of this project. I could not have asked for a more supportive, perceptive mentor. ...

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Introduction

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pp. 1-4

If Sidney Poitier had an acting trademark, it was the cool boil. In the movies, when injustice drove him to the brink, he became a pot of outrage on the verge of bubbling over. His eyes would blaze. His mahogany skin would tighten. His words would gush out in spasms of angry eloquence, carefully measured by grim, simmering pauses. ...

PART I: POVERTY AND PROGRESS

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1 Patches (1927–1943)

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pp. 7-24

Sidney Poitier would stand tall, six feet and two inches. He would have broad shoulders, long legs, and perfect posture—almost a regal bearing. He would exude grace in every movement, emotion in every expression, conviction in every word. If only one quality could define him, it would be this energy, this vigor—this life. But in Miami, Florida, on 20 February ...

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2 Great Migrations (1943–1945)

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pp. 25-42

Sidney retched himself to sleep that night. The ship’s hole stank of sickly sweet motor oil, and his stomach churned with nausea. Finally morning arrived and he climbed above deck into sunshine and fresh air. As the ship coasted into Miami’s harbor, he marveled at handsome buildings towering over steamships and sailboats. He recognized Cyril at the dock. ...

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3 Stages (1945–1949)

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pp. 43-60

In appearance alone, Frederick O’Neal was intimidating. The generous cut of his suits accentuated his mountainous build, and his goatee punctuated a withering glare custom-tailored to pulverize the egos of cocksure eighteen-year-olds. To the black acting fraternity, O’Neal was doubly intimidating. Organizer of the Ira Aldridge Players in St. Louis, actor in ...

PART II: RACE MAN

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4 Message Movies (1949–1952)

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pp. 63-83

‘‘I been doing awful,’’ moaned Stepin Fetchit. In February 1945, he turned to John Ford, director of four Fetchit movies and then a lieutenant commander in the Navy. Calling his situation a ‘‘Home Front emergency,’’ Fetchit begged for a shred of screen time. He stroked the ego of the notoriously paternalistic Ford by delighting in ‘‘the lavish news that I was ...

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5 Black Lists (1951–1954)

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pp. 84-102

At issue was a statement by Paul Robeson, the black star of song and stage. The large, handsome, All-American football player and Columbia Law School graduate had achieved celebrity for his deep bass singing voice and considerable acting skill. The star of the 1943 Broadway production of Othello had also acted in films, including The Emperor Jones (1933) and Sanders of the River (1935), but he abandoned that medium ...

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6 Threats (1955–1957)

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pp. 103-122

Holding court in a dingy trade school bathroom, he presides over a band of incorrigibles. A cigarette dangles from his mouth. A white T-shirt, its sleeves rolled up to expose his sinewy muscles, offsets his smooth mahogany skin. He moves with an almost feline grace, and he exudes a selfassured calm. Only his eyes reveal an inner fire. He is Gregory Miller, ...

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7 Noble Savages (1956–1957)

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pp. 123-142

‘‘Negro Actors Get Pix Breaks,’’ announced Variety in May 1956. No longer confined to playing maids, porters, singers, or dancers, black actors now had small but important parts in a few pictures. But progress was slow. Although black urbanites thirsted for more roles like Poitier’s turn in Blackboard Jungle, the major studios still had to consider the substantial southern market. ...

PART III: BLACK MAN’S BURDEN

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8 Decisions (1957–1959)

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pp. 145-166

Late 1957 was Poitier’s calm before the storm: soft breezes, sandy beaches, and magnificent views. He had signed a generous contract to appear in Virgin Island, a picture produced by the British company Countryman Films. He lived in a small hotel on Guana Island, an eleven-acre stretch of paradise near St. Thomas. The cast included friends John Cassavetes, ...

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9 Burdens (1959–1961)

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pp. 167-188

When Poitier returned home from California, his wife was making breakfast. There and then, in the kitchen, before the children awoke, he told her that he loved Diahann Carroll. Juanita was shocked. Her world was crumbling. Her father had recently died, and now her husband loved another woman. She blamed Carroll. Sidney insisted that he deserved the ...

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10 Blues (1960–1962)

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pp. 189-207

As Diahann Carroll arrived in Paris in early October 1960, she resolved to choose restraint over passion, logic over emotion, and responsibility over romance. She had given birth to an infant daughter and tried to repair her marriage. She had studied with the legendary Lee Strasberg of the Actors’ Studio, broadening her career and bolstering her self-confidence. ...

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11 Long Journeys (1963–1964)

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pp. 208-227

In April 1963, Poitier went to Yugoslavia to film The Long Ships, a historical epic based on a Swedish novel. Neither Poitier nor co-star Richard Widmark were particularly enthused by the project. The actionadventure clash had a terrible script, and it lacked the political cache of Poitier’s better films. Poitier took the role while his career seemed stuck in ...

PART IV: ALONE IN THE PENTHOUSE

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12 Crossroads (1965–1966)

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pp. 231-252

After six years of hype, almost two years after Poitier filmed his cameo, The Greatest Story Ever Told premiered in February 1965. Despite the $20 million cost, including an expensive new single-lens Cinerama technique, producer-director George Stevens demanded a subdued advertising campaign based on the picture’s prestige. He won endorsements from ...

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13 Useful Negroes (1966–1967)

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pp. 253-276

On a Caribbean sailing trip in 1967, Poitier’s relationship with Diahann Carroll arrived at its ignominious end. After their ugly spat the previous year, they had begun dating other people. Even so, they stayed close. When Poitier invited her to sail, Carroll accepted, hoping to sort out their feelings in quiet conversations. But two friends of Poitier joined them. ...

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14 Last Hurrahs (1967–1968)

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pp. 277-296

They were Hollywood’s perfect pair, relics from the Golden Age. Through twenty-five years and eight films, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn had refined a remarkable chemistry, one a yin to the other’s yang. Tracy: the rumpled Irish pug, the snowy-haired Everyman, the iron-willed champion of the human spirit. Hepburn: the blue-blood scion of a Connecticut ...

Photo Section

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pp. 312-327

PART V: THROUGH PLAYING GOD

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15 Exiles (1967–1971)

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pp. 315-336

As much as popular culture distorted the black male, it performed a greater disservice to the black female. Skin color confined her to two basic roles: dark-skinned women played domestics, and light-skinned women played exotic sex symbols. Suffering the double prejudice of race and gender, black actresses such as Ruby Dee and Diana Sands either played ...

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16 Survivors (1972–1978)

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pp. 337-357

When Poitier fell from Hollywood’s heights, he responded with a retreat to the Bahamas and a string of mediocre movies. Now he climbed back. That journey began when blaxploitation still reigned, when his future was still uncertain, and when he and his best friend still refused to acknowledge each other’s existence. ...

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17 Ghosts (1978–2002)

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pp. 358-380

‘‘Everybody wants Sidney Poitier (and why not?),’’ announced the New York Post in December 1978. That month Poitier signed a four-year deal with Columbia Pictures to write, direct, and/or act in movies and television programs. After his successful comedy trilogy, he owned a reputation for low-budget, high-grossing movies. Now Hollywood’s trade newspapers relayed potential Verdon-Cedric projects: ...

Appendix: Performances by Sidney Poitier

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pp. 381-395

Notes

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pp. 397-445

Bibliography

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pp. 447-465

Index

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pp. 467-480


E-ISBN-13: 9781469603605
E-ISBN-10: 1469603608
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807828434
Print-ISBN-10: 0807828432

Page Count: 496
Illustrations: 20 illus.
Publication Year: 2004