Sidney Poitier, #OscarsSoWhite, and the 1968 Oscars

I’ve finally watched all 5 Best Picture nominees! These movies are pretty solid, so in several of the categories I think multiple nominees deserved to win. But it was 1968, and so political and social issues were paramount. Perhaps more than most years, it was important to acknowledge films of substance.

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Of the Best Picture nominees, two were about race (although both featured story arcs of white people getting over their prejudices to accept Sidney Poitier), one about Baby Boomer ennui, one about violent crime in the Great Depression, and one about a British doctor who can talk to animals. You know, equally important topics.

The award ceremony took place on April 10, 1968, two days later than planned because of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. Even though he starred in two of the most-nominated films of the year, Sidney Poitier wasn’t nominated for any acting awards. The only person of color nominated for an acting award was Beah Richards (also in both films with Poitier), for her role as Mrs. Prentice in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. In fact, this SNL skit from last year pretty much sums up my opinions about the acting nods. Really, the guy who played the priest friend got a nomination for GWCtD but Poitier didn’t?

Cecil Kellaway Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
White privilege is troubling

 

Let’s start with the silliest nomination. Dr. Dolittle for Best Picture. Let that sink in. #StopTryingToMakeAnimalVoicesHappenItsNotGoingToHappen

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I definitely forgot about the giant snail

I have no idea what other good movies came out in 1967, but there had to be something better than Dr. Dolittle. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed this movie when I was a child visiting my grandparents. It has Rex Harrison! And songs! And he talks to animals!

I haven’t seen it in roughly 20 years, but I’m pretty sure that’s it. Dolittle lived up to its name and only won awards for visual effects and original song. Fitting.

 

 

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#RichWhiteProblems #HelloDarknessMyOldFriend

I have conflicted feelings about The Graduate during this Oscar season. It’s undeniably a classic movie with excellent writing, direction, and acting. It has something valuable to say about generational shifts and that dreadful postgrad what-are-you-going-to-do-with-your-life panic that all liberal arts students like me have experienced. Its soundtrack and references are iconic. I love this movie.

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But, it seems a little trivial for the turmoil of the late 60s. And Oscars are political and symbolic if nothing else. So even though I think it’s a better movie than most of the others nominated, I am okay with it only winning Best Director for Mike Nichols (his only one).

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I mean, this shot

I do want to celebrate the performances for a moment, especially Katharine Ross and Anne Bancroft (both nominated, for supporting and lead respectively). Fun facts: Ross is married to Sam Elliott now and Bancroft was married to Mel Brooks until her death in 2005. I love unexpected pairings like these.

Dustin Hoffman (nominated for lead actor) is good, but he’s been better elsewhere. For me, it’s Ross and Bancroft who really shine.

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Such a beautiful crier
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Stripped down

 

And then there’s the final scene. If this is a spoiler for you, I honestly pity you.

It’s pretty much perfect. So, while in most other Oscar cycles I’d ask for a Graduate sweep, in this particularly political and loaded slate, I feel okay with its one Oscar. I mean, it’s a classic, it gave us lines that are in the lexicon today, and it introduced us to Simon and Garfunkel, so it doesn’t really need an Oscar to be remembered for posterity.

 

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Bonnie and Clyde or #TheBigShort

TBH, I didn’t want to watch Bonnie and Clyde. But I’m really happy I did. While I hear the violence was unprecedented at the time, it seems super tame now. Mostly, I like how tight it was–focusing on the interpersonal dynamics of the group rather than the planning/execution of their heists or their many ways of avoiding the police. No speeches or polemics about why they committed the crimes they did, it was essentially a high-intensity family vacation. With occasional hostages.

Unsurprisingly, I stayed for Bonnie and Clyde’s relationship. I don’t know/don’t care about the historical accuracy. But I liked that while both were violent to others, their relationship wasn’t violent–in fact it was mostly impotent. [That’s real acting for Beatty]

Set in the Great Depression but almost completely without people of color, it seemed to speak mostly to the desire of the [white] counterculture to stick it to the man without a clear end goal. According to one reviewer, it also “single-handedly brought berets back into style.”

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You’re welcome

 

All five of the main cast members received Oscar nominations, but I really think only Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway deserved their nods. Maybe Gene Hackman. Michael Pollard and Estelle Parsons (who won Supporting Actress) didn’t really have story arcs. Pollard mostly has a goofy grin on his face and Parsons screams most of the time.

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Anyone can scream; I prefer Oscars for quieter performances

I could easily see Beatty or Dunaway winning their categories, but they had some stiff competition (Tracy, Hoffman, and Newman for Beatty and both Hepburns and Bancroft for Dunaway). Since Poitier wasn’t nominated and I disagree with both Rod Steiger and K. Hepburn’s wins, I would gladly give Beatty or Dunaway an Oscar. And Dunaway got one later for Network (post forthcoming)-so let’s go with Beatty.

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Congrats, you crazy kids

 

 

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Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner  #LoveIsLove

I suppose it speaks to Baby Boomer self-centeredness that 2/5 movies nominated for Best Picture in 1968 dealt with contemporary 20-somethings’ relationships. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is also a classic, and it came out only 6 months after Loving v. Virginia finally made anti-miscegenation laws illegal (get ready for the movie of that case this November).

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But while its subject matter was controversial and important for representation in Hollywood, it is ultimately the story of an old white liberal couple deciding if they could/how to support their daughter’s proposed interracial marriage (think Meet the Parents but with substance). Halfway through the movie, Poitier’s parents enter and we watch them grapple with the union as well. Again, I think I would feel better about it if Poitier had been nominated for one of his two excellent performances this year. He already had an Oscar (for Lilies of the Field, which I had never heard of), and this made him the first African American to win Best Lead Actor (and the only one from 1964 until 2001 when Denzel Washington won for Training Day). The Academy gave Katharine Hepburn her 10th Oscar nomination (and second win) that year, so any argument of “he already got his” is inevitably shot.

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Beah Richards as Poitier’s mother

As I said before, I’m revoking Estelle Parsons’ Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. So I’m gonna give that award to Richards, because her performance in GWCtD is completely moving.

Poitier came under fire by some civil rights activists in the late 60s for sanitizing his blackness for white audiences, consistently playing upper class black men who operated in white worlds. Both of his 1967 performances fit the bill (although he is allowed to be angry in In the Heat of the Night), but (as it unfortunately is today) I fear any parts that didn’t fit that mold would not have been up for wide commercial release, let alone Best Picture. By the late 1970s, Poitier had stepped back from acting, I think largely because he couldn’t please everyone no matter what he did. Fun fact: in 1997 he became the Bahamian ambassador to Japan.

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Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn play the white parents who need convincing, and Tracy died days after filming wrapped. As always, they are a delight. They were both nominated in the lead category for their performances, and Hepburn won her second Oscar (of an eventual four). Tracy has the meatier role–he gets to play the curmudgeon father, and I honestly don’t remember anything particularly remarkable about Hepburn’s performance. But she’s the OG Meryl Streep, so she’s always good (and nominated) in whatever she’s doing. Since she obviously has been recognized for her acting, maybe here is a good place to reward Anne Bancroft–let’s give her the Lead Actress Oscar.

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He waited all movie to get that ice cream

 

 

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#BlackLivesMatter In the Heat of the Night 

 

In perhaps the best depiction of sweltering summer nights until Body Heat, In the Heat of the Night revolves around a murdered white businessman in a southern town, and the traveling black Pennsylvanian police detective accused of his murder for being in the town at the wrong time. The detective (Poitier) stays to help the new white local sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve the murder, while his life is in constant threat of lynching from the locals. I was troubled by the way the film seems to downplay the persistent threats to Poitier, but I think it was making the point that he could operate and even succeed in his investigation despite them. By downplaying them, maybe the film trying to deprive the racist would-be lynchers of their power.

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Throughout the film Poitier fights back, often literally. In one particularly powerful scene, a wealthy racist white man slaps Poitier in the face, and Poitier slaps him back. If this wasn’t the first time a black man slapped a white man on screen without getting arrested or killed, it was one of the first.

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Indeed, the AFI quote to come out of this movie is Poitier asserting that he be called Mr. Tibbs, not boy.

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Of course, I only knew the de-racialized parody from Disney until like college.

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In the Heat of the Night is an important movie where Poitier confronts racism head-on, yet the Lead Actor winner (Steiger) played the racist sheriff who reluctantly works with Poitier and keeps trying to protect him from lynching by a) sending him out of town, b) incarcerating him in jail, and c) for one night full of homophobic fears–letting him stay in Steiger’s living room.

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Check out the white mansitting going on here

To be clear, his character’s evolution is from all-out racist to racist who tolerates working with one black man. While Steiger’s performance was good, I don’t like the optics, particularly in a year with so many good performances. He thanked Poitier in his speech and concluded with “We Shall Overcome.” I think that was the most political moment of the night. If Poitier wasn’t nominated, give it to Beatty.

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Steiger does rock yellow aviators the entire movie, though

In the Heat of the Night won Best Picture, and I feel good about that. The producer accepting the award took it as a “recognition of the lesson of In the Heat of the Night,” by which I assume he means racism is bad (and not “we need to control poor women’s sexuality” or “just as long as you’re anti-lynching you can be racist,” both messages in the film). Bob Hope, the host for the evening, summed up the proceedings by emphasizing that films have gotten better at depicting the world as it is, and he looks forward to films portraying the world as it could be in the future.

So, to recap here are my hindsight reallocations of the awards:

Lead Actor-Warren Beatty, Bonnie and Clyde

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Feel the Bern

Lead Actress-Anne Bancroft, The Graduate

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Koo Koo Kachoo, Mrs. Robinson

Supporting Actress-Beah Richards, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

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Dinner Party from Hell

Supporting Actor-Sidney Poitier, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

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#OscarsSoWhite

(Or if we move him to Lead Actor for In the Heat of the Night, then George Kennedy can keep it for Cool Hand Luke [haven’t seen it] because his acceptance speech was so charming):

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2 thoughts on “Sidney Poitier, #OscarsSoWhite, and the 1968 Oscars

  1. Real quick (sort of) … your line right at the start “…two were about race (although both featured story arcs of white people getting over their prejudices to accept Sidney Poitier)…” instantly made me think of the anecdote you related to me from the “O.J.: Made in America” series about O.J. bringing Sidney Poitier to play golf at the country club where he was the first black member. Since I haven’t seen it, I googled it, and NPR said one interviewee and member at the Arcola Country Club said of the O.J./Poitier visit that “Even the bigots thought that was terrific.” So, the pseudo-acceptance of “token” (assimilated) minorities continues, with the overburdened Sidney Poitier having to carry the mantle of being every rich white dude’s token black friend/acquaintance for fucking decades!

    This also reminds me of this great podcast I just listened to that discussed tokenism and moral self-licensing in which you do one small liberal or enlightened thing, like admit the first black person into a swanky golf and country club, or vote for Obama, but then that one act leads the actor to engage in more and increasingly racist or gender-biased activities because, hey, they’re not racist, they voted for Obama! Anyways, the podcast is Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” (which I think is actually a terrible podcast name because it seems totally misleading, at least to historians) and this was all from his first episode, which was an odd and surprising episode that brought together disparate historical and current events, focusing primarily on women/gender rather than race, but it’s widely applicable. Also, his website is well set-up and includes links to the main books/articles/videos, which I liked.
    ( http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/01-the-lady-vanishes )

    Liked by 1 person

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