Monday, July 29, 2013

The Five Best Sidney Poitier Performances

One of the most biggest stars of the 1960s--and a personal fave at the Café--gets our "Five Best" treatment. It wasn't easy culling through Sidney Poitier's impressive array of performances and it was harder still to relegate the immensely likable Guess Who's Coming to Dinner to honorable mention status. However, the task here was to pick out his best performances, not to list our favorite Sidney Poitier movies. (Of course, to be honest, we love all five of the films below!)

1. Lilies of the Field.  Sidney Poitier won a Best Actor Oscar for playing Homer Smith, a drifter who stops to get water for his car at a southwestern farm run by German nuns. What Homer doesn't know is that the nuns believe he is the answer to their prayers--that he will build a chapel for them even though they have no money nor materials for the building. Often described as a feel-good movie, Lilies of the Field far exceeds that simple label with its inspirational message about faith and finding meaning in one's life. Poitier is at his most charming as Homer, a stubborn man who resists building the chapel initially. When he finally relents, he doesn't want anyone to help him. His scenes with the equally firm Mother Maria (beautifully played by Lilia Skala) are not to be missed.

2. The Defiant Ones. This 1958 classic helped define the term "high concept film" with a terrific premise about two escaped convicts--still shackled together--trying to escape a posse in the South. Not only do these men hate each other, but one is white (Tony Curtis), the other is black (Poitier), and racism is rampant around them. Poitier gives a dynamic performance as the persevering Noah Cullen and his hard work seems to inspire Curtis, who turns in one of the finest acting jobs of his career, too.

3. In the Heat of the NightThis racially-charged mystery, 1968’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, has aged gracefully over the years. The secret to its success can be attributed to its many layers. Peel back the mystery plot and you have a potent examination of racial tension in the South in the 1960s. Peel that back and you have a rich character study of two lonely police detectives, from completely different backgrounds, who gradually earn each other’s respect. Sidney Poitier has his most famous best role as the intelligent, proud, (and perhaps somewhat prejudiced) police detective Virgil Tibbs. He skillfully underplays the part, so that when Tibbs strikes a rich white man (a controversial scene at the time) or flashes his anger toward Rod Steiger's redneck sheriff, those scenes catch fire. Amazingly, Poitier was not Oscar nominated, perhaps because his votes were split among three memorable 1967 performances: In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and To Sir, With Love. He reprised the Tibbs role twice in the lesser efforts They Call Me MISTER Tibbs and The Organization.

4. To Sir, With LoveIn a role seemingly tailored for him, Sidney Poitier plays Mark Thackeray, a young engineer looking for a job. Unable to find one in his chosen profession, he accepts temporary employment as a teacher in an inner-city London school. It’s a bleak situation—the students are out of control, most of the teachers are burned out, and the school reflects the poverty of the surrounding neighborhood. Cynics criticize To Sir, With Love as simple-minded and obvious. Perhaps it is, but Poitier helps put the story across with such conviction and professionalism that it’s impossible to ignore its many charms. In particular, a subplot involving an attractive student (Judy Geeson) who develops a crush on Thackeray is handled impeccably.

5. A Patch of Blue. A constant thread throughout these five films is that a focal point of each is the relationship between two characters of starkly different backgrounds. In A Patch of Blue, Poitier plays an educated working man who befriends a blind young woman (Elizabeth Hartman) who lives with her abusive prostitute mother (Shelley Winters). A Patch of Blue could have easily veered into a "message picture" showing that love is literally blind. However, Poitier and Hartman bring a genuine quality to their performances, making their growing friendship believable and pulling us into their world. Just watch Poitier's face when Hartman's character confesses her love for him. That is the kind of scene that made Sidney Poitier a star.

Honorable Mention:  Edge of the City; A Raisin in the SunBlackboard Jungle; Guess Who's Coming to Dinner; and Brother John.


  1. Rick, I LOVE Sidney Poitier! He is such an amazing actor...easily one of my "terrific 10" most-loved guys. Because I had him as star of the month back in February, I caught several of his films that I had never seen before, resulting in 3 5-star film discoveries of the year for me, 2 of which are in your honorable mention category---A Raisin in the Sun and Edge of the City. (Everything about A Raisin in the Sun "blew me away." It's probably my fave of his films.) To Sir, with Love was another one of my 5-star film discoveries of the year.

    I love or really like all the films you've chosen...except for Brother John, which I've never even heard of. I need to be on the lookout for that one.

  2. Did you know that Homer Smith is a good friend of my special needs son, Gavin? Something about that film, which is a favourite of both Gavin's dad and maternal grandfather, would keep him happy and calm in his younger years. Plus, it taught him to sing "Amen".

    For a different side to Sidney Poitier we turn to my daughter Janet who was passing the television during one of his pictures and responded to a close-up with "Pretty!".

    PS: This fan gives your selections a big thumbs up.

  3. Love all these movies, but am especially pleased "Lilies of the Field" made the list. It gets criticized for Poitier being a "slave" to the white nuns, but I think Poitier gives as good as he gets in this one.

  4. What an excellent list, Rick! "Lillies of the Field" is one of those magical films that I have to keep watching if I catch it while channel surfing. And I too love "In the Heat of the Night." They call me MISTER Tibbs! Well done!

  5. Too bad there wasn't room for "A Raisin in the Sun," one of my favorite Poitier performances. At least it and "Edge of the City" got honorable mentions, though.

  6. Great list, though I would switch To Sir, With Love with Raisin in the Sun. I don' think Poitier has really ever given a bad performance.