My feeling is that Poitier was facing an almost impossible situation in trying to serve his race (which is something that he very badly wanted to do), grow as an actor (which is something he very badly wanted to do), work entirely within a white power structure (which is something he had to do), and make movies. He handled it as well as anyone possibly could have. I think that there’s real sadness in the fact that by the end of the book, he reaches the apex of his career, in terms of box office success and critical acclaim.
Poitier had a stretch of four years in which he was in Lillies of the Field, A Patch of Blue, To Sir with Love, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night, a string that made him one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood. What happened to his career after In the Heat of the Night?
There was this moment that just as white middle America completely embraced him, black America started to have less use for any black actor who was that embraced by white America. There was this sort of suspicion that if he’s that popular, he must by definition have been too accommodating. What you see when you read about Poitier after that is the story of a guy who had become deeply disillusioned with the way Hollywood worked.
I love the Mike Nichols quote about who Benjamin and Elaine [the two main characters in The Graduate] became – their parents. Yet it seems the same thing could be said for Oscar voters. The “old academy members” are the scapegoat for each questionable decision cast by the academy…and this was true in 1967 and it’s true now.
Young movie fans tend to be much more rigid and doctrinaire, because they’re the ones who say, “Well, a certain part of the electorate is just going to have to die before things change.” Eventually, the people complaining about the way things go this year will be the establishment. There’s no question that the academy votership is older than the median moviegoer.
I tend to really reject theories as if the Academy, as if it’s a single-brained entity, makes decisions one way or another. I hate the word “snubs” because it implies a sort of collective will behind something, that I don’t think is usually the case.
More things that are called snubs are actually the result of the extremely peculiar voting tabulation system that any kind of collective will, on the other hand, its completely fair to say that Academy voters have certain areas of really entrenched snobbery. I absolutely heard Academy voters say this year, point blank, that they wouldn’t vote for The Dark Knight for a best picture nomination because it was a comic book movie. You can see a history where they’ve taken a really, really long time to embrace certain genres. It really took until The Exorcist for a horror movie to get nominated, until Star Wars for a hardcore for a spaceships and laser guns, sci-fi movie to get nominated.
You write about how the organizers of the Oscars ceremony had to beg and plead with stars to show up at the event. What changed to make the Oscars a can’t-miss event for Hollywood?
Definitely some years after the period covered in my book is when it happened. The Oscars sort of hit bottom in terms of celebrity participation in the early 1970s. It was considered chic to hate awards; George C. Scott rejected his nomination and Marlon Brando rejected his Oscar. The academy at that point, seeming so old Hollywood establishment, was being rejected by a generation of new moviemaking mavericks. For a little while in the early 70s, the Oscars seemed to be at this precarious moment where they could go the way of the Miss America pageant. Then, as these newcomers became part of the establishment, lo and behold, they actually do like winning awards. It’s funny, when you start winning them, you don’t tend to turn up your nose at them quite so much. I think probably by the mid 70s, late 70s, it had kind of stabilized.
Which of the five movies you reported on is your favorite? Which do you think has the most lasting power and would be appreciated in today’s environment?