One had only to look at the assembled film clips to see why Sidney Poitier merited being honored at the 2011 38th annual Chaplin Award gala of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The mix of charm, intensity and sheer screen charisma evident in scenes from the many films that he has done reveal him to be a foremost actor and one whose portrayals led the way in breakthroughs for African-Americans in the world of cinema. Poitier is a movie icon as well as a man respected for his stature as a human being. It all came together movingly as those paying tribute gathered at Alice Tully Hall on May 2, 2011 in a night to remember.
One looks at the key scene from “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), in which Poitier as a black detective slaps a white man on screen, and the power of his acting is dynamically evident. So is the significance. He is also dramatically impressive in a clip from “A Rasin in the Sun,” passionately committed to education in ‘To Sir, With Love,” tender in “A Patch of Blue,” urbane in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” and assertive in “Lilies of the Field.” To watch Poitier in action in these film excerpts is to appreciate anew the artistry that he has contributed over the years.
Among those who paid tribute was filmmaker Norman Jewison, who directed “In the Heat of the Night” and told a story that illustrated Poitier as a principled person. Jewison recalled how when Poitier read the screenplay, he said that he would not do a film in a place where people were victimized. Hence, Jewison said he shot it in Illinois instead of in the South.
Bill Cosby introduced humor into the accolades when he joked about Poitier being “the only one I have ever met who would never pick up a tab.” Of course, the ribbing morphed into another tribute.
James Earl Jones asserted, “Sidney, you are the standard bearer for the craft of acting.”
Harry Belafonte, impressive looking as ever: “He’s done America proud.”
Among others in the profession to honor Poitier on the stage were Mary Louise Parker, Danny Glover, Ruby Dee, Morgan Freeman, Ben Kingsley, Dan Aykroyd, Quentin Tarantino and Quincy Jones. Oprah sent a filmed tribute as she could not be present as a result, she said, of having to work on her television show.
A warm personal note was added by actress Sidney Poitier, one of the actor’s daughters. She earned a laugh by citing as the reason why her father has been so successful is that he has six daughters to inspire him.
When Poitier, still handsome even though older than the screen image we have of him, finally came on stage to accept his honor, there was a standing ovation that was clearly heartfelt, not just obligatory. It took some time before he could finally speak, and his approach was pure Poitier. He began by saying, “Thank you is such a small word.” He talked not just about an audience looking at him, but what he felt in looking out at an audience, indicating the personal connection he experienced.
He spoke about what he has learned from others along the way, citing such persons as Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Clark Gable, Lee Grant, Dorothy Dandridge, Diahann Carroll, Norman Jewison and various others, including his wife Joanna.
He also paid particular tribute to the inspiration of Charlie Chaplin, for whom the award is named and who as the first recipient of the honor in 1972. Poitier spoke of the pure artistry of Chaplin, including the movement of his hands and body. It was a profound touch, going back to one of the first great films stars and talking about the inspiration he took from him.
At the party held afterward, person after person told me what a terrific evening this had been.
In the printed program for the evening critic Richard Corliss captured a truth about Poitier and America. “As time passed,” Corliss wrote, “Poitier was joined in movies by actors who shone different shades of light on the black experience. But their road was smooth because he dug it, paved it and traveled it.”