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« How I Came to Write Musicals|Main|June Wraps »
Monday
Jun 29 2020

Almost There: Sidney Poitier in "In the Heat of the Night"

byCláudio Alves

Last week, we took alookat the cast ofA Raisin in the Sunfor the Almost There pieces. Among that quartet of fabulous performances, Sidney Poitier's Walter Younger stood out as the most overwhelming one, so full of energy that the claustrophobic set seemed incapable of containing him. This week, we're again exploring the filmography of the first Black man to win the Best Actor Oscar, giving him a solo opportunity to shine. You could actually do an entire miniseries about the many times Poitier might have come close to an Oscar nomination and failed:A Raisin in the Sun,Edge of the City,Porgy and Bess,A Patch of Blue.

Today, however, we'll be looking at Poitier's 1967 Oscar bid, when the actor starred in three hits, two of which went on to be nominated for Best Picture. Of them, Norman Jewison'sIn the Heat of the Nightwent on to win the big award and features what is probably the best performance of Poitier's career…

In The Heat of the Night是一种混合的犯罪惊悚片和消息的电影,一个procedural that unfurls a mystery in the same breath it tries to confront racial injustice. Some consider it a stone-cold classic, a courageous project that dared to deal with heated topics at a time when Hollywood would rather escape from the social schisms of the real world rather than represent them. On the other hand, others see it as a reactionary movie with good intentions but plenty of clumsiness too. I fall somewhere in the middle of those reactions, neither finding it a masterpiece nor an utter failure. Some aspects of it work like gangbusters, that's for sure, among which the cinematography of Haskell Wexler deserves particular praise, for example.

Through his lensing, we discover the small town of Sparta, Mississippi, as a shadowy place where the heat is unbearable and the night vibrates in deep blues. It's during such a night that we are introduced to our protagonists, a hot-headed local police Chief called Bill Gillespie and Mr. Virgil Tibbs. The latter one is the focus of our analysis, an African-American homicide detective from Philadelphia who's passing by Sparta on his way home. When we first see him, he's sitting on the platform, peacefully waiting for the next train, when he's spotted by another cop and promptly arrested for the crime of being Black. Accused of a murder he didn't do, stoic and preternaturally controlled, Tibbs goes through the indignancy of the arrest with quiet acquiescence, letting his fury simmer beneath a placid mask.

As the two law officers meet and the Philadelphian is made to help the Spartan police with a murder investigation, the tension between Gillespie and Tibbs is almost unbearable. In terms of body language, it's hard to miss how Poitier becomes increasingly rigid, each new insult weighing him down and intensifying the fury that shines in his eyes. If there's one thing that characterizes actor's approach to the character in these early scenes is that sense of contained rage. Tibbs may swallow down his responses to the racist nonsense that's inflicted upon him, but he isn't happy about it. Watching him is like watching a rope getting twisted, each new twist tightening it more and more. It's just a matter of time before all that tension is released and the rope breaks.

That release of accumulated tension comes in fits and starts with Tibbs trying to downplay how much the situation is affecting him. There's the iconic line "They call me Mister Tibbs!" and the famousslap那是听到世界各地,但我们从不sense that the detective is losing control of himself. Such a register of perpetual self-repression is one hell of an acting challenge, for it asks a performer to outwardly close themselves off but, at the same time, telegraph the interior struggle to the audience. Poitier does it impeccably and adds many personable details to his characterization, dodging the bullet of one-note monotony. Notice the glimmers of pride Tibbs shows, how his stance changes when dealing with Black people instead of white bigots, how his hands move across a dead body with the ease of a confident profession whose gestures have become automatized thanks to repetition.

It's an intelligent performance that is made out of those little details as much as it is defined by Poitier's magnetic presence. The way he holds his body and catches the light with his eyes, his cool detachment, all of it transmits a sense of authority that requires only that the actor exists in front of the camera. Comparatively, Rod Steiger's Chief Gillespie is a mountain of mannered ticks, a filigreed construction of non-stop business and showboating that's admirable in its own way but contrasts starkly with Poitier's approach. I prefer the precise nature of Tibbs to the undisciplined ham of Gillespie, but it's easy to understand why one would want to reward both. That's what the Golden Globes did when they nominated the two performers for the Best Actor in a Drama award. Unfortunately, the Oscars didn't follow suit and only recognized the white star ofIn the Heat of the Night.

Rod Steigerwonthe Best Actor trophy that year, while Poitier was completely ignored, having also been snubbed for his solid work inGuess Who's Coming to Dinnerand the box office hitTo Sir, With Love. To understand this awards race in great detail, I recommend readingMark Harris'Pictures at a Revolutionbut, suffice it to say, Poitier suffered both from vote-splitting between his big movies and a period of societal upheaval that saw the Academy respond in their usual reactionary manner. Some would say that awardingIn the Heat of the NightBest Picture is part of that too, for the film ends with amicable peace between the two men, promoting the age-old Hollywood myth that racism is a problem of the individual that can be solved one interracial friendship at a time.

Still, Poitier's Tibbs is an Oscar-worthy achievement. If for nothing else, he deserved the trophy for the way his indignant fury still haunts the film by the end, smothering some of the movie's self-congratulatory noxiousness even as Tibbs exits the story with a smile on his face.

In the Heat of the Nightis available to stream on Amazon Prime and IndieFlix. You can also rent it from Apple iTunes, Youtube, Google Play, and others.

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Reader Comments (9)

A very good performance, I think Spencer Tracy got his nomination for sentimental reasons and Steiger won because he deserved to win in 1965. But 1967 was a great year for Mr. Poitier.

June 30, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterCafg

Sidney Poitier certainly deserved a nomination for 1 of 3 performances that year, and I agree that this portrayal of Mr. Tibbs was the most riveting. (Both then and now)
我爸妈最近和description of Poitier's body language gets to the heart of why this was such an exceptional bit of acting. He makes you feel every bit of anger, humiliation, disdain, and pride as he deals with the people of this town.
I can understand that his win for "Lilies of the Field" would mean that Poitier wouldn't be the favourite to win again so soon, but I don't understand the lack of a nomination. (But then I was never as sentimental about Spencer Tracy as the Academy was).
Btw. Sidney Poitier's charisma reminds me a little of Vanessa Redgrave. They both convey so much with so few gestures.

June 30, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Rod Steiger won the Best Actor trophy that year, while Poitier was left hanging...

I understand the point you are making, but there has to be a better way to say that.

June 30, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterBrevity

Cafg -- I'm not a big Spencer Tracy fan, but I do think that his '67 nomination is one of his best. Though, perhaps, that has more to do with my relative dislike for most of his other nominated work.

LadyEdith -- I never considered the similarities between Poitier and Redgrave, but it's an interesting thought.

Brevity -- I changed the phrasing. Thanks for pointing out what I assume are the unfortunate racial connotations of that wording. It didn't even cross my mind when writing, but you're right and there is a better way of expressing the same point. For what it's worth, I'm sorry.

June 30, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterCláudio Alves

I think he's great in certain scenes -They call me, Mr. Tibbs!/The greenhouse- and a bit wooden in others -the chase/the climax-. I would have voted for Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke.

June 30, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I'd have given him the win and Lee Grant was a snub too.

June 30, 2020 |Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I've always figured Poitier would make the cut, had he not had this vote-splitting issue...but who would he have bumped from the lineup? Perhaps Newman?

June 30, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

I definitely prefer him to Steiger in the film. Lee Grant was fantastic as well.

June 30, 2020 |Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

Sidney was a victim of vote splitting, but also look at the final five. It's one of the toughest fields to crack ever. Four were from Best Picture nominees, including two of his co-stars, and the fifth was Paul Newman in the popular Cool Hand Luke. Who could be replaced? Spencer Tracy is the only one who is clearly worse, and I'll bet he was a close runner-up to Steiger in the final vote. When there are only five slots, the race can come down to only a few votes.

June 30, 2020 |Unregistered Commenterken s

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