Last week the films lost two giants – Sidney Poitier and Peter Bogdanovich – who each made history in their own way. Our leading film critics discussed the men, their careers and their heritage.
MANOHLA DARGIS When Poitier and Bogdanovich died last week, you and I talked about how each helped shape the periods in which they emerged. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. We know their careers briefly overlapped: Bogdanovich directed Poitier in the 1996 TV movie “To Sir, With Love 2,” a sequel to the 1967 film. For the most part, however, they had distinct trajectories shaped in part by race, personal choices and what was happening both in the country and in the industry.
It is fascinating to draw the arcs of these separate paths. Poitier’s begins the first and its big break in the big studios, the 1950 drama “No Way Out”. He was working at Jim Crow Hollywood which he would later help overthrow, but it took so long. In some ways, the pressures and contradictions he faced came to a head at the end of the decade with the release of “The Defiant Ones” in 1958, in which he has the same bill as Tony Curtis. A year later, however, Poitier is on his knees playing Porgy in “Porgy and Bess”, a role he had rejected but was effectively coerced into.
AO SCOTT Bogdanovich was basically a historian. Poitier was a maker of history. When we started talking about them side by side, it wasn’t to compare their accomplishments, but to look at how their very different careers informed the changes taking place in American cinema after the studio era.
Poitier entered this system and has no illusions about his interest in racial progress. “Hollywood never really had much conscience,” he told an interviewer. “The social conscience you speak of” – the enduring myth of liberal Hollywood – “has always been only a handful of men”, including Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who directed “No Way Out” and Stanley Kramer, who produced “Les provocateurs. “This city has never been infected with that kind of goodness,” Poitier said. He was never able to romanticize old Hollywood like Bogdanovich did.
DARGIS Absolutely – among other things, I doubt Poitier had access to all those sometimes forgotten Old Hollywood veterans like John Ford and Orson Welles. Bogdanovich defended them in his writings and pleadings, and he learned about filmmaking through their conversations and watching them work. I was watching Bogdanovich’s anthology “Who the Devil Made It” and he was 20 when he did his first interview, in 1960, with Sidney Lumet. By this time, Bogdanovich had studied acting with Stella Adler – probably one of the reasons he was fantastic with actors – and had worked in around 40 professional stage productions, one of which he directed. What a wonder!
That year, Poitier was 33 years old and began to shoot “Paris Blues”, a film that I liked despite its faults, including its marginalization. Yet the film has Poitier and Diahann Carroll playing lovers and they are beautiful and shown to be eager. and desirable. Poitier was disappointed with the turn of the film and said the studio had “pushed against us” – it was still sold out, it seems, by the white powers that be, however well meaning they were. ostensibly. In 1960 he also joined a campaign to raise funds in defense of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. It doesn’t take anything away from Bogdanovich to say that Poitier lived in an entirely different reality.
SCOTT With Bogdanovich, it could seem that reality was defined above all by the films and his love for them. His cinephilia marked him as a founding member, along with guys like George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, of what was once called “the film school generation”. Not that Bogdanovich ever attended film school.
“In general, I find film schools disappointing,” he told an American Film Institute audience. “They spend way too much time on production and not enough time showing good films to students. Students need to see the classics. Some of his best films – the modern day brothel maniac “What’s Up, Doc?” ”(1972); the black and white road movie “Paper Moon” (1973) about the Depression – are full of this respect for tradition.
Some of the less good too. In “Nickelodeon” (1976), he tried to bring some of the early cinematic charm to New Hollywood, making Ryan O’Neal an accidental director and Burt Reynolds a screen idol. They spent the early 1910s putting two reels together and fighting against industry consolidation, and found themselves at the 1915 premiere of DW Griffith’s “The Birth of A Nation,” which aired under its original title, “The Clansman “. In keeping with the dominant Hollywood origin story of the time, this film is hailed as an artistic and commercial breakthrough – goodbye nickelodeons, hello cinema palace! – while his celebration of the Ku Klux Klan is dismissed.
The story of the rebirth of the late 1960s and early 1970s in American films is classically told as a story of rebellious and heroic white men. But as in the days of silence, the truth is more complicated and more interesting. It was also the time when Poitier (along with other black pioneers like Gordon Parks, Ossie Davis and Melvin Van Peebles) turned to directing. It started with a western, “Buck and the Preacher” (1972), set in the post-Civil War landscape familiar from so many photos of Ford. He also performed there, with Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee. Do you think the genre’s choice – and its treatment of its tropes – says a lot about its own relationship to Hollywood’s past?
DARGIS Without a doubt, even if this relation to genre was very different from that of those white directors, Bogdanovich included, who revisited (or were swallowed up by) classic forms of cinema in the 1960s and 1970s. “The measure of a man”, he speaks of having seen his first film as a child. It was a western and he was so impressed that he said to his sister, “I would like to go to Hollywood and become a cowboy.” He didn’t know what Hollywood was; he believed people raised cows there – a childhood misunderstanding that is all the more poignant given how historically unwelcoming the city has been for black talent.
One of the reasons Poitier appeared in the western “Duel at Diablo” (1966), he said, was that it gave him the opportunity to create a heroic image for black children who love westerns. He was apparently also disappointed with this film, and his love for westerns and the intricate iconography of the American cowboy were not yet in sync. Imagine the representational weight his version of “The Wild Bunch” or a “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” might have had in the late 1960s! Belafonte and Poitier had been interested in making a western but nothing came of it until they teamed up for “Buck and the Preacher”, which we both adore for its backstage story as much as it does. on the screen.
SCOTT This story is a sign of how things have changed. Belafonte and Poitier were the producers. They disagreed with lead director Joseph Sargent and asked Columbia Pictures to replace him. Filming had already started in Mexico, and Poitier offered to take over temporarily so production could continue while the studio looked for someone else. “Finally, they called and said, ‘Why don’t you just keep shooting? »», Poitier remembers years later. “That’s how I started to realize. I just got thrown in.
Poitier went on to become one of the most successful comic book directors of the next decade, playing the role of Bill Cosby’s straight man in the crime trilogy “Uptown Saturday Night” (1974), “Let’s Do It Again” ( 1975) and “A Piece of the Action” (1977), and guiding Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder through the incarceration farce “Stir Crazy” (1980).
These were also Bogdanovich’s best years. We don’t have room to revisit all of the dramatic ups and downs of his career, but I think there is some perspective on this much-mythologized time to be gained by comparing the way he and Poitier navigated the changes in Hollywood. It is instructive, for example, that both were involved in attempts by artist groups to take advantage of the studios’ diminishing power and assert their own independence. Poitier was one of the founders of First Artists, which brought together movie stars (including Paul Newman and Barbra Streisand) in search of creative control. Inspired by this example, Bogdanovich, along with Coppola and William Friedkin, organized the Directors Company. Both experiments ultimately failed, which may say as much about Hollywood as the fact that they were attempted in the first place.
DARGIS Part of the pathos of the 1970s is that for all of the great movies made this decade – including by Poitier and Bogdanovich – the era laid the foundation for the industry’s conglomeration, blockbuster, and Disney-fication. The two men have traveled different routes, created great work, won top honors in the industry, and made a lot of money for a lot of people. But by the end of the 1970s, everyone’s glory years were over. They continued to work, on and off, with success and not, until they were the sort of great departed that the culture is happy to forget until they were old enough to nostalgically revere. I’m glad that at least we can do that and watch their movies too. The work is everywhere but it is also immortal.