Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Alternate Best Actor 1967: Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night

Sidney Poitier did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA, for portraying Detective Virgil Tibbs in In The Heat of the Night.

Sidney Poitier's lack of Oscar recognition in this film seems a bit of strange thing. The film of course won best picture as well as best actor for his co-star Rod Steiger, and Poitier had a banner year with this film, the also best picture nominated Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? and the popular To Sir With Love. Now there were things against him first apparently every awards body agreed it was Steiger's time to win therefore probably deflecting some of Poitier's impact, he also was lead in all three of his films which can be problematic. Also there is not obvious person who upset him since the nominees were made up of Steiger who won, Spencer Tracy giving his final performance, Dustin Hoffman with his very popular breakout performance, Warren Beatty giving his best performance, and Paul Newman who perhaps got in over Poitier due to maybe late surge love for Cool Hand Luke as evidenced by George Kennedy's supporting actor win.

Despite his lack of recognition In The Heat of the Night is perhaps one of Poitier, if not most, iconic roles as Mr. Tibbs a black detective from Philadelphia who finds himself forced into solving a homicide in a racist town. Everything seems set out to make this a memorable role from the outset with the compelling situation he's in, that unique name of his, and even the rather snappy way in which he is dressed. Although it is in the case of most of his roles, starting all the way back with No Way Out as doctor dealing with a prejudiced Richard Widmark, Poitier's character doesn't take any flack from any racist this probably the time where his character was perhaps the most fervent about it. It was most often the case that Poitier would ease into this discontent by first being his usual extremely charming self, this time though Poitier actually begins with a harder edge which makes is fitting since the first thing that happens to Tibbs is that he is charged with the murder himself.

Poitier despite being somewhat more outwardly defiant in this one Poitier still carries himself in his usual classy dignified fashion. Poitier here is the master of frankly the refined anger as he manages to bring such an intensity in Tibbs's objection to his treatment by the police chief Gillespie (Steiger) and his men. Poitier barely even has to raise his voice to still be a palatable force of passion, and when he does raise his voice such as with his famous "They call me Mr. Tibbs!" it is quite powerful. Poitier interestingly doesn't fall upon his substantial charm all that often with this performance, almost holding it as a secret weapon in the reserved persona of Tibbs. Poitier only brings it out in very particular situations when Tibbs needs to derive information out of someone. Poitier very effectively uses his charm in these moments showing it as almost a strategy to make Tibbs instantly likable to the person he's trying to get the information from.

It is no surprise that Poitier went to reprise Tibbs two more times in sequels, although apparently far less successful films in every regard. Poitier has such a commanding presence with Tibbs and he makes for a consistently compelling lead here. Poitier is terrific by realizing Tibbs's method in such an eloquent and precise manner that is always interesting to watch. Poitier is quite good at carrying the film so well, as he's always so good at carrying film yet at the same time he manages to convey Tibbs's particular method of solving the crime. Poitier conveys the methodical nature of Tibbs deductions and makes every revelation he discovers well earned. There is only one moment where Poitier drops this and that is when confronting a known racist who has a motive for the murder. Poitier earns this especially emotional moment, and far from his most calculating, by portraying it as very much the gut reaction of man being forced to deal with an extremely racist individual with a smug sense of entitlement.

As great as Poitier is alone what really makes this performance standout is the way he works with Steiger throughout the film. Both are in top form here as they both are equally brilliant in realizing their characters. They are especially good because In the Heat of the Night is plot driven yet neither Tibbs nor Gillespie ever feel like characters just there to move through the plot. They realize them as fascinating men all on their own and they even come even more to life in their various conflicts during the film. The way the two go from outwardly aggressive to one another to an eventual mutual respect is one of the best elements of the film and it only really works because of Poitier and Steiger. There is not a single moment where the two agree to be friends or to even stop hating each other. There is just a rather slow understanding the two actors build so naturally from scene to scene that they make the transformation in both men not only believable but quite poignant in the end.

14 comments:

RatedRStar said...

I think he also failed to get in simply because he had already won previously, being the first black actor to do so, the Academy must have felt that there was no need anymore to nominate him and they never did after 63.

Scott Gingold said...

It's more likely than he split votes with himself for this performance and for To Sir with Love. His role in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was more of a supporting performance.

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

No that was lead too. He was just campaigned supporting.

GetDonaldSutherlandAnOscar said...

What are your ratings and thoughts on him in No Way Out?

Also it's a shame his career went downhill after 1967. In my books he's one of my top 10 actors ever.

GetDonaldSutherlandAnOscar said...

Louis who would your top 10 "charismatic" actors be? So I mean actors who got by with charm like Poitier and Newman and Harrison Ford

GetDonaldSutherlandAnOscar said...

Also upon re-watching the film I have just a few questions haha:

Did you like the film more upon re-watch?
Who did you like more Poitier or Steiger? Or are they on the same level?

GetDonaldSutherlandAnOscar said...

and lastly what are your thoughts and ratings on him in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

Louis Morgan said...

Robert: If they campaigned him supporting that only makes worse since that means they also preferred Cecil Kellaway over him.

GetDonaldSutherlandOscar:

It's too bad the way his career just kinda petered out in 70's, funny enough though so did Steiger's.

No Way Out - 4.5(Excellent work as its a star marking performance that was unfortunately a few years too early. It's particularly strange that he went from playing an adult back to a teenager in five years. Anyway like so many of his roles Poitier brings so much out of a somewhat simple role. He brings the right passion to the part and as always is extraordinarily charming as well)

Top Ten Charming Actors (Interestingly only one from my top ten carries over):

1. Clark Gable
2. Sidney Poitier
3. Paul Newman
4. Ronald Colman
5. Cary Grant
6. James Stewart
7. Sean Connery
8. Michael Caine
9. Harrison Ford
10.Robert Downey Jr.

As for In the Heat of the Night my opinion hasn't changed as I still rather like it.

Steiger and Poitier are on about the same level for me.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner - 3(This is probably one of Poitier's worst roles actually. His characters could be a little simply written before but this one is purposefully two-dimensional. I guess if you want someone to play a two-dimensional role get Poitier though because his charm still manages to carry him through the film for the most part. He still can't create any chemistry with the excruciatingly bad Katharine Houghton. Actually the whole premise is hurt by the fact that it's hard to believe them as a couple for even a second, but really that's not Poitier's fault. Otherwise than that he's given barely anything to do except for the one scene where he confronts his father. Poitier is good in that scene, and he is charming in the rest of his scenes although not enough to completely make up for the way the role was written)

GetDonaldSutherlandAnOscar said...

I agree with you about Poitier, but I do think he is the best part of a very bad film.

GetDonaldSutherlandAnOscar said...

Steiger's career petering out I feel had more to do with him starting to ham everything up in the 1970s. He's best when he's subtle.

Louis Morgan said...

I think very bad is a bit harsh for In The Heat of the Night, I will agree it's not perfect, but to each his own.

Matt Mustin said...

Good to see Robert Downey Jr. on the list because he's always such a blast to watch. Just for the record, I personally would add Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington (although I know you won't agree with me on that one).

GetDonaldSutherlandAnOscar said...

Oh, no, no, no, sorry Louis, I meant Guess Who's Coming to Dinner when I said 'very bad film'! In the Heat of the Night is one of my favourite films (#5 on my all-time list).

I can't believe you'd think that of me, Louis. :)

Louis Morgan said...

Well we just basically agree then....that's even better.