Last Night at the Film Society: Saluting Sidney Poitier

 
It was bright and sunny in New York City on Tuesday, the day after The Film Society honored actor and director Sidney Poitier with the 38th Chaplin Award. Inside the Hotel Plaza Athenee on Manhattan's Upper West Side, staffers gathered around Poitier to ask him about his night at Lincoln Center. He smiled, thanking each person for their warm wishes and help during his weekend in New York City.
 
Generally soft-spoken and typically reserved about being in the spotlight, it's a bit surprising to think that in 1967, Sidney Poiter was Hollywood's biggest box office star. 
 
As Quentin Tarantino related last night at Alice Tully Hall, Poitier had three hit movies in theaters that year: Norman Jewison's In The Heat of the Night, Stanley Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and James Clavell's To Sir, With Love. Tarantino was five years old at the time and said his mom took him to the movies to see all three films.
 
It was a significant year for Tarantino and for Hollywood. 
 
"As far as the movies are concerned, there was pre-Poitier and there was Hollywood post-Poitier," Tarantino explained, "I just had a birthday; I’m 48 years old. I’m proud to say I belong to the first generation to watch movies in a post-Poitier Hollywood."
 
Quentin Tarantino was just one of many cinematic icons to salute Sidney Poitier (pictured right, below) at last night's Chaplin Award Gala, an annual fundraiser that raised more than one million dollars to support Film Society of Lincoln Center.
 
Images from Monday's Chaplin Award Gala honoring Sidney Poitier are available via photo albums on the Film Society's Facebook page.

Some presenters bore witness to watching Sidney Poitier break into acting and then make a move into directing, while others spoke about how he inspired them in their own careers.
 
Quincy Jones (center, right) remembered being nineteen years old in NYC with Sidney Poitier. "We were broker than the Ten Commandments," he quipped.
 
Another legend in his own right, Harry Belafonte (far right in the bottom photo) met Poitier sixty years ago at Harlem's American Negro Theater. He said he hauled garbage and then landed a role with Poitier as his understudy. When Belafonte couldn't take the stage one night, Poiter stepped in. The young actor was on his way.
 
On that path to success, Poitier broke barriers and challenged perceptions of African American actors and later became one of the most important figures of cinema's first century. 
 
As Ruby Dee explained last night, talking about the 1959 Broadway play (and 1961 movie), A Raisin in the Sun, "It offered him the opportunity not to be perfect - to play a flawed character."
 
In 1964, he became the first African American man to win an Oscar, named best actor for his performance in Lilies of the Field. James Earl Jones noted last night, "Sidney said he leapt six feet from his seat when his name was called [at the Oscars]."
 
It was an achievement unmatched for more than three decades. 
 
"Sidney's emergence coincided with the post World War II dynamic around the changing images of African-Americans," elaborated Danny Glover (far left in the bottom photo). And then came that infamous year of 1967.
 
"I don't think at the time any of us realized the impact [In the Heat of the Night] would have on its U.S. audience," explained director Norman Jewison.
 
Morgan Freeman (pictured far left, above) noted that Sidney Poitier not only played a teacher in many films throughout his career, but he was also a real-life teacher for so many.
 
"I feel so blessed I have the privilege to know you," Chris Tucker praised, "You inspire me to know how to be funny." While Mary Louise Parker offered, "Watching [Sidney Poitier] go from A to B & B to Z was something akin to whitewater rafting." 
 
 
Yet, as Poitier's daughter Sydney Tamiia Poitier noted, her father also had to teach himself. 
 
"Unable to continue school after age twelve," she noted, "My dad became a self-taught man devouring any and all info he could."
 
So, it is hardly a surprise that Sidney Poitier, on stage last night, took the opportunity to draw lessons from his own life and work. Generously, he reflected last night's spotlight onto the audience inside Alice Tully Hall.
 
In a moving speech he spoke of, "The oneness of the human family." 
 
Acknowledging his age and what he called, a "diminished reach" nowadays, he drew a direct line that began with Charlie Chaplin and continues right on into the future.
 
Charlie Chaplin invented a new language, Poitier suggested. He "choreographed the movement of his body into a universal language." Nods and gestures conveyed emotions and elicited reactions from audiences of an emerging medium.
 
Poitier, now 84 years old, spoke of two men who shaped him as an actor, namely theater teachers Paul Mann and Lloyd Richards. They admired Chaplin and used his routines as acting lessons for their students, including Poitier.
 

"The lives of Mr. Chaplin and these two men will speak loudly of an astonishing world yet to come," Sidney Poitier concluded in his speech last night. "This astonishing world - is very fragile. Life if very fragile. We are very fragile. We must nurture the children and the children must nurture the planet on which we are living. And in doing so, we may just reach the full potential of our humanity. One spirit. One being. One family. One world."
 
On Tuesday morning, sturdy but walking with a bit of assistance from a cane, Sidney Poitier steadily made his way to a waiting car. He posed for a quick photo on the sidewalk and then reiterated how much the Chaplin Award evening meant to him. He sealed the sentiment with a firm handshake and got in the back seat of the sedan.
 
A moment later he peeked out of the car window and smiled, waving briefly as the vehicle pulled away from the curb and drove off. 
 
Images from Monday's Chaplin Award Gala honoring Sidney Poitier are available via photo albums on the Film Society's Facebook page.
 
Photos by The Film Society of Lincoln Center and Getty Images.
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