The movie that made Sidney Poitier the first African-American actor to win the Best Actor Oscar.
Sidney Poitier has passed away at the age of 94, and has been regarded as an acting legend. To honor him, I’ve taken the liberty on reviewing his 1963 film “Lilies of the Field,” which made him the first African-American actor to win the Oscar for Best Actor, and it’s a fabulous film. He has become an influence to many colored actors, and in “Lilies of the Field,” Poitier has humanity, consistency, and passion. He deserved that Oscar for his role.
In it, he plays a traveling handyman named Homer Smith, who needs to find work and needs water for his car, and borrows some from a group of German, Austrian, and Hungarian nuns-all of whom are learning to speak English. They all admire his strength and ask him to fix their roof and to have dinner with them. He even helps them with their English lessons.
He tells Mother Maria (Lilia Skala) that he has to leave, and expects to be paid for his services, but she believes he is a gift from God. She even asks him to build them a chapel.
He’s not a Catholic, but a Baptist, which means he disagrees with some of Mother Maria’s beliefs. Despite him not getting paid, he agrees to build them the chapel. He believes he can do the job alone, and begins to reject the assistance from the local Mexican trading post owner Juan (Stanley Adams), or any of the comprises willing to help. He wants to do it slowly and carefully, but he eventually comes around.
“Lilies of the Field” was based on the novel by William Edmund Barrett” with its screenplay done by James Poe, and it was directed by Ralph Nelson, who presents the story in a remarkable light. It’s calm and wise, and it’s also funny sometimes. It’s about how two different religions come together and form one of the most unexpected relationships. And it also has the courage to change different perspectives for the right reasons.
I already delivered my praise to Poitier for his performance in the film, but the supporting work from Skala is marvelous when she puts her attitude and patience as Mother Maria, and Adams also adds some humanity in the role of Juan. We don’t get much details out of the other nuns, but they become whimsical when Homer helps them learn to speak English. They have an entertaining sequence when they all say: “I stand up” or “I sit down.” It has rhythm and timing that makes it so fun.
Poitier was also known for his other roles, including “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “The Defiant One’s,” and his last theatrical release was “The Jackal,” which I heard was the interior version of “The Day of the Jackal.” He also survived the racism of his youth and eventually became an activist, who was involved in the March on Washington. And from 1997 to 2007, he was the Bahaman Ambassador to Japan. But he will always be remembered as an actor, who has inspired the African-American actors we know and love today.
Don’t consider “Lilies of the Field,” “The Defiant Ones,” or “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” as old movies, because as another recently departed Peter Bogdanovich said: “There are no old movies-only movies you have already seen and ones you haven’t.”
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