Last week, the cinema lost two giants – Sidney Poitier and Peter Bogdanovich, each of whom made history in his own way. Our top film critics discussed the men, their careers and legacy.
MANOHLA DARGIS When Poitiers and Bogdanovich died last week, you and I talked about how each of them helped shape the periods of their appearance. Since then I have been thinking about it. We know that their careers briefly overlapped: Bogdanovich directed Poitier in the 1996 TV movie To Sir, With Love 2, the sequel to the 1967 film. However, for the most part, they had different trajectories, determined in part by race, personal choice, and what was going on both in the country and in the industry.
It is fascinating to trace the arcs of these separate paths. Poitier starts first, from his long studio break, with the 1950 drama No Escape. He worked for Jim Crow in Hollywood, which he later helped turn around, but it took so long. In a way, the pressure and controversy he faced came to a head at the end of the decade with the release of The Defiant Ones in 1958, in which he plays alongside Tony Curtis. A year later, however, Poitier is on his knees playing Porgy in Porgy and Bess, a role he turned down but was actually forced to take on.
JSC SCOTT Bogdanovich was mainly a historian. Poitier was the maker of history. When we started talking about them side by side, it wasn’t to compare their accomplishments, but to see how their very different careers illuminate the changes taking place in American cinema since the studio era.
Poitier appeared in this system and had no illusions about its interest in racial progress. “Hollywood has never had much of a conscience,” he said in an interview. The “social conscience you speak of”—an enduring myth of liberal Hollywood—“has always existed in only a handful of people,” including Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who directed No Escape, and Stanley Kramer, who directed The Defiant. “This city has never been infected with such virtue,” said Poitier. He never managed to romanticize Old Hollywood the way 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 letters and propaganda, and he learned about filmmaking from their conversations and watching them work. I was looking through Bogdanovich’s Who the Devil Did It, and he was 20 years old when he gave his first interview in 1960 to Sidney Lumet. At the time, Bogdanovich was studying acting with Stella Adler – apparently one of the reasons he was a fantastic actor – and worked in about 40 professional productions, one of which he directed. What a prodigy!
That same year, Poitier turned 33 and began filming Paris Blues, a film I love despite its flaws, including its marginalization. However, the film has Poitier and Dianne Carroll playing lovers and they are beautiful and shown as willing. and desirable. Poitier was disappointed with how the film turned out and said that the studio “ran away from us” – it seems that it was always sold by white forces, no matter how well-intentioned they may be. In 1960, he also joined a campaign to raise funds for the defense of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It doesn’t cost anything to say from Bogdanovich that Poitiers lived in a completely different reality.
SCOTT It might seem that Bogdanovich’s reality was determined primarily by cinema and his love for it. His cinephilia marks him as a charter member, along with the likes of George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, of what used to be called the “movie school generation.” Not that Bogdanovich ever went to film school.
“I’m usually disappointed by film schools,” he told an American Film Institute audience. “They spend too much time on production and not enough time to show students the right films. Students must see the classics.” Some of his best films are modern-day bullshit What’s Up, Doc? (1972); the black-and-white road movie about the Depression, Paper Moon (1973), is full of this reverence for tradition.
Some of the less good ones too. In Nickelodeon (1976), he attempted to bring early film charm to New Hollywood by playing Ryan O’Neill as an occasional film director and Burt Reynolds as a hardcore screen idol. They spend the early 1910s putting two commercials together and fighting to consolidate the industry, and end up at the 1915 premiere of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, shown under its original title, The Klansman. In keeping with the then-dominant Hollywood origin story, this film is hailed as an artistic and commercial breakthrough – goodbye nickelodeons, hello movie palaces! — while his Ku Klux Klan celebrations are brushed aside.
The renaissance story of the late 60s and early 70s in American films is traditionally told as a story about heroic, rebellious white men. But, as in the case of the era of silence, the truth is more complicated and interesting. This was also the period when Poitier (along with other black pioneers such as Gordon Parks, Ossie Davis and Melvin Van Peebles) turned to directing. He began with Buck and the Preacher (1972), a western set in a post-Civil War landscape familiar from many of Ford’s paintings. He also starred in it alongside Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee. Do you think that the choice of genre – and his treatment of its cliches – says something about his own relationship to the Hollywood past?
DARGIS No doubt this attitude towards the genre was very different from that of those white filmmakers, including Bogdanovich, who revisited (or absorbed) the classic forms of cinema in the 1960s and 1970s. In Poitier’s memoir The Measure of a Man, he talks about seeing his first film as a child. It was a Western and he was so impressed that he told his sister, “I’d like to go to Hollywood and be a cowboy.” He didn’t know what Hollywood was; he thought people raised cows there, a childish misconception that’s all the more poignant given how historically the city has been hostile to black talent.
According to him, one of the reasons for Poitier’s appearance in the western Duel at Diablo (1966) was that it gave him the opportunity to create a heroic image for black children who love westerns. He, too, was apparently disappointed by this film, and his love of westerns and the complex iconography of the American cowboy had not yet matched. Imagine the representative weight his version of The Wild Bunch or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid could have had in the late 1960s! Belafonte and Poitier were interested in making a western, but nothing came of it until they teamed up to work on Buck and the Preacher, which we both adore for its behind-the-scenes story as much as its on-screen one.
SCOTT This story is a sign of how things have changed. Belafonte and Poitier were the producers. They did not see eye to eye with the first director, Joseph Sargent, and asked Columbia Pictures to replace him. Filming had already begun in Mexico, and Poitier offered to take over temporarily so production could continue while the studio looked for someone else. “Eventually they called and said, ‘Why don’t you just keep filming?'” Poitier recalled years later. “That’s how I started directing. I was just thrown into it.”
Poitier became one of the most successful comic directors of the next decade, playing straight man Bill Cosby in the crime trilogy Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Let’s Do It Again (1975) and Part of the Action (1977) and directing Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder through the prison farce Crazy Traffic (1980).
These were also the best years of Bogdanovich. We don’t have the space to revisit all the dramatic ups and downs of his career, but I think there’s some insight into that highly mythologized era that can be gained by comparing how he and Poitier handled change in Hollywood. It is instructive, for example, that both were involved in attempts by groups of artists to take advantage of the weakening power of the studios and assert their independence. Poitier was the founder of First Artists, which brought together movie stars (including Paul Newman and Barbra Streisand) seeking creative control. Inspired by this example, Bogdanovich, along with Coppola and William Friedkin, organized the “Company of Directors”. Both experiments ultimately failed, which says a lot about Hollywood, as does the fact that they were attempted in the first place.
DARGIS Part of the pathos of the 1970s is that for all the great films made in that decade, including Poitiers and Bogdanovich, the era set the stage for conglomeration, blockbuster production, and the Disney industry. The two men have traveled different roads, done a great job, won top honors in the industry and made a lot of money for a lot of people. But by the end of the 1970s, the glory years of each of them ended. They continued to work intermittently, with and without success, until they became faded greats that the culture is happy to forget until they are old enough to nostalgically revere them. I’m glad that at least we can do that and watch their films too. Work is everywhere, but it is also immortal.