Last week, the films lost two giants – Sidney Poitier and Peter Bogdanovich – who each made history in their own way. Our top film critics discussed the men, their careers and their legacies.
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 that ever since. We know their careers overlapped briefly: Bogdanovich directed Poitier in the 1996 TV movie “To Sir, With Love 2,” a sequel to the 1967 film. But for the most part, they had separate trajectories shaped in part by race, personal choices and what was happening both in the country and in the industry.
It is fascinating to follow the arcs of these separate paths. Poitier’s starts first and his big big studio break, the 1950 drama ‘No Way Out’. He worked in 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, first with the release of “The Defiant Ones” in 1958, in which he has the same billing as Tony Curtis. A year later, however, Poitier is on his knees to play Porgy in “Porgy and Bess,” a role he had turned down but was actually forced to take on.
AO SCOTT Bogdanovich was essentially a historian. Poitier was a history writer. When we started talking about them side by side, it wasn’t to compare their achievements, but to see how their very different careers alleviated the changes going on in American movies after the studio era.
Poitier got into that system and had no illusions about his interest in racial advancement. “Hollywood never really had a conscience,” he told an interviewer. “The social conscience you’re talking about”—the enduring myth of liberal Hollywood—”was always just a handful of men,” including Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who made “No Way Out” and Stanley Kramer, who directed “The Insurgents.” .” “This town has never been tainted by that kind of goodness,” Poitier said, never romanticizing Old Hollywood the way Bogdanovich did.
DARGIS Absolutely – among other things, I doubt Poitier would have had access to all those sometimes-forgotten Old Hollywood veterans like John Ford and Orson Welles. Bogdanovich defended them in his writing and advocacy, and he learned about filmmaking through their conversations and by watching them at work. I was watching Bogdanovich’s anthology “Who the Devil Made It” and he was 20 when he did his first interview with Sidney Lumet in 1960. At the time, Bogdanovich had studied acting with Stella Adler—probably one of the reasons he was great with actors—and had worked in some 40 professional stage productions, one of which he directed. What a child prodigy!
That year, Poitier turned 33 and started shooting ‘Paris Blues’, a film I love despite its flaws, including its marginalization. Yet the film has Poitier and Diahann Carroll playing lovers and they are beautiful, and shown as longing and desirable. Poitier was disappointed with how the film turned out, saying the studio had “cheated us” — it was always sold out, it seems, by the white forces, however well-intentioned those forces may be. In 1960 he also took part in a campaign to raise defense funds for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It takes nothing away from Bogdanovich to say that Poitier lived in an entirely different reality.
SCOTT With Bogdanovich it can seem that reality is mainly determined by movies and his love for movies. His cinephilia marks him as a co-founder, along with guys like George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola, of what used to be called “the film school generation.” Not that Bogdanovich ever went to 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 too little time on showing the right films to students. Students need to see the classics.” Some of his best movies – the modern screwball “What’s Up, Doc?” (1972); the black-and-white road movie ‘Paper Moon’ (1973), set in a depression, is full of that reverence for tradition.
Some of the less good ones too. In “Nickelodeon” (1976), he tried to bring some of the charm of early cinema to New Hollywood, casting Ryan O’Neal as a casual photo-shooter and Burt Reynolds as a shaggy screen idol. They spent the early 1910s scraping together two-reelers and fighting industry consolidation, arriving at the 1915 premiere of DW Griffith’s “The Birth of A Nation,” which was featured under its original title. , “The Clansman”. In keeping with the dominant Hollywood origin story of the time, that film is being hailed as an artistic and commercial breakthrough – goodbye nickelodeons, hello movie palaces! — while putting the Ku Klux Klan celebrations aside.
The story of the renaissance of the late 1960s and early 1970s in American movies is usually told as a tale of heroic, rebellious white men. But as in the silent age, the truth is more complicated and interesting. It was also the period when Poitier (along with other black pioneers such as Gordon Parks, Ossie Davis and Melvin Van Peebles) focused on directing. He began with a western, “Buck and the Preacher” (1972), set in the post-Civil War landscape familiar from so many Ford photographs. He also starred in it, with Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee. Do you think the choice of genre – and his treatment of the tropes – says something about his own relationship with the Hollywood past?
DARGIS Undoubtedly, that relationship to genre was very different from that of those white directors, including Bogdanovich, who reconsidered (or were swallowed by) classic film forms 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 were raising cows there—a child’s misconception made all the more poignant given how historically the city was unwelcome for black talent.
One of the reasons Poitier appeared in the western “Duel at Diablo” (1966), he said, was that it gave him an opportunity to create a heroic image for black kids who love westerns. He was also apparently disappointed in this film, and his love of westerns and the complex iconography of the American cowboy were not yet in sync. Imagine the representative weight his version of “The Wild Bunch” or a “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” would have carried in the late 1960s! Belafonte and Poitier were interested in making a Western, but nothing came of it until they teamed up for “Buck and the Preacher,” which we both love for its behind-the-scenes story as much as it is on-screen.
SCOTT That story is a sign of how things were changing. Belafonte and Poitier were the producers. They did not come face to face with the first director, Joseph Sargent, and asked Columbia Pictures to replace him. Shooting 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 shooting?'” Poitier recalled years later. “That’s how I started directing. I was just thrown in.”
Poitier became one of the most successful comic book directors of the next decade, playing Bill Cosby’s straight man in the crime caper trilogy “Uptown Saturday Night” (1974), “Let’s Do It Again” (1975) and “A Piece of the Action’ (1977), and lead Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder through the incarceration farce ‘Stir Crazy’ (1980).
Those were also Bogdanovich’s best years. We don’t have room to revisit all the dramatic ups and downs of his career, but I think there’s some perspective on that much mythologized era that can be gained by comparing how he and Poitier got through the changes in Hollywood. It is instructive, for example, that both were involved in attempts by groups of artists to abuse the waning power of the studios and claim their own independence. Poitier was a founding member of First Artists, which brought together movie stars (including Paul Newman and Barbra Streisand) in search of creative control. Inspired by that example, Bogdanovich co-founded the Directors Company with Coppola and William Friedkin. Both experiments ultimately failed, which perhaps says 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 the great movies made in that decade — including by Poitier and Bogdanovich — the era laid the groundwork for the conglomeration, blockbuster-fication, and Disney-fication of the industry. The two men traveled different paths, creating great work, winning the highest accolades in the industry and making a lot of money for many people. But by the late 1970s, the glory years of each were over. They continued to work, with success and not, until they were the kind of faded greats that culture likes to forget until they’re old enough to nostalgically revere. I’m glad we can at least do that, and watch their movies too. Work is everywhere, but it is also immortal.