Thursday, April 10, 2014

“Lilies of the Field”

The 86th Academy Awards ceremony was held on March 2, 2014. I didn’t watch it, but I was interested in reading the results the next morning.
Fifty years ago, the 36th Academy Awards were presented on April 13, 1964. I’m pretty sure I didn’t watch that ceremony either, but I was especially interested when I learned that Sidney Poitier was awarded the Best Actor Oscar for his role in “Lilies of the Field.” 
That was notable, for it was the first time that award had been given to an African-American.
Back when we were poor students [clarification: we were good students but quite poor financially], we hardly ever went to the movies. But we did see “The Defiant Ones” (1958), starring Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier.
That remarkable black and white film tells the story of two escaped prisoners, one white and one black, who are shackled together and who must co-operate in order to survive. We were quite moved by it, and after seeing it we became fans of Poitier, who was nominated for Best Actor for his role in that film.
So we were happy when Poitier then won the Oscar in 1964.
Poitier was born (prematurely) to Bahamian parents in 1927 while they were visiting in Miami. He was raised in the Bahamas until he was 15, but then lived in the U.S. from that age on.
After various struggles, he debuted in his first film, “No Way Out” (1950), when he was only 23. That was the beginning of his long, successful career as an actor, film director, author, and diplomat.
In 1968, Poitier was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, so he is officially Sir Sidney. Nearly 30 years later, in 1997, Poitier was appointed the Bahamian ambassador to Japan, and he served in that position until 2012 (although some sources say 2007).
Poitier also served as Bahamas’ ambassador to UNESCO from 2002 to 2007. And then in August 2009 Poitier was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor given in the U.S.
A few days before writing this article, June and I watched “Lilies of the Field” again, the first time since we saw it in the 1960s. Little did we know then that the location of the movie would become quite familiar to us. The opening scene of the movie shows the mountains north of Tucson in the background, near to where we spent the nights during the last week of December when we visited our daughter and her family there.
Pointier plays the part of Homer Smith, a vivacious young man who stops by a house of nuns to get some water for his car’s radiator. Headed by Mother Maria, the nuns, escapees from East Germany, latch on to Homer as a man sent by God to help them build a church on their property. (Lilia Skala, who played Maria, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her sterling performance.)
While the movie seems rather unsophisticated compared to most movies now, it was a delight to watch. It depicts well how good-will and friendliness can overcome racial, cultural, linguistic, and religious differences. (Homer was a Baptist.)
The spirit of the movie is captured well by the repeated singing of “Amen,” a joyful gospel song written by Jester Hairston (1901-2000), who also dubbed the singing of it for Poitier, who is said to be tone deaf.
Yes, “Lilies of the Field” is a delightful movie. I highly recommend it—as well as the Bible verse from which the title comes.


  1. I was surprised to hear that Sidney Poitier is tone deaf. He also does some modest singing in "The Defiant Ones," which sure sounds like him. I wonder if that's dubbed, too.

    1. Anton, I couldn't find anything specific about "The Defiant Ones," but there are multiple websites that refer to the fact that Poitier was tone deaf and couldn't sing, so I assume his singing in "The Defiant Ones" was dubbed in also.

  2. Enjoyed reading your reflections on Syndey Poitier. He was a wonderful actor and a statesman-like man. I think he was my favorite actor in the 60s and 70s..although I didn't see that many movies. I particularly remember "Guess Who's Coming to dinner. Thanks for sharing your remembrances.

    1. Bob, thanks for writing.

      1967 was a banner year for Poitier. In addition to "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," which we saw in Tokyo and enjoyed very much, he starred in two other fine movies that year: "To Sir, with Love," and "In the Heart of the Night." During our first year in Japan we also enjoyed his movie "A Patch of Blue" (1965) at a theater in Shibuya.

  3. "The Defiant Ones"