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Poitier and Bogdanovich: The Defiant Ones

Last week, the movies lost two giants — Sidney Poitier and Peter Bogdanovich — who each made history in his own way. Our chief 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 had helped shape the periods in which they emerged. I’ve been thinking about that ever since. We know their careers briefly overlapped: Bogdanovich directed Poitier in the 1996 TV movie “To Sir, With Love 2,” a sequel to the 1967 film. For the most part, though, they had separate trajectories partly shaped by race, personal choices and what was happening both in the country and the industry.

It’s fascinating to trace the arcs of these separate paths. Poitier’s begins first, with his big big-studio break, the 1950 drama “No Way Out.” He was working in Jim Crow Hollywood that he would later help overturn, 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 equal billing with Tony Curtis. A year later, though, Poitier is on his knees playing Porgy in “Porgy and Bess,” a role that he’d rejected but was effectively forced into taking.

A.O. SCOTT Bogdanovich was fundamentally a historian. Poitier was a history maker. When we started talking about them side by side, it wasn’t to compare their achievements, but to look at how their very different careers illuminated the changes underway in American movies after the studio era.

Poitier came up in that system and had no illusions about its interest in racial progress. “Hollywood never really had much of a conscience,” he told an interviewer. “The social conscience that you’re talking about” — the durable myth of liberal Hollywood — “was always only a handful of men,” among them Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who made “No Way Out” and Stanley Kramer, who directed “The Defiant Ones.” “This town never was infected by that kind of goodness,” Poitier said. He could never romanticize Old Hollywood the way Bogdanovich did.

DARGIS Absolutely — among other things, I doubt that Poitier would have had access to all those at-times forgotten Old Hollywood veterans like John Ford and Orson Welles. Bogdanovich championed them in his writing and advocacy, and he learned about moviemaking through their conversations and by watching them work. I was looking at Bogdanovich’s anthology “Who the Devil Made It” and he was 20 when he did his first interview, in 1960, with Sidney Lumet. At that point, Bogdanovich had been studying acting with Stella Adler — presumably one reason he was fantastic with actors — and had worked in some 40 professional stage productions, one he directed. What a wunderkind!

That year, Poitier turned 33 and started shooting “Paris Blues,” a film that I love despite its flaws, including his marginalization. Still, the film has Poitier and Diahann Carroll playing lovers and they’re beautiful, and shown as desiring and desirable. Poitier was disappointed with how the film turned out and said the studio had “chickened out on us” — he was always being sold out, it seems by the white powers that be, however ostensibly well-intentioned those powers. In 1960, he also joined 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 could seem that reality was defined above all by movies and his love for them. His cinephilia marks him as a charter member, 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.

“Generally I find film schools disappointing,” he told an audience at the American Film Institute. “They spend far too much time on production and not enough time showing the right films to students. Students need to see the classics.” Some of his best films — the modern-day screwball “What’s Up, Doc?” (1972); the black-and-white, Depression-set road movie “Paper Moon” (1973) — are 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 into the New Hollywood, casting Ryan O’Neal as an accidental picture-maker and Burt Reynolds as a rough-riding screen idol. They spend the early 1910s scraping together two-reelers and battling industry consolidation, and wind up at the 1915 premiere of D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of A Nation,” showing under its original title, “The Clansman.” In keeping with the dominant Hollywood origin story of the time, that movie is hailed as an artistic and commercial breakthrough — goodbye nickelodeons, hello movie palaces! — while its celebration of the Ku Klux Klan is brushed aside.

The story of the late ’60s, early ’70s renaissance in American movies is conventionally told as a tale of heroic, rebellious white men. But as with the silent era, the truth is more complicated and more interesting. The period was also when Poitier (along with other Black pioneers like Gordon Parks, Ossie Davis and Melvin Van Peebles) turned to directing. He started out with a western, “Buck and the Preacher” (1972), set in the post-Civil War landscape familiar from so many Ford pictures. He also starred in it, with Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee. Do you think the choice of genre — and his treatment of its tropes — says something about his own relationship to the Hollywood past?

DARGIS No doubt, though that relationship to genre was very different from that of those white directors, Bogdanovich included, who revisited (or were swallowed by) classic film forms in the 1960s and ’70s. In Poitier’s memoir “The Measure of a Man,” he talks about seeing his first film as a kid. It was a western and he was so wowed that he told his sister, “I would like to go to Hollywood and become a cowboy.” He didn’t know what Hollywood was; he thought people raised cows there — a child’s misapprehension that’s all the more poignant given how historically unwelcoming the town was to Black talent.

One reason 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 children who love westerns. He was apparently disappointed by this movie, as well, and his love for westerns and the complex iconography of the American cowboy were not yet in sync. Imagine the representational weight that his version of “The Wild Bunch” or a “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” might have carried in the late 1960s! Belafonte and Poitier had been interested in making a western but nothing came of this until they teamed up for “Buck and the Preacher,” which we both adore as much for its behind-the-scenes story as the one onscreen.

SCOTT That story is a sign of how things were changing. Belafonte and Poitier were the producers. They didn’t see eye to eye with the first director, Joseph Sargent, and asked Columbia Pictures to replace him. Shooting had already started in Mexico, and Poitier offered to take over temporarily so the production could keep going while the studio looked for someone else. “Finally they called and said, ‘Why don’t you just continue shooting?’” Poitier remembered years later. “That’s how I started directing. I was just thrown into it.”

Poitier went on to become one of the most successful comic directors of the next decade, playing straight man to Bill Cosby in the crime-caper trilogy “Uptown Saturday Night” (1974), “Let’s Do It Again” (1975) and “A Piece of the Action” (1977), and steering 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 to be gained by comparing how he and Poitier navigated the changes in Hollywood. It’s instructive, for example, that both were involved in attempts by groups of artists to take advantage of the waning power of the studios and assert their own independence. Poitier was a founder of First Artists, which brought together movie stars (including Paul Newman and Barbra Streisand) seeking creative control. Inspired by that example, Bogdanovich, with Coppola and William Friedkin, organized the Directors Company. Both experiments ultimately failed, which may say as much about Hollywood as the fact that they were tried in the first place.

DARGIS Part of the pathos of the 1970s is that for all the great films made that decade — including by Poitier and Bogdanovich — the era laid the ground for the conglomeration, blockbuster-fication and Disney-fication of the industry. The two men traveled different roads, created tremendous work, won the industry’s highest honors and made a lot of money for a lot of people. But by the end of the 1970s, each one’s glory years were over. They kept working, on and off, with success and not, until they were the kind of faded greats the culture is happy to forget until they’re old enough to nostalgically venerate. I’m glad that at least we can do that, and watch their movies, too. The work is all over the place but it’s also immortal.

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