Talkin' Old Classic Movies
by Tarjei Straume
Rod Steiger (1925-2002), an admirably talented actor, gave a "Hardtalk" interview on BBC to Tim Sebastian - it must have been the last year he lived - and he said that when they were shooting "In the Heat of the Night" in the South, he saw with his own eyes how frightening racial prejudice was. It was all around them while they were shooting the film!
"When old actors come up to me and say, 'I don't know if I should do this Role. It might be bad for my image.' I say, 'That's tough that you only have one image. My heart bleeds for you!' We are supposed to create raw people, explore life and communicate at the highest level; be it pain, joy or what have you. That's what I believe. I guess you could say it does become a philosophy's way of life." - Rod Steiger
Rod Steiger! Unforgettable ever since that famous taxicab scene with Marlon Brando (who just passed away July 2 at age 80) in "On the Waterfront" in 1954. He pulls a gun on his brother, who reacts not with outrage or fear, but with a wave of compassion.
I remember an episode from the 1970's TV series "Starsky and Hutch", where Steiger played a serial killer stalking cab drivers. Shit, in this episode of an ordinary TV series - although Aaron Spelling, still around at 82, and still WORKING, producing "Bounty Hunters" , is an EXTRAordinary TV producer - Steiger displayed an incredible range as an artist, because the serial killer was an actor whose career had been marooned when a taxicab injured his leg. So every night when he was going out for another murderous cabbie-stalk, he dressed up, donned his makeup and told his old father he was preparing to play a role on stage, in a theater. Hard to catch a serial killer with so many disguises, so many voices and accents, of both genders!
As Police Chief Bill Gillespie in "In the Heat of the Night" (1967), Steiger gives a subtle portrait of a frustrated, prejudiced, poor, not-too-smart lawman, a victim of his own culture who, underneath his unpleasant exterior and bad mouth, has a heart of gold. He's good, not because he wants to be, but because he can't help himself. He sticks to his prejudice against "niggers" throughout the story, like glue, but he develops affection for Detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) as a human being, and in fact recognizes him as an equal. And we see how difficult this is for Gillespie. As a masterful artist, Steiger invites us to witness his struggle.
No wonder he won the Academy Award for this one. No wonder the movie won five Academy Awards.
For Gillespie, the chief problem is that he has met his match in a Negro, a cop from Philadelphia who is smarter than he, with brains and know-how to solve a case nobody else can figure out. This infuriates Gillespie, who keeps growling at Tibbs that "niggers" must stop thinking they're smarter than white folks. What he holds against Tibbs is not his blackness, nor is it his smartness, but he being smart and black at the same time. He has a problem with racial equality in the sense that if Tibbs isn't inferior because of his complexion, he has to be superior because of his brains. Meeting Tibbs is threatening to turn the Southern Police Chief's world upside down, with smart blacks on top calling the shots and not-so-smart whites at the bottom taking orders.
"You're so damn smart! You're smarter than any white man. You're just going to stay here and show us all. You got such a big head that you could never live with yourself unless you could put us all to shame...I don't think you could let an opportunity like that pass by."
Tibbs seems to understand his partner's dilemma with guarded compassion, so he lets him vent his outbursts without talking back to him. He learns to recognize that in spite of their confrontational introduction, this guy is the best friend he's ever had, and in the fictional town portrayed, his only ally in a dangerously hostile environment.
There's a well-known scene in this film when Gillespie and Tibbs visit an elderly plantation owner during the course of their investigation: The old white man slaps Tibbs across the cheek, and Tibbs slaps him right back. The old man asks Gillespie what he is going to do about it. Gillespie replies thoughtfully, "I don't know", but you can see what he's thinking: Nothing whatsoever, but to calm your nerves and protect my own ass at the same time, I'll let you think I'll punish him later for something that wouldn't have happened if you hadn't asked for it.
These are the thoughts that seem to run through Gillespie's mind, because through his artistic craft, Rod Steiger is telling us that his affection and respect for Tibbs is evolving underneath his grumbling protests, and this slap-back shows a man who'll stick up for his dignity and die with his boots on if need be, just like any man with self-respect.
Whether or not Virgil Tibbs understands the severe danger he is exposing himself to in a town like this remains an open question. Gillespie suspects that he is not sufficiently aware of it; nor does Tibbs seem to be aware that by protecting him Gillespie is jeopardizing his own job, but he can't help himself. His heart gives him no choice.
So when the chips are down, Gillespie take Tibbs home, hiding him from the mob in his very humble lair where he is safe because "nobody ever comes here" as he says bitterly, sneering at his companion because "niggers" think they're smarter than white folks.
Gillespie: "You know, you know Virgil, you are among the chosen few."
Virgil: "How's that?"
Gillespie: "Well I think that you're the first human being that's ever been in here."
Virgil: "You can't be too careful, man."
Gillespie: ".....I got no wife. I got no kids. Boy...I got a town that don't want me...I'll tell you a secret. Nobody comes here, never."
So Gillespie sticks to his prejudice, which is torturing him, because he has recognized Virgil Tibbs' I AM almost from the start, seeing him as an equal, a buddy rather than a competitor. We, the audience, don't realize this until Gillespie gets the last line in the film. He follows Tibbs to the train station, and when he boards the train, he calls to him and smiles, radiantly, for the first time:
"You take care, y'hear?"
At this point, the unlikely friendship between the two men is complete. "In the Heat of the Night" is not only an interesting thriller and cultural portrait; it's also a deeply moving story about a relationship.
Sidney Poitier! My childhood hero. I've never seen him in the role of a villain or a bad guy; he was always the morally upright, dignified heroic leading man. But it took twenty years of such straight leading film roles for Poitier and a few others like Jim Brown before Afro-American actors were free to play leading roles of all kinds just like white actors had always done. White audiences had to become acquainted with black characters they could trust as much as they'd trusted John Wayne and Clark Gable. That was the mission of Poitier's career.
Jim Brown, though always heroic and sympathetic, was the football warrior type (in war action movies), but Sidney Poitier was the intellectual, the thinker. There's a scene in another 1967 movie, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner", Tracy and Hepburn's last collaboration - the plot revolves around a salt-and-pepper marriage being hard to swallow for the in-laws to be, the hardest of all to persuade is Sidney's dad, and the unforgettable line with the two of them alone runs approximately (from memory):
"The difference between you and me, dad, is that you've always been a black man, but I'm just a man."
Powerful. The story takes place in California, in wealthy, upper middle class white suburbia. It's tempting to swallow this story raw, for sentimental, romantic, tear-jerking reasons. Until you read what James Baldwin had to say about it.
James Baldwin! Another thinker, and a keen observer too, whose skepticism and irony knocks you right out of your chair. As you probably know, the Afro-American novelist, essayist, playwright and civil rights activist James Baldwin (1924-1987) lived in Paris, and when "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" hit the movie theaters, his friends were anxious to have him see it. He didn't want to; he thought the plot sounded plain stupid. But his friends kept insisting, so he went, and proved himself right. Because, ladies and gentlemen, here's the bottom line in this plot, discovered by the keen
IT'S OK AS LONG AS YOU GET OUT OF TOWN!
Yep, that's exactly what happens. They're even getting out of the COUNTRY, so their in-laws will rarely if ever be embarrassed by their presence. Did you ever think of that, those of you who've seen that flick? That's what I love about Baldwin; he had such an astute eye for "little details". Sentimental tear jerking makes you buy the bullshit. But look, in this role, Sidney has that huuuuge pile of university degrees and awards, he's been doing soooo much wonderful work for "his people" in Africa, and he's such a prude he won't even grant his fiancée a screw before their wedding day even when she's begging for it! - thus giving the bourgeois white audiences what the screenwriter thinks they need when the girl's Catherine Hepburn-mom wants to know if they've been intimate, and the daughter replies, literally with her nose up in the air: "He wouldn't."
Oh gimme a break. And thank you, James Baldwin.
In my view, there's a difference between the two movies we're talking about. "In the Heat of the Night" was brilliant; that's why it won five Oscars. "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" was flawed. I'll come back to that and explain.
What the two movies had in common - besides starring Sidney Poitier and being made in 1967, when the Civil Rights struggle was becoming victorious, the San Francisco hippies celebrated their Summer of Love, and Martin Luther King changed his focus to demand an end to the Vietnam War - is that they marked a goodbye to the Jim Crow laws and the crumbling of the Race Wall and the so-called "color barrier". "In the Heat of the Night" shows an Old South doomed to final defeat due to moral bankruptcy.
In a sense, we're talking about a follow-up to the nearly four hours long 1939 movie, "Gone With the Wind," with Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable. The title of Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel meant that the Old South was swept away and gone with the wind forever through the Civil War, but that's not the focus of the story. Instead, we're witnessing a personal soap opera with two ill-fated and intertwined love triangles, ending with the accidental death of a little girl and a rather non-Hollywoodish unhappy ending, with an exchange that has perhaps become the most famous line in cinematic history:
Scarlett: "Rhett, Rhett... Rhett, if you go, where shall I go? What shall I do?"
Rhett: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."
"Gone with the Wind" (tagline: "The most magnificent picture ever!") - the movie that became a cult - won a whooping eight Oscars. Among the winners was the unforgettable Hattie McDaniel as Mammy, Scarlett's Rock of Gibraltar, who delivered the strongest performance as a slave and later a servant. Hattie's Mammy dishes out wisdom a mile a minute, but Scarlett tries her best to ignore it. Hattie, with a film resume a hundred miles long starting in 1934, deservedly won the best supporting actress that year, the first Afro-American to receive such an honor. Ironically, Georgia segregation laws banned her from attending opening night in an Atlanta theater.
"Gone With the Wind" is not a story about the Civil War; it's a close-up of people tangled up in intrigues of the heart. Historical events and action drama, the Siege of Atlanta and the restoration and all that, this is only the backdrop, not the central theme. The same is the case with "In the Heat of the Night". History can be learned from books and documentaries. Historical fiction, on the other hand, must deliver personal close-ups to achieve its goal. "In the Heat of the Night", the murder investigation is the backdrop, and even when Tibbs is running for his life from a dangerous mob, the focus is upon Gillespie coming to his rescue: "OK, you've had your fun. Now go home."
So why do I think "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" is flawed compared to the two others, beyond James Baldwin's observations? In the first place, there's no racy, fast-moving backdrop in this film. No action whatsoever. Secondly, there are no intrigues of the heart between the characters. Their individual struggles have nothing to do with their personal interrelationships, but only with prejudice against interracial marriage. The cast and the directing are beyond reproach; major superstars Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey get the opportunity to champion a cause they believe in, in a manner they obviously enjoy. There is melodrama without a plot; the story doesn't have any meat, and besides, as Baldwin pointed out, they're getting out of town and out of the country to make the union more palatable to skeptical white audiences.
In spite of these flaws, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" is an important movie. How do we look at the backdrops of these films almost four decades later? Once again, in "In the Heat of the Night", we're looking at an Old South of a later date that's gone with the wind - not through a few years of war, but through a combination of socio-political battles and spiritual evolution. Today, upper middle class Afro-Americans are moving to the South, and people of all colors are receiving them with open arms. They're computer engineers, academics, and other professionals. The Old South didn't evaporate with the Civil War; it merely shifted gear into the Jim Crow system of racial segregation with whites on top and blacks below, enforced from time to time by the unspeakable terror of the KKK. Today, the remaining racists have for the most part been chased into the woods, where some of them have private armies dreaming of reviving the Southern rebellion against the Union, or they're behind bars in various federal institutions.
Of course there are still problems, especially among the poor. And Southerners are often more suspicious of strangers than folks in other parts of the U.S. The observation I describe is based upon a piece made relatively recently by Mike Wallace for "60 Minutes," where he interviewed upper middle class blacks having moved to the South. It should be recognized that this is also a part of the picture, which is complicated. Whether or not you're a racist is no longer related to whether you're a Southerner or Northerner or Westerner; that's the point. And that's the accomplishment of the past 40 years, which makes the South significantly different from what it was when the films described above were made.
Do movies influence social evolution, or do they merely portray it? The Answer is both.
© 2004 Tarjei Straume