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This Life

Sidney Poitier went beyond dotted-i professionalism, dredging up the messy and intimate emotions the "pros" feared to confront.

American film actor Sidney Poitier.
Evening Standard/Stringer/Getty Images
American film actor Sidney Poitier.

Like Cary Grant, Sidney Poitier is suave from sole to crown. He seems incapable of muddying himself, even when he’s tramping through the woods in prison fatigues (The Defiant Ones) or probing the mucky depths of Bobby Darin’s soul (in Pressure Point). In Poitier’s best performances, he’s almost ironically courtly, tapping out syllables in the air with his fingertips, but his eyes give off glimmers of a raw, unappeasable rage. As he silently stares down rednecks and racist cops, you can hear the tick ... tick ... tick ... of the time-bomb in his chest.

After the success of Stanley Kramer’s 1967 Oscar-winning comedy Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, in which Poitier played a supremely gifted socially-conscious doctor, that ticking was stilled: Poitier had become a dapper tugging-at-the-cuffs dreamboat. As “blaxploitation” films took off at the box office, and as the brilliant, scathingly profane Richard Pryor became all the hip rage, Poitier’s gentlemanliness made him seem toothless, quaint—antique. Since movie-star memoirs tend to be divided into backstabbing bitch sessions and bland travelogues (“... and in 1942 I flew to Majorca to commence filming of God’s Golden Trumpets”), one feared that Sidney Poitier’s autobiography would be an occasion for self-pitying bitterness. Or worse, a stale toast to a stalled career.

Fears are soon routed. Sassed-up with obscenity and street slang, This Life has the smack, humor, and vigor of an all-night rap session, with Poitier graciously freshening the reader’s drink between anecdotes. Born in 1927, Poitier spent his early years on Cat Island in the Bahamas. His childhood is a sunny idyll: his mother serves dinner on a sea-grape leaf, his father fertilizes the soil for his tomato crop with bat guano plundered from a cave: Sidney himself swims, writes love letters, and tries to bugger an innocent hen. When Poitier is 11, his family moves to Nassau, where he brushes up against a bully named William. After William knocks out Sidney’s lights with a single punch, his sister Teddy comes to the rescue. “My sister walks over to him and smacks him so hard his knees buckle, and she proceeds to beat the daylight out of him. She beats his tail to a fucking frazzle.” “She slaps, punches, and kicks William’s ass ...,” and Poitier, decades later, is still awestruck. After that demolition job, the neighborhood toughs learn an important lesson: “Don’t fuck with [Sidney] or he’ll call his sister—and she’s mean.” Unbullied, Sidney shoplifts, catches all the latest cowboy movies, loses his cherry, and catches a classic dose of the clap (“... I was gun-shy after that”). After Nassau he ventures to Miami and, later, to New York.

In these early chapters, Poitier slips into his old skin and finds that it’s still a snug fit. When Poitier describes his first days in New York—days spent washing dishes, napping in pay toilets, gulping down hot dogs between chocolate malteds—a boyish exuberance surges through the book. Pickled with delight, Poitier can’t quite believe all this happened to him—to him!

His New York adventures aren’t entirely a Henry Miller binge of the senses, however. He’s so piss-poor that he writes to President Roosevelt, asking for a $100 loan (and is ticked off when he doesn’t get a reply). Poitier’s account of an almost-was love affair with a girl named Laura Brown leads him into cliche—he endows Laura with pearly teeth and eyes that sparkle “like diamonds”—but also to a schmucky, self-revealing poignancy few writers would have risked. At Christmas, Poitier visits Laura to deliver a giant heart-shaped pink-satin Christmas card. “She takes me into the living room and I give her my present. She thanks me for it, says, ‘Excuse me,’ and goes back to the kitchen, where she stays—and stays—and stays,. From the kitchen comes the sound of laughter and happy chatter, and Poitier soon realizes that a party is in progress—a party no one is going to invite him to join. Forty-five minutes limp by, an hour, two hours; but Poitier is too stricken with embarrassment to haul himself home. Finally, however, shame lifts him out of his lethargy.

I get up, walk down the long hallway toward the front door and stop at the kitchen, I look in and them cats are having a party. She’s in the middle, laughing, clicking glasses, and carrying on. As soon as they become aware of my presence, they all look up and a sudden silence descends. She looks at me and I can see in her face a satisfaction—like: How do you like them apples? I say to her, ‘Excuse me I’m going to have to leave now, good night.’ She looks me dead in the eye and says, ‘Good night.’ I will never know why I smiled at her before stepping into the hallway and allowing her to close the door firmly to my face.

Clomping down those six flights of stairs was like descending into an abyss of shitty feelings....

Except for that episode, Poitier’s candor is refreshingly free of rancor; he shares his insecurities and humiliations to show how much painful work it took to transform Sidney Poitier of Cat Island into Sidney Poitier. Unfortunately, his courteousness sometimes saps the book of nerve and strength. Once Poitier begins reminiscing about his moviemaking career, he starts sprinkling the text with candy-innocuous compliments—David Susskind is “bright,” Stanley Kramer is “very bright,” and Walter Mirisch is “a first-class human being.” Even in this cavalcade of good cheer there are harrowing moments, inexcusable insults. On the set of Porgy and Bess, the vile Otto Preminger vilely ridicules the frail and beautiful black actress Dorothy Dandridge, taunting her for being “stupid.” Nobody rushes to defend Dandridge; actors, stagehandsall remain silent.

“... [S]ince his attacks remained verbal, no matter how brutal, it was still an ‘artistic dispute’ between the director and his actress. Totally unable to defend herself, Dorothy Dandridge fell apart. Nowhere in her anguish was there enough venom to dip her dagger into.”

Fame doesn’t rob Poitier’s life of venomous rage, however. Not only does he walk off the set of Porgy and Bess after a spat with Preminger, but during a lover’s quarrel with actress Diahann Carroll, Poitier is so furious that he can smell the blood in the caverns of his sinuses.

Crowded as it is with incidents and anecdotes, something significant is missing from This Life—a critical perspective on Poitier’s career. He’s disappointingly blithe discussing the making of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, treating us to gee-whiz stories about Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn (“As actors, well—I tell you they were giants”). Tracy, who was deathly ill during the filming of Dinner, is praised for delivering a lengthy soliloquy at the end of the film without fluffing his lines. “With unbelievable skill and finesse he dotted his t’s and flicked his commas, and hit his periods, and touched down lightly on his conjunctions on his way to making magic.”

But magic is what Spencer Tracy didn’t make in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?—didn’t make (I would argue) in his best performances. Even when he was young and fit, Tracy was a stolid, unimaginative professional, a believer in the show-up-and-don’t-bump-into-the-furniture school of acting. Poitier is a more expressive actor than Tracy ever was precisely because he went beyond dotted-i professionalism, dredging up the messy and intimate emotions pros like Tracy feared to confront. Of course, it would be ungallant for Poitier to claim that he’s a greater actor than Tracy—though he is—but he doesn’t even treat the differences in style and temperament glancingly. And you can’t help but wonder—doesn’t Poitier find the liberal sentiments of Dinner achingly arch today? Near the end of that unfluffed monologue, Tracy says that his daughter and her black fiancé are two wonderful people who have “a problem with pigmentation.” It might have been better for all concerned had Tracy choked and left such remarks hanging from his tonsils.

Poitier’s film career is far from finished—he’s currently directing Stir Crazy, a film based on a Bruce Jay Friedman script starring Gene Wilder and (happy irony) Richard Pryor. But the book itself leaves Poitier in a precariously lofty nest, brooding not about future projects but about marriage, morals, kids. Be generous with your feelings, Poitier tells the reader; don’t be afraid to let your children see the cracks in your composure. Platitudes?—perhaps. But Poitier writes with such generous tenderness about his own tangled-up feelings (love, awe, envy, pride, respect) that the platitudes seem earned, like battle ribbons. Entombed in his own legend, Sidney Poitier has used This Life to pry open the sarcophagus door to let in light, air, laughter. Now that Poitier is shedding his goody-goody image (buggering chickens, indeed!), perhaps he’s again ready to smell the blood in the caverns of his sinuses.