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Not Prince Hamlet

"Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse."

In Pursuit of Poitier, Part III

Friday, October 07, 2005

During my senior year of high school, my English teacher made us read through what are arguably the two best American plays of the 20th century: Death of A Salesman and A Raisin in the Sun.

As part of our study of Raisin, we watched two film versions of it. One was a filmed stage play of it with Danny Glover as Walter Lee, filmed sometime in the 80's. The other was the Sidney Poitier version, made into a movie after its' wildly successful run on Broadway (which featured the same cast).

I just watched that version again.

Un-freaking-believable.

The play itself (and therefore the screenplay, also written by playwrite Lorraine Hansberry) stands on its own merits. And it is by no means a sure thing that a play can successfully be adapted to the screen. But this one stands the test of time. The performances are astounding, especially Poitier's, and the pacing is more than capable of keeping the attention of an action-saturated audience. Proof: my wife, who's initial complaint was "but it's black and white!," watched all 128 minutes of it enraptured.

In his memoir, Poitier describes the arguments that he got into about the play during its' Broadway rehearsals. To his mind, it is a story about a man, the son of the family, Walter Lee. But to his co-star Claudia McNeil's view (as well as that of Hansberry) was that it was in fact a story about a woman, the mother of the family. Poitier's position was that, as it concerns Walter Lee, the central conflict is a life-and-death matter. He feels himself to be stangled by the world, and has one opportunity to save himself and his family; failure would be tantamount to death.

Regardless of how you take Poitier's reading of the play, you have to grant that his performance breathes a life-and-death energy that is infectious. I mean, not only his voice, but his sinewy limbs and tense forehead cry out in desperation. His fingers and eyes manifest the tension of the film's conflict. It is fascinating.

Which is to take nothing away from his voice. Watching the progression from to Blackboard Jungle to The Defiant Ones, Raisin presented the young Poitier with by far the biggest linguistic challenge. But his delivery is animated and high-paced without sacrificing a note of articulation.

All of it makes me want to go back to the play and read it. Out loud.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 5:42 PM

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