Greatish Performances #49

poitier

#49 — Sidney Poitier as Tommy Tyler in Edge of the City (Martin Ritt, 1957)

Sidney Poitier became an icon so quickly that it was all too easy to lose sight of him as an actor. When he claimed an Oscar statuette for his performance in the 1963 film Lilies of the Field, Poitier became only the second black person to win an acting Academy Award. Until Denzel Washington prevailed in the same category nearly forty years later (at a ceremony with Poitier notably in attendance), Poitier was the only black male to have won an Oscar as a lead actor. That’s a hefty uplift-the-race burden for one artist to bear, and the common result was Poitier’s contribution to form, as measured by clip packages and other retrospective considerations, being largely confined to those moments of stern nobility. He demands to be called Mr. Tibbs, he beams with beneficent patience at the conflicted parents in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and most of his lines are delivered with the rigid clarity of Laurence Olivier launching into a fan favorite soliloquy. These are the moments that surely contributed to positive movement of the figurative needle of audience blind bigotry. But there’s no life to them, and Poitier, at his towering best, was vividly alive on screen.

In Edge of the City, Poitier plays Tommy Tyler, a longshoreman supervisor on the docks of Manhattan. Tommy looks over his crew and keeps his strategic distance from other supervisors in his rough workplace, especially those who, like Charlie Malick (Jack Warden), brim with resentment and prejudice. But Tommy also keeps a watchful eye, and he notices a wary newcomer named Axel (John Cassavetes) who’s clearly being exploited by Charlie. Naturally sympathetic to anyone who is socially trapped into constantly pushing uphill, Tommy befriends Axel, eventually recruiting the newer hire to his own crew, over the surly objections of Charlie. The rest of the film follows both the friendship between Tommy and Axel and the dire repercussions awaiting any souls who dare to insist on their personal autonomy when there’s a power structure to be ruthlessly preserved.

Directed by Martin Ritt, Edge of the City infuses potboiler energy into a story of social justice. And Poitier is similarly inspired by the contradictions of divergent creative impulses. He gives Tommy a firm dignity that stems from the character’s elevated status in his trade and the implied inner wherewithal that allows him climb the ranks in the face of opposition. Without betraying that part of Tommy, Poitier also plays the character with a rambunctious, almost rascally energy. Tommy burns off the frustrations of his daily experience by bounding into the rest of his life with a vivid joyfulness, and also an occasional impatience that flares up when others aren’t fully keeping up with his preferred pace.

In addition to an obvious intricate care Poitier gives to the role, he levels every bit of his formidable charisma on the performance. Poitier — and therefore Tommy — is absolutely magnetic in the film. It’s easy to see how other characters in the film would be drawn to him, and, by extension, how the perpetually aggrieved might nurture comforting animosity toward him as a way of salving their wounded self-esteem. Poitier’s performance in Edge of the City is a grand example of what happens when star power and deeply considered acting come together like perfectly interlocking gears. It is a reminder that icon status isn’t bestowed arbitrarily. It’s absolutely earned.

Previously….

About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat
#34 — Mira Sorvino in Mimic
#35 — James Gandolfini in The Mexican
#36 — Evangeline Lilly in Ant-Man
#37 — Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
#38 — Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
#39 — Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient
#40 — Katie Holmes in Pieces of April
#41 — Brie Larson in Short Term 12
#42 — Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums
#43 — Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings
#44 — Matthew Macfadyen in Pride & Prejudice
#45 — Peter Fonda in Ulee’s Gold
#46 — Raul Julia in The Addams Family
#47 — Delroy Lindo in Clockers
#48 — Mila Kunis in Black Swan

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