Oscar Vault Monday – Lilies of the Field, 1963 (dir. Ralph Nelson)
I finally saw this movie a few months ago after being a fan of Sidney Poitier since I was a little girl. I have no idea what took me so long. It is a marvelous film and Poitier gives such a stirring performance. Though he was already on his way to being a huge star in his own right, this film cemented him in the history of cinema and paved the way for countless others while it was at it. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning one: Best B&W Cinematography, Best Supporting Actress Lilia Skala, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor Sidney Poitier (won) and Best Picture. It was up against America, America, Cleopatra, How The West Was Won and winner Tom Jones.
This is one of the rare cases where the film was nominated for Best Picture, but the director did not receive a nomination along with it. I never quite understand how that happens, because it also means that a director gets nominated and not his film. Though, 1963 was an odd year in that only two of the Best Director nominees also had their film nominated for Best Picture – Elia Kazan for America, America and Tony Richardson for Tom Jones (which won both awards, along with a few more). It’s less common now for that to happen, though occasionally one director of a Best Picture nominee gets slighted. Although, now that the Academy has broadened the field to ten Best Picture nominations, it is much harder for a Best Director nominee not to have his film nominated. But I digress. Lilies of the Field is the story of a drifter (Poitier) who, while traveling through the Southwest, meets a group of East German nuns in the Arizona desert who convince him to stay and build them a chapel. The result is a wonderful comedy/drama about adversity and tenacity and the platonic love that can arise between people despite their outward differences. I’ll also say that the film contains perhaps one of my favorite endings of all time.
Sidney Poitier became the first African-American male to win a competitive Academy Award with his performance in this film. Hattie McDaniel was the first to win a competitive Academy Award period, some 24 years earlier for her role in Gone With The Wind. Poitier was also the first to be nominated for Best Actor – for his role in 1958’s The Defiant Ones opposite Tony Curtis. After his win he was not nominated again, though he did receive an Honorary Award in 2002. However, after his two nominations and win, there have been 16 more nominated performances in the Best Actor category and three wins. If you’re interested in a look at the Academy’s history with African-American performances Wikipedia has a great article and I wrote a post about it in regards to the 2009 race, which you can see here. Not only did Poitier win an Academy Award for his performance as Homer Smith, he won the Silver Berlin Bear Best Actor Award at the Berlin Film Festival, the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Drama and was nominated for Best Foreign Actor at the BAFTAs. Poitier had some pretty stiff competition in the Best Actor category at the Academy Awards that year: Albert Finney in Tom Jones, Richard Harris in This Sporting Life, Rex Harrison in Cleopatra and Paul Newman in Hud. I think the biggest shock is that he beat Finney, whose film won the most awards that year – including the top prizes and Paul Newman, who was arguably one of the most famous men in the world at that time. Of the five nominated performances those three are the only ones I’ve seen and I must say I would be hard pressed to choose between Newman and Poitier. Both performances are complicated, nuanced and perfectly executed. That being said, I’m glad it went the way it did because I do firmly believe that Poitier broke down doors that needed to be broken down and although Hollywood is still not as in touch with equality as we’d wish it would be, this win is what helped it on its way.
Lilia Skala’s Mother Maria is maybe one of my favorite fictional nuns ever. She is so matter of fact, and at times a little hard as nails, but mostly she is sweet and loving and determined. She gives some much-needed focus to Poitier’s character’s life and some much-needed platonic companionship. They respect each other and they love each other and they will never forget each other. The end scene that I mentioned earlier is so sweet and what goes unspoken between the two of them says more than any words could have. Skala was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her turn in this film. The other nominees that year were Diane Cilento, Edith Evans and Joyce Redman all from Tom Jones and winner Margaret Rutherford for The V.I.P.s. Rutherford’s is the only performance I haven’t seen, so all I can say is I’m glad none of the women from Tom Jones won. Tom Jones was a fun film, but other than establishing Albert Finney as a star, there isn’t much about it that’s timeless and other than Finney, I don’t think any of the performances really deserved nominations. Whereas Skala’s performance, I think, is just as relevant today as it was nearly fifty years ago.
Lastly, I wanted to talk about Lisa Mann, Isa Crino, Francesca Jarvis, Pamela Branch who play the sisters in the convent. They each have their own distinct personality traits and they each bring their own bit of charm to the film. They make for the perfect background to the platonic love story brewing between Poitier and Skala’s characters.
If you’re interested in purchasing the film, you can do so here.