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Not only am I ain’t building no shapel, I’m taking off.

Lilies of the Field
(1963)

(SPOILERS) Watching a string of Best Picture nominees in succession, the proportion of sweetly good-natured films, ones designed to appeal to the Academy’s sentimental and nostalgic side (even if not necessarily nostalgic for a prior time period, but rather for an impossible-to-realise state of being), can be striking. You couldn’t exactly accuse Lilies of the Field of being custom fitted for such a purpose, since director Ralph Nelson was forced to put up his house as collateral to get it made, but taken on face value, it would be easy to assume otherwise.

Lilies of the Field’s place in the history books is assured due to Sidney Poitier winning the Best Actor Oscar, the first black actor to do so, and as such about as symbolic a Hollywood wall to break down as they come (particularly since the only previous black actor recognised was Hattie McDaniel’s Best Supporting Actress for Gone with the Wind, playing a reinforced stereotype in a less than progressive affair). Poitier gives a very naturalistic, sympathetic performance, his itinerant ex-army handyman contrasting effectively with Lilia Skala’s domineering Mother Maria. You might reasonably suggest there’s nothing very remarkable about the character or his playing thereof, but it’s difficult to argue such an award wasn’t a long time coming, and so difficult to begrudge that Richard Harris’ performance in This Sporting Life was easily the most impressive of those nominated that year. Paul Newman (up for Hud) certainly thought Poitier should take it: “I’d like to see Sidney Poitier get it. I’d be proud to win for a role I really had to reach for”. Skala was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, meanwhile, and with the three Tom Jones nominees lost to Margaret Rutherford. But how could one possibly be upset at losing to Margaret Rutherford?

The amiably rambling plot finds Poitier’s Homer Smith called upon to build a church in the Arizona desert for a group of Germanic nuns (well, German, Austrian and Hungarian). Mother Maria is rather haughty/imperious, while Homer is easy going except when provoked; despite being hoodwinked into providing his services for free, he perseveres with the sisters. Indeed, this element of the plot, while played for amusement, presents good Christian espousers of virtue and correct living as deceitful charlatans, allowing a diligent fellow to think he’s going to be rightfully – monetarily – rewarded for his services. And then guilt tripping him into continuing to offer them, gratis. Why, it’s tantamount to a church fleecing its congregation for a weekly tithe (the title references wily Mother Maria citing biblical passages in order to justify her lack of payment).

As noted, Homer, despite this mistreatment and Mother Maria failing to thank him (until right at the end, naturally, where respect is due), continues to labour for the nuns, and teach them English and lead them in gospel choruses (not sung by the tone-deaf Poitier). Still, for all Mother Maria’s air of superiority and rectitude, there’s never a hint of her seeing him in terms of the colour of his skin, despite his intimations otherwise – “Well, you get yourself another boy, huh?” – whereas the local construction contractor (played by the Nelson), also employing him, evidently does. Along the way to the chapel’s completion, Homer takes off for three weeks before returning, a sense of pride in his work kicking in; he spurns the help of Mexican labourers because he wants to complete the project himself (eventually a compromise is reached whereby he acts as foreman).

Perhaps because of its well-meaning Christian undertones, and because you do still see this kind of fare these days, just without such obvious religiosity unless it comes from an actual faith-based production house, Lilies of the Field hasn’t aged badly for the kind of tale it is. It lacks the vibrancy of the year’s bawdy winner Tom Jones, but it’s also poles apart from the over-extended, spectacular stodge of two of the other nominees – Cleopatra and How the West was Won – recognised for their expense more than their quality. An early example of an independent movie embraced by the Academy, Lilies of the Field can probably also be traced to the beginning of Poitier’s typecasting phase, where a rigidly responsible veneer was required of his parts. Poitier later said “The only real change in my career was in the attitude of newsmen. They started to quiz me on civil rights and the Negro question incessantly. Since I won the Oscar, that’s what they’ve been interested in”. For a while, that “spokesman” mantle was also Hollywood’s main claim on his talents. In Lilies of the Field at least, he’s able to have a little fun with such a role.


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