Book Review: ‘This Life’ by Sidney Poitier

Three weeks ago, I went back to the library to return the book Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew by John Oller. I then took the opportunity to borrow another one. My choice was Sidney Poitier’s autobiography This Life which was initially published in 1980. I chose this book because, 1- Poitier is one of my very favourite actors, and 2- I thought it would be interesting to read something by someone who is still alive. This Life is a good brick of almost 400 pages, so my expectations to learn more about the actor’s life were high.

***

What I probably prefered about This Life are some of the real-life stories Sidney Poitier tells us. The man had a life that was certainly far from boring. Many times while I was reading, I thought “this could be in a film!” I can think of the times he pretended he was crazy to get out of the army (he really wanted to be in the army, but after nine months, he realized it wasn’t for him). His strategies were interesting, to say the least. Or, when he tried to get a job as a chauffeur while he couldn’t drive and didn’t have a license. The night he won the Oscar was also a great reading moment (he perfectly describes his emotion as he was waiting for the winning name to be called). Or when he left the Bahamas (he was born in Miami but grew up on Cat Island) to go to the states with a very uncertain future and little money in his pocket. Well, he’s the proof that success can be achieved with perseverance. However, he didn’t have the intention to become an actor when he went to the states. This just sort of happened coincidentally. For this reason, I think the most interesting parts of the book are his childhood, his travel from Cat Island to New-York (passing by Nassau and Miami), his first year in New York (trying to survive the winter) and his first experiences with the stage and films.

Sidney Poitier and Richard Widmark in No Way Out (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950), Poitier’s first film.

The particularity of this book is that Poitier chose to focus more on his personal life than on his films. Or, when he talked about films, he chose to talk about some specific aspects (a scene they shot for example) or about his relationship with one person from the production in particular (an actor, the director, the producer, etc.). Interestingly also, he sometimes focused more on lesser-known films rather than his big successes. For example, his chapter on Cry, the Beloved Country (Zoltan Korda, 1951), in which he shared the screen with Canada Lee, is much longer than his thoughts on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (Stanley Kramer, 1967). I think this has pros and cons. Positively, we learn more about lesser know films. However, I would have like to know more about the shooting of other films, or about his relationships with his co-actors and actresses (well, the ones he didn’t talk about). Maybe there wasn’t so much to say in the end, but I doubt it.

Cry, the Beloved Country

Following this, some parts were less interesting to me and could have been a bit shorter. For example, in a chapter on blaxploitation films, he explains in details how the budget of these films works. Sure, it is relevant and helps us understand the importance of the movement. However, it was a bit long, and numbers and mathematic are not my forte. So, I lost the focus a little while reading this part of the book. Some of his love stories were also less pertinent to me, but that’s probably because I was not the concerned person!

But this choice to focus on certain things rather than giving a more general portrait of the subject is something quite proper to autobiographies. The author writes about himself. There, he’s free to choose what he wants to write about and what he wants to live aside.

Something that struck me about the actor as a person is how humble he is. For example, Sidney Poitier is someone we associate with the civil rights movement for Black people. The actors claimed that he happened to be at the right place at the right time and that, in his opinion, his contribution to the movement wasn’t as important as the one of Harry Belafonte. Sidney Poitier also doesn’t try to be a crowd-pleaser. He presents himself as he is and can recognize his flaws and his mistakes. I also admire the way he puts himself in other people place in times of conflict to understand their point of view on the situation.

With Harry Belafonte and Charlton Heston during the March on Washington in 1963

Finally, if I look at the general writing style of the book, I appreciated it as it was written in a pretty standard way and easy to understand. Sometimes, writers in autobiographies chose a particular and rathe personal writing style that can be hard to follow for non-native English speakers like me.

***

In conclusion, This Life is, overall, a great and pretty entertaining book. Some parts are too long, there are things we would have liked to know more about, and it perhaps didn’t touch me as much as some other autobiography books. For these reasons, I give it a score of *** 1/2.

Of course, I highly encourage you to read it if you want to know more about Mr Poitier!

I went back to the library yesterday and borrowed Burt Lancaster: An American Life by Kate Buford. Stay tuned for an eventual review!

See you!

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