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Poitier and Hoffman: The Dueling Kings of 1967 Hollywood

February 23, 2023
Hunter Friesen
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In all the years that cinema has been alive, 1967 is undoubtedly one of the most pivotal. After years of jealousy towards the European model of thinking, America finally opened itself up to a new wave of filmmaking, one heralded by auteurs who subscribed to the ideas of new sentimentality. Films such as Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate spoke to the younger audience of American cinema, offering exploration into forbidden topics such as sex, violence, and social change. 

Even though these films made their mark both critically and financially, it did not mean the death of old sentimentality in film, quite the contrary. In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner both were nominated for Best Picture that year, with the former taking home the prize. These two films appealed to the older generation through their use of star power and production values.

What’s most striking about the dichotomy between these two sets of films is the leading men at the center of them. On one side sits Dustin Hoffman; a short (only standing 5’5”) aloof brown-haired boy. On the other side is Sidney Poitier, who stands tall at 6’2” and is both exceedingly handsome and elegant. Both of these actors represented different generations of cinema and were hugely important in the turning point of 1967.

Dustin Hoffman had no screen presence before being cast in The Graduate. He had no major previous roles and did not possess the classic movie star looks such as the blonde hair of Robert Redford and Paul Newman or the towering charisma of Warren Beatty. Hoffman was of Jewish descent, which could be easily discerned from his looks, making him even more of an outsider to his contemporaries. Director Mike Nichols saw something in Hoffman, an opportunity to use Hoffman’s “flaws” to tell a more authentic story to a younger audience growing tired of Hollywood perfectionism. 

In The Graduate, Benjamin’s detachment from every aspect of life is something that connects with younger viewers. In 1967, the Vietnam War was still raging, and the American optimism that had been so prevalent since World War II had started to wane. Kids didn’t have their entire futures planned out and were starting to see the flaws within American society. Because of Hoffman and The Graduate, no longer does the main character have to have a goal to achieve or a lover to swoon over. Instead, they can be aimless and enter into an adulterous relationship with an older woman. This performance spurred Hoffman’s career further, with equally down & dirty roles in Midnight Cowboy and Straw Dogs just a few years later.

Sidney Poitier, on the other hand, was, through his involvement in the projects, a proponent of old sentimentality in Hollywood. Where Hoffman’s popularity was beginning to boom, Poitier’s reached its peak and would soon come crashing down. His roles in both In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner shined a light on race relations within America but did it through the old lens of conventionalism. Of course, a black man leading a Best Picture winner and garnering acclaim for his performance isn’t something to shortchange. But Poitier played by Hollywood’s rules, playing stoic, calm, and poignant men that appealed to a generation that stood for professionalism and the status quo.

In the Heat of the Night has Poitier play Virgil Tibbs, who solves a murder case in the deep south and confronts the town’s ideals through his merit as a detective and ability to withstand undeserved ridicule. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Poitier is John Prentice, seemingly the world’s greatest doctor who rests the solution to his marital problem in the hands of Spencer Tracy, one of the great screen legends of the past.

While both these roles allowed Poitier to address social change in intermittent radical ways, such as his retaliatory slap against Endicott and his fiery speech about thinking of himself not as a colored man, but just a man. Both of these movies portrayed the white savior narrative that had grown out of favor among the younger generation. Unlike Hoffman, Poitier’s appeal was, ironically, only to the people that had been holding him back all those years, and not to the people who were looking to create change within the nation and Hollywood system. This is why Poitier never stayed at the same level post-1967, as New Hollywood emerged and the old conventions started to die off, both literally and figuratively.

Both Dustin Hoffman and Sidney Poiter were exciting actors for an exciting time in American cinema. Through their physical and personality traits, they appealed to different sets of ideals within the American psyche at a time when both sides came to a crossroads.

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