Sidney Poitier & Dustin Hoffman: The Dueling Kings of 1967 Hollywood
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
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,
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 in a time when both those sides came at a crossroad.