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  • Writer's pictureHunter Friesen

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.

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