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John Phillip Law
In this legendary Gershwin opera set among the black residents of a fishing village in 1912 South Carolina, Bess - a woman with a disreputable history - tries to break free from her brutish lover Crown after he becomes wanted for murder. The only person willing to overlook her past and offer her shelter is the crippled Porgy. Their relationship is threatened by the disapproval of the townspeople, the presence of her old drug supplier Sportin' Life - and the threatened return of Crown. Written by
I first saw the opening of Otto Preminger's "Porgy and Bess" on TV, probably some time in the early 80s, and my younger self found it a bit slow, despite the timeless music. I turned it off
Last night, an extremely rare, cobbled together print screened at the L.A. Cinematheque and it was a bit of a revelation. The performances are strong and memorable. Dorothy Dandridge brings a great deal of vulnerability, strength and subtle (at least by today's standards) eroticism to her part. Sidney Poitier is said to be uncomfortable with the movie, but his performance is terrific, as is Pearl Bailey. Even better are Sammy Davis as the amoral, cat-like Sportin' Life and Brock Peters as the villanious bully Crown.
Still, I'm no fan of Preminger's earlier, leaden -- and far easier to see -- "Carmen Jones." Porgy and Bess" is far superior to that less controversial film -- though that may have to do with the fact that the source material is also far superior.
As seen last night, this is a sturdy but far from perfect work. Not all of the moments quite come alive, and there is some awkwardness in the way the film mixes the overtly stylized Catfish Row set (beautifully done by Oliver Smith) with actual locations. Also, even to my rather untrained ear, some brief portions of the score seem unduly popularized.
Moreover, while this doesn't detract from the achievement of the filmmakers -- Preminger's decision to film almost entirely in wide shots, with no close-ups and occasional medium shots, no doubt rendered it unwatchable on TV "panned and scanned" and may doom it even on widescreen DVDs if it gets the restoration it deserves. On smaller screens, we won't be able to make out the many details that are crucial to the way Preminger staged the film.
Also, the mix heard last night was odd. Many of the vocals, particularly on the opening "Summertime" seemed unduly soft and were overwhelmed by the instrumental music. Perhaps this can be fixed in a restoration.
There is the issue of the film's racial politics. Personally, I see nothing wrong with it, at least in a contemporary context. At the time when so few films depicted strong African-American characters, this may have seemed an unfortunate choice for a big-budget Hollywood film. And, while there may not be much "empowering" here, these are recognizable human beings that are not racial stereotypes. These are operatic characters who make poor choices because that's what tragic characters do. That alone made it a giant stride forward at the time.
In a modern context where strong and heroic African-American characters are less rare (though still not common enough), these characters seem nothing more nor less than human. They truly could be poor and undereducated people of any ethnic background.
Thorny politics aside, the original work is undoubtedly one of the truly great achievements of American music and (secondarily) theater. Poitier, Davis, Dandridge, Peters and, yes Pearl Bailey, were all amazing performers who we'll never see the likes of again. This less than perfect but still solid film clearly deserves to be seen and treasured.
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