Each year since 1973, the American Film Institute have given their Lifetime Achievement Award to a prominent film star or director. To date, every recipient has been genuinely deserving, but the choice of whom to honour has been motivated by various factors ... such as whose name will sell the most tickets. The guest of honour must be a living person who is willing to attend the tribute and give an acceptance speech. The first four annual awards were given to male recipients: in 1977, the AFI decided it was time to honour a woman, but their committee's first choice (Katherine Hepburn) refused to accept the award in person, so they gave it to Bette Davis (who apparently didn't mind being second choice for an award based on gender). Cary Grant had a standing offer to receive the AFI award, but he was unwilling to make an acceptance speech ... and so he was never chosen.
The 1992 award was given to Sidney Poitier, the first African-American recipient. Inevitably, that year's ceremony became a referendum on racial progress. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it's good to make note of the progress that blacks have made in America -- both as real people and as fictional characters in Hollywood movies -- and Poitier deserves much of the credit for this. On the other hand, it seems unfair to Poitier for him to be expected to represent an entire ethnic group, rather than himself as an individual. Poitier is entitled to be perceived as an actor who's black, rather than a black actor. In 'The Bedford Incident', he played a character whose race was irrelevant and never mentioned. In 'Little Nikita', there was only one brief and gratuitous reference to Poitier's pigmentation.
As usual for the AFI tributes, there are some splendid clips here, and the tributes to Poitier sound more heartfelt than they did for several other recipients. Some of the people in attendance here aren't film figures at all, and are clearly present only for their activist credentials ... such as Rosa Parks, to whom Poitier gallantly says: 'I'll give up my seat for you any time.' My favourite moment here occurs when Tony Curtis asks Poitier to raise his right hand; when Poitier obeys, Curtis responds: "Keep pulling' on that chain, brother." This is a very poignant reference to the film 'The Defiant Ones', in which Curtis and Poitier played convicts chained together at the wrists. The moment here seems entirely unscripted, and Poitier appears to be wholly surprised by Curtis's tribute. It's a moving instant, in a tribute which is otherwise a bit schmaltzier than it needs to be.
I wish that someone had included the deprecating incident which Poitier modestly included in his memoir. As a youth in Harlem, with absolutely no acting experience and no talent discernible (yet), he auditioned for an amateur theatre company and was astonished to be accepted. Later, he learnt that he was accepted solely because he was the *only* male applicant who had auditioned. This AFI tribute could have used something like this to put an edge on the love-fest, especially since Poitier can now easily afford to have such stories told about him. I also wish that this tribute had included a statement that Poitier had given years earlier, in an interview: 'We won't be equal until (African-Americans) can play villains.' Sidney Poitier -- as an actor and as a person -- is fully deserving of the tributes which he has received, but this is one of the less impressive AFI events. I'll rate it 6 out of 10.
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