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The film Lilies of the Field, released in 1963, is the type of film the trades used to call "heartwarming"; a wandering ex-G.I. stops by a farm being run by five German nuns and agrees to help them out with various and sundry tasks and chores. At their insistence, he stays on to build a chapel for them, and the nuns are sure that he is a miracle sent from God. Frankly, the real miracle here is that this movie got made at all. Truly a labor of love of director/producer/actor Ralph Nelson, Lilies squeaked by on a budget of $450,000, a shooting schedule of fourteen days, and some serious salary negotiations with the film's star. But what a payoff: it was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Moreover, Lilies of the Field achieved motion picture history as Sidney Poitier was awarded the Best Actor Oscar, marking the first time in history an Academy Award was awarded to a black man. Almost forty years later, Poitier remains the sole African-American recipient of the Best Actor Oscar.
A story written by William Barrett, Lilies of the Field was first brought to the attention of Ralph Nelson by his agent, Fred Ingels. Nelson was so inspired by the slim, ninety-two-page book that his intent to bring it to the film screen became unshakeable. When United Artists would only cough up $250,000 for the entire production, Nelson put up his house as collateral in order to ensure the movie could be made. He also struck a deal with Poitier; since he would be unable to pay the actor╒s salary in full, they agreed upon a profit-sharing deal with the box office returns. In terms of tenacity, Nelson had a kindred spirit in his production manager, Joe Popkin. Together they designed a shooting schedule so carefully crafted it would enable them to wrap the entire production in fourteen days.
In addition to directing and producing, Nelson also starred as Mr. Ashton, a contractor who teams up with Poitier's character Homer to build the chapel. In his autobiography, This Life, Poitier writes that although his name appeared in the star's position in the film's credits, "the real star of Lilies of the Fieldwas the man whose creative force, whose integrity and professional commitment, husbanded the entire project into being, Ralph Nelson." Rounding out the notable cast was Lilia Skala, an Austrian actress who played the Mother Superior of the nuns. Skala was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role and earned a Golden Globe for her efforts.
In the 1963 Best Actor Oscar race, Poitier was up against daunting competition; the nominations included Albert Finney for Tom Jones, Paul Newman for Hud, and Rex Harrison for Cleopatra. Convinced Finney would be the winner, Poitier did not prepare an acceptance speech, but rather, focused his efforts on maintaining a graceful loser╒s expression when the cameras invariably turned upon him for his reaction. When presenter Anne Bancroft announced Poitier as the winner, the actor flew up to the stage in hysterical exhilaration, and in a daze, began an impromptu speech he had whimsically thought up just moments before: "It has been a long journey to this moment . . ."
From the film that would never have been made save for an utterly indomitable director came a moment in cinematic history that few thought possible: the winning of the Best Actor Oscar by a black man. Perhaps most significantly, Poiter won for a role as an individual not defined by race in a motion picture devoid of racial judgment;an important lesson finally learned by the Academy.
Producer/Director: Ralph Nelson
Screenplay: James Poe
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Film Editing: John W. McCafferty
Original Music: Jerry Goldsmith; Jester Hairston
Principal Cast: Sidney Poitier (Homer Smith), Lilia Skala (Mother Maria), Lisa Mann (Sister Gertrude), Isa Crino (Sister Agnes), Francesca Jarvis (Sister Albertine), Pamela Branch (Sister Elizabeth)
by Eleanor Quin