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Motion pictures that spring from successful plays are unique in that they already have a lot of mileage on them before the cameras even start to roll. If key members of the cast also played opposite each other before live audiences, they haven't just been rehearsing the material, they've been actively getting under the skin of their characters. The script's content and the characters' motivations have been scrutinized in a manner that simply isn't possible while making a conventionally produced film.
Daniel Petrie's A Raisin in the Sun (1961), which is based on Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking play about a proud African-American family, is a case in point. The very intent of the piece was a matter of great debate while it was being performed on Broadway, and its two leads, Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNeil, were regularly at each other's throats over which approach would work best. The strained mother-son relationship that audiences finally saw on the big screen was the result of considerable tension during the initial phase of the play's successful run. The real-life stand- off between Poitier and McNeil actually grew so heated that, years later, Poitier wrote that he believed the actress "hated" him. Nevertheless, the two managed to convey a devastating amount of love for each other, both on stage and in Petrie's acclaimed film version.
Poitier plays Walter Lee Younger, a young black man who stumbles upon an opportunity to improve his standing in a society that's determined to hold him back because of the color of his skin. Walter's strong, dignified mother, Lena (McNeil) has received a $10,000 insurance check after the accidental death of her husband. Intent on taking care of her family in the best way she can, Lena decides to buy a new home in a better neighborhood. But Walter, who has a wife (Ruby Dee) and young son, thinks the money would be best spent on opening a liquor store. Walter's sister, Beneatha (Diana Sands), on the other hand, hopes that the money will be used to help her pay for medical school. This quandary will open up a painful dialogue among the Younger family, which will eventually lead to an unexpected, hard-won form of redemption.
In his recent Oprah Winfrey endorsed autobiography, The Measure of a Man, Poitier discusses his take on acting in general, and Walter Lee Younger in particular. Even after all these years, he seems utterly convinced that he was right when he insisted that A Raisin in the Sun should focus on Walter's plight, rather than Lena's. This didn't sit well with McNeil...especially since she was supported in her belief by Hansberry, the play's author (Hansberry also adapted her work for the screen).
"Claudia McNeil, a fine performer, was in complete dominance over most of the other members of the cast," he writes. "Naturally enough, she perceived the play as being best when it unfolded from the mother's point of view. I perceived the play as being best when it unfolded from the son's point of view, however, and I argued that position. In fact, we argued constantly."
"In my opinion," he says, "it was the son who carried the theatrical obligation as the force between the audience and the play. The eyes of those watching were on the son to see if the tragedy would destroy him, would blow him apart beyond recovery. And it was also my opinion that there was no such feeling between the audience and the mother. The audience witnessed the sadness that was visited on her. They saw that her family was in disarray, but also saw her as a force beyond that kind of vulnerability. If they were to vote, they would say, 'Oh, but she's going to be okay."
By the time Petrie made A Raisin in the Sun, it would seem that Poitier either won the argument by virtue of his dynamic stage interpretation, or because of his standing as one of the more prominent African-American actors in motion pictures. Certainly, the movie's emotional focus leans a great deal more toward Walter Lee Younger's plight than anything his mother experiences. McNeil's performance is remarkable in its sensitivity; it's both big-spirited and heart-breaking. But you leave the film with Poitier's desperate gaze seared into your memory.
br>Poitier seems to feel that this sort of turmoil is something you have to deal with when you're fully committed to your craft. "You simply can't 'fake' your way through good work," Poitier writes. "But even the purest devotion to an art or craft doesn't take place in a vacuum. We work with others, with people often very close to our hearts, so convictions that are firmly held can cost a pretty penny indeed."
Producer: David Susskind, Philip Rose
Director: Daniel Petrie
Screenplay: Lorraine Hansberry (based on her play)
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr.
Editing: William A. Lyon, Paul Weatherwax
Music: Laurence Rosenthal
Art Design: Carl Anderson
Set Design: Louis Diage
Makeup: Ben Lane
Principal Cast: Sidney Poitier (Walter Lee Younger), Claudia McNeil (Lena Younger), Ruby Dee (Ruth Younger), Diana Sands (Beneatha Younger), Ivan Dixon (Asagai), John Fiedler (Mark Lindner), Louis Gossett (George Murchison), Stephen Perry (Travis Younger), Joel Fluellen (Bobo), Roy Glenn (Willie Harris).
by Paul Tatara