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By his own admission, Sidney Poitier was "miserable" during the filming of Paris Blues (1961). Yet it had nothing to do with the picture or the location; Poitier said he admired Paul Newman and enjoyed working with him tremendously. As a matter of fact, as filming drew to a close, they talked about staying on in Paris and working from there, a dream that never came true despite the actors' love for the city. So, Poitier's "miserable" state was due to some personal problems at the time. He and Diahann Carroll had met and fallen in love during the filming of Porgy and Bess (1959). Because they were both married with children, they tried to stay away from each other. Then suddenly, they found themselves in one of the world's most romantic cities, playing lovers. The situation was unbearable for Poitier, who had his wife and family staying with him for part of the shooting. The two came close to ending their marriages in order to be together, but the pressures were too great. It was clear by the time the picture was in the can that their relationship could not continue.
On-screen in Paris Blues, their romantic fate worked out a lot better. The plot featured Poitier and Newman as American expatriate musicians living in Paris after World War II. Newman is studying classical music while earning a living playing in a jazz club owned by a woman with whom he is having a casual affair. Poitier enjoys life abroad as an escape from the racial hatred he experienced at home in America. They meet two young vacationing schoolteachers, Carroll and Joanne Woodward, and pair off. Carroll eventually convinces Poitier it's better to return to the States and face bigotry head-on rather than hiding out in a foreign country. They leave together with plans to marry. Newman gives up his bachelor status and casts his fate with Woodward after it becomes clear his classical music career is going nowhere. But at the last minute, he meets her at the train station to tell her he won╒t be going back to America with her after all. In real life, the situation was completely reversed. The couple had been married since 1958, the same year they co-starred in two movies, The Long Hot Summer and Rally Round the Flag, Boys!. Prior to Paris Blues, they also appeared together in From the Terrace (1960). They continue to have one of the longest personal and professional partnerships in Hollywood, and have acted together in seven other films. Newman also directed his wife in four feature films and one made-for-TV movie. This was the pair's second film under Martin Ritt's direction. Newman would go on to make four more films with Ritt, including his Oscar-nominated performance in Hud (1963). Woodward worked with Ritt on three previous pictures, including the screen adaptation of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1959).
Poitier had also worked with Ritt before, on the director's first feature, Edge of the City (1957), a movie dealing with tough racial themes. It was the experience of working with the liberal, socially conscious Ritt and the examination of race in that film that likely attracted Poitier to this project, in spite of his concerns about working with Carroll again. Poitier's beautiful co-star almost didn't take it for the same reason, but Carroll couldn't resist the script because although it was a contemporary love story, "it showed some social and political awareness and presented black people as normal human beings." Largely because of Poitier's breakthrough in the 1950s, black actors were beginning to be seen as viable stars for feature films (although some critics carped that with her appearance in this picture, Carroll was transformed into a boring, middle-class white version of a modern black woman). Still, things weren't entirely equal. In the Harold Flender novel on which the movie is based, the story centered only on a black jazz musician who falls for a black schoolteacher vacationing in Paris. For the screen, producers hedged their bets by adding a white couple and casting the very popular Newman and Woodward team. Some viewers have suggested that the film might have been an even stronger examination of race (and a more interesting love story) if the black man had paired off with the white woman and vice versa. There was even a rumor that that was the intention going into production but it's never been confirmed.
In spite of Paris Blues' star power and racial themes, it was not a success on its release and critics found more merit in the music featured in the film. Duke Ellington was commissioned to write the score, which won an Oscar nomination for Best Scoring of a Motion Picture. At least one biography of Ellington claims he went to Paris to work on it with longtime friend and collaborator Billy Strayhorn, but the composer of "Lush Life" and "Take the A Train" is not credited on the final film. Also singled out for praise was Louis Armstrong who plays a musician named Wild Man Moore, one of the few times in his film career (of more than 30 movies) that he did not play himself.
Producer: Sam Shaw
Director: Martin Ritt
Screenplay: Lulla Rosenfeld, Walter Bernstein, Irene Kamp, Jack Sher, based on the novel by Harold Flender
Art Direction: Alexandre Trauner
Cinematography: Christian Matras
Film Editing: Roger Dwyre
Original Music: Duke Ellington
Principal Cast: Paul Newman (Ram Bowen), Joanne Woodward (Lillian Corning), Sidney Poitier (Eddie Cook), Louis Armstrong (Wild Man Moore), Diahann Carroll (Connie Lampson), Moustache (Drummer), Barbara Laage (Marie Seoul), Serge Reggiani (Michel Duvigne).
BW-99m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon