Saturday, December 29, 2012

"Porgy and Bess" (1959) -- Initial Thoughts

I watched Porgy and Bess with my mom over the last couple of evenings, the first time either of us has seen it.  I don't know what she thought of it, but I must confess to being a bit disappointed.

I've wanted to see this musical since I was in high school and learned, while doing a research paper, that George Gershwin wrote it while living on Folly Beach in Charleston, SC.  Folly Beach is one of my family's favorite vacation spots, you see.  I know a few of the songs from it -- I love "Summertime," I like "Bess, You is My Woman," and I've never liked "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'."  And I'm well acquainted with Bobby Darin's version of "It Ain't Necessarily So."  But I'd never heard them in context, and really knew very little about the story line other than that it involves a crippled man named Porgy and a woman of ill repute named Bess.

A few years ago, I read a biography of Otto Preminger that discussed the making of this movie, though I remember very little of it anymore.  But I do recall that Sidney Poitier didn't really want to make this film, and that Preminger worked with the cast to change some of the dialog so that it was less offensive.  Remember, the operetta itself is based in the early twentieth century and was first performed in 1935 -- by the time the movie was made in the late 1950s, people's attitudes and behavior had changed a great deal.  

But anyway, why was I disappointed in this movie?  I felt a lack of emotional oomph in it, if that makes sense.  And it's not the storyline's fault, because the plot of two outcasts, the kind, sweet man who takes in the woman no one else wants anything to do with -- that's right up my alley.  But I never got really caught up in the story, never felt anything more than a half-hearted sympathy for any of the characters.  I've really enjoyed the other Sidney Poitier performances I've seen, particularly in Blackboard Jungle (1955), Pressure Point (1962), and In the Heat of the Night (1967).  Perhaps his unwillingness to play the role kept him from fully engaging in it, or perhaps it's just the lack of chemistry between his Porgy and Dorothy Dandridge's Bess.  Or perhaps the characters just aren't all that well-rounded -- we never learn more about Porgy than that he's sweet, kind, understanding, and crippled.  And we never learn more about Bess than that she's an addict and has a taste for the wrong kind of men.  The other characters are equally thin -- Sammy Davis Jr.'s Sportin' Life is only around to tempt Bess back into drugs and sin, Pearl Bailey's Maria is the Strong Black Woman, Brock Peters' Crown is the Uncontrollable Black Man --  none of the main characters had any real depth to them.  Since this is the only version of this story I've ever seen, I don't know if the original operetta digs into the characters more, or what.  

I have to say that my favorite character in the movie, and the most interesting, was Claude Akins' Detective, who was clearly out of his element in the black neighborhood, but trying to do his best in a thankless job.  He runs the gamut from uncomfortable to patient to exasperated to weary, and I kind of wished we could just follow him around and see what his life was like instead.  This might be partially because I admit I have a soft spot for Claude Akins, but still, it felt to me like he was doing more with a tiny role than the principals were doing with all their screen time.

The sets, the costumes, and the staging I have no quibbles with.  There was one scene I really liked a lot, where Bess changes an orphan's diaper while Porgy watches, his eyes shining with love for this beautiful woman who has brought his life so much joy.

Both characters felt very real, very alive, and very in love in this scene, and if the whole movie had been like it, I would probably have loved it all.  But I am very glad I got to see Porgy and Bess, and I hope I will get the opportunity to see another version some time, to see if I connect better to the characters then.

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