Other than Peter O’Toole and Jack Lemmon, the only actor I am willing to contend is the greatest actor to ever live is Sidney Poitier. It boggles my mind to see his output from the late 1950s to the late 1960s and not legitimately believe this guy was on the exact same level as Marlon Brando and Humphrey Bogart, and quite possibly even exceeded them at his peak. There are so many performances from Poitier that are iconic and just deeply brilliant, and while he may be remembered for his iconic quotation “they call me Mister Tibbs” in the brilliant In the Heat of the Night, or for holding his own against supreme acting heavyweights Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, he had a great career with some absolutely stellar performances. Perhaps it is his performance in the small and lovely Lilies of the Field that may be his very best (although I still think his masterful performance in The Defiant Ones is above all else), and the role that won Poitier the Academy Award for Best Actor – making him the very first black actor to ever win that award.
Poitier is a great actor, and his performances came about during a time of great racial progress in the United States, right in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. His very best performances always would concentrate on racial issues and current affairs regarding the Civil Rights Movement. I do believe that Poitier did help tremendously in this period, mainly because as a black actor, he was being given extraordinarily complex and important roles, and his portrayal of honorable, interesting characters showed that race did not matter at all. In Lilies of the Field, his character of Homer Smith is one that doesn’t rely on anything other than Poitier’s talents, and while there is some element of race issues throughout the film, it is a relatively simple film without much of an overriding message, and it is just simply a great performance from Poitier, and while it does comment on a few social issues, it doesn’t do so in a way that makes it preachy or too serious, because in the end, it achieves what it needed to – to tell a simple and lovely story.
This simple and lovely story is just that – Homer Smith is a drifter that encounters a group of German nuns who enlist him for some small jobs, and agreeing to do it for a price, Homer finds himself held somewhat captive by these nuns, who insist he helps them build a chapel, as they and the large community in their little town have to endure mass conducted out of the back of a pickup truck every Sunday. The nuns believe that Homer is a gift from God sent to help them and their plight, while Homer believes he is just there to gain some money so he can move along to wherever he is headed next. Initially reluctant, he eventually relents and through much argument and fighting (mostly with Mother Maria, played excellently by Lilia Skala), eventually builds them the chapel and in the process learns quite a bit about himself and others. Perhaps what makes this film so special is exactly how simple it is – it never tries to be anything more than it is – and it relies heavily on its themes of faith (while never being annoyingly preachy like the vast majority of contemporary faith-based films), while also being a very sweet light comedy that will make the audience feel good. A film that tackles serious issues are important, but they just don’t make feel-good films like Lilies of the Field anymore it seems.
The best part about Lilies of the Field is how compelling the story is, despite being so minimalistic – there aren’t really any traditional film tropes, and there aren’t defined acts or clearly marked progressions of plot – it is one singular journey that eventually is resolved, which is not revolutionary, but also not very common. The story is elevated by the performances, in particular that of Poitier and Skala, both of which are the top of the game as the dueling presences, both fighting for superiority and dominance. The rest of the cast is really very effective, and they definitely do their part to make this film enjoyable, but it is the unorthodox chemistry between the two leads that make this such a compelling and moving film, and an absolute joy to watch. I would never have thought that some of the best cinematic chemistry would come from a middle-aged Austrian woman and a young Bahamian man (two complete polar opposites), but it seems I was wrong, and both were absolutely wonderful and their performances here deserve to be far more loved and heralded than they are, and it goes to show that the power of a great script and dedicated performances can bring about the magic in almost any story.
Lilies of the Field is a simple but lovely film. It doesn’t try to be anything other than small and intimate, and just deeply moving. I loved it more than I was expecting too, and I think this deserves far more praise than it has received. While Poitier doesn’t give his best performance, he still gives a fantastic one, and it is worth watching for his dazzling chemistry with Skala and the rest of the cast. I truly enjoyed this film, and I just wish Hollywood would make movies like this, that leave you with a smile on your face and a spring in your step, because in the end, we watch movies to be entertained, and this film does just that.