Lilies of the Field On DVD

Sidney Poitier, Lilia Skala, Stanley Adams, Lisa Mann, Isa Crino, Francesca Jarvis, Pamela Branch, Dan Frazer. Directed by Ralph Nelson. Aspect ratio: 1.66: 1. Dolby Digital mono. 94 minutes. 1963. MGM 4001857. NR. $19.99.

Writer John Guare chose the perfect name as the door-opening mechanism for the young conman in the 1993 film Six Degrees of Separation: Sidney Poitier. That character (played by Will Smith) claimed to be, among other things, the actor's son in order to ingratiate himself with wealthy art dealers in New York. What name could open doors and warm hearts of rich, white, middle-aged intellectuals faster than that of the man who had become America's first black movie star?

Perhaps no one has described Poitier's place in the history of film better than he did himself in a 1989 New York Times interview: "During the period when I was the only person here—no Bill Cosby, no Eddie Murphy, no Denzel Washington—I was carrying the hopes and aspirations of an entire people. I had to satisfy the action fans, the romantic fans, the intellectual fans. It was a terrific burden." Poitier carried that burden for more than a decade, from his breakthrough role in The Blackboard Jungle in 1954 through 1967, when he starred in three big hits, all of which shed light, in one way or another, on racial prejudice: In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and To Sir, With Love. Poitier's career foundered after '67, as his films failed to continue their expansion of the cultural conscience and, worse, failed to rake in money at the box office.

The height of his success might well have been a low-budget film shot in just two weeks in 1963—Lilies of the Field, perhaps the least controversial of his hits. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor that year for his portrayal of Homer Smith, a handyman who reluctantly builds a chapel for German-speaking nuns.

In the context of Poitier's career and his place in history, it might seem the height of irony that he won an Oscar for a film that has little to do with race. It might also be seen as evidence that the powers-that-be in Hollywood saved their highest honor for a performance that was less thought-provoking and contentious than the roles the actor is best known for. Another way to look at it is far less sinister—Lilies of the Field was the film that proved that Poitier was even more than the first African-American movie star; he was a mainstream success, regardless of the color of his skin.

Watch the film again and see if you can't imagine Paul Newman, a star of roughly the same age, in the role of Homer Smith. There's little doubt that he could have pulled it off, though the poignancy of the scene in which Homer teaches the nuns to sing "Amen," a fervent gospel song, would have been diminished (and probably rewritten).

It was Poitier's role, however, and he made the most of this traveling handyman, gracefully infusing him with a resonant dignity and delightful charm. Smith is on the road to nowhere in particular, looking to make a day's pay, when he happens on the nuns in a remote part of the Southwest. The steely Mother Maria (Lilia Skala) gets him to fix the roof on the nuns' Spartan home with a promise of money she doesn't have. As the days slowly pass, she finds ways of keeping him busy and of avoiding paying the bills he keeps handing her; she has other plans for this man she believes God has sent to her. She wants him to build her a "shapel," as she pronounces it in her heavy German accent.

Smith reluctantly accepts the fact that he will never be paid, but agrees to build the chapel anyway. He sees its construction as his way of leaving a mark on the world. Plus, he develops a fondness for the other nuns, despite his repeated clashes with the dictatorial Mother Maria.

Poitier makes simple scenes both moving and amusing—such as the ones where Smith teaches the nuns English in the evenings—with a radiant humor that will win over even the most cynical viewer.

But if you're looking for a movie to test your home theater with, Lilies of the Field is one of the last you'll want to rent. Not only is it shot in black and white, but there are absolutely no special effects whatsoever; the film is primarily driven by dialogue. (MGM saw no reason to remix the soundtrack into 5.1 channels, and I don't blame them.) The print used for the DVD transfer was in good shape, though; there are no distracting specks or scratches.

Unfortunately, the DVD contains no bonus material other than the film's trailer. A "making of" featurette with Poitier, or a commentary track by him, would have undoubtedly been interesting.

Despite that shortcoming, this DVD is easily worth renting or owning. It's the film that matters, and Lilies of the Field is one you won't regret revisiting. Poitier certainly made edgier and more controversial films, most of them still worth watching, but he was never more charming or endearing than he is here. Watch Lilies . . . and you, too, will be more than willing to be taken in by a charmer posing as the son of the man who changed movies forever.