Friday, 3 June 2016

Film Friday: "The Defiant Ones" (1958)

In honor of Tony Curtis's 91th birthday, which is today, this week on "Film Friday" I bring you the film that gave him the only Academy Award nomination of his career.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Stanley Kramer, The Defiant Ones (1958) begins when a truck transporting chain gang convicts crashes on a rainswept Southern road and two prisoners escape: Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier), a black man who reacts violently to racial insults; and John "Joker" Jackson (Tony Curtis), Southern white bigot. Despite their mutual loathing, they are forced to cooperate, as they are chained together. Meanwhile, Sheriff Max Muller (Theodore Bikel), a humane lawman, is pressured by the governor to organize a posse to capture the escapees. He also must contend with an agressive state police captain, Frank Gibbons (Charles McGraw), and a deputy, Solly (King Donovan), who values his bloodhounds more than the lives of the convicts.

Arriving at a small company town, Joker and Cullen are captured by its residents, who form a lynch mob; they are saved only by Big Sam (Lon Chaney), a former chain gang member. The next morning, they reach an isolated farm, where a lonely white woman (Cara Williams) gives them a hammer and chisel to break the chain that holds them together. During the night, the woman seduces Joker and persuades him to escape with her by car. She also advises Cullen to go through the nearby swamp to reach the railroads tracks. The two men agree to slipt, but after Cullen leaves the woman informs Joker that she has lied: she sent Cullen into the dangerous swamp to die to eliminate any chance he would be captured and perhaps reveal Joker's whereabouts. Furious, Joker runs out to find Cullen, getting shot in shoulder as he leaves by the woman's young son, Billy (Kevin Coughlin). Wounded, Joker catches up to Cullen and the two then race to the train that will take them to freedom. Cullen leaps on and stretches his hand out to Joker, who is unable to reach it, causing both men to tumble down the hill. As Cullen sits on the ground holding Joker in his arms, they can hear the bloodhounds getting close. When Muller approaches them, Cullen sings his blues anthem, "Long Gone," and then laughs defiantly.

Noah Cullen: Come on, man, you're draggin' the chain. 

In the wake of such events as the 1954 Supreme Court decision on school desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycott and the 1957 use of federal troops to integrate Little Rock's Central High, the urgent need for racial change was suddenly at the center of American consciousness. As a filmmaker who "wore his liberal politics in his sleeve," producer-director Stanley Kramer became interested in tackling the political and social changes that were taking place in the United States. After World War II, Kramer had decided to launch his own production company and bring attention to topical social issues that most studios avoided. He had already make some innovative, socially conscious films: Home of the Brave (1949), The Men (1950), High Noon (1952) and The Wild One (1953). Signing a six-picture distribution deal with United Artists, Kramer engaged writers Nathan E. Douglas and Harold Jacob Smith to help him develop a film about race relations. The result was The Long Road, a story of two bigoted convicts one black, one white linked by handcuffs and forced to unite in many ways in order to escape. Kramer later changed the title to The Defiant Ones.

Apparently, Kramer originally envisioned The Defiant Ones as a vehicle for Elvis Presley and Sammy Davis Jr. "He's been thinking of me for the white guy," an excited Presley told Davis, "but he didn't any ideas about the colored guy till he saw with me a few nights ago. He saw us shaking hands and liked our chemistry." Eager to escape Las Vegas for Hollywood, Davis was eager to appear in the film. Presley was also jubilant to be taking on such a challenging role, but his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, soon squelched the idea. According to the star of Jailhouse Rock (1957), Parker prohibited him from making The Defiant Ones because "all those people who buy my albums, among them are lots who won't want to see me chained to a colored guy and end up liking him."

Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis
With Presley and Davis out of the running for the film, Kramer had to look elsewhere for his two leading stars. He offered the role of Noah Cullen to Sidney Poitier, who accepted it immediately. The son of two Bahamian farmers, Poitier began his acting career on Broadway, before Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century Fox gave an important role in No Way Out (1950), a film noir directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Since the mid-1950s, he had become a spokesperson for black empowerment due to his intelligent and uncompromising characterizations in such films as Blackboard Jungle (1955) and Edge of the City (1957). In a time of heightened racial tensions and a virtually non-existent black presence in Hollywood, Poiter felt that "I had certain things to offer, since I had begun to work with some regularity and had generated what I thought to be good vibrations spreading around the industry."

The Defiant Ones, speaking directly to the point of how black people want to see themselves on the screen, would be a hell of a shot for us. And the role of Cullen would represent for me and other black actors a step up in the quality of parts available to us, and at the same time afford the black community in general a rare look at a movie character exemplifying the dignity of our people something that Hollywood had systematically ignored in its shameless capitulation to racism.
(Sidney Poitier on his involvement in The Defiant Ones)

Kevin Coughlin and Tony Curtis
Kramer initially wanted Marlon Brando to play the other fugitive, John "Joker" Jackson. Having Brando and Poitier in the same film would be a dream come true for Kramer: "You wouldn't need a script. Just turn on the cameras and let things happen." Although Brando embraced the script's integrationist politics, he turned it down, reportedly because he had disliked Kramer's direction in The Wild One. Kramer then sought Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck, Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Anthony Quinn and Robert Mitchum, but they all declined the offer. (Mitchum was actually a former chain gang prisoner; he was put in one at the age of 14, after being arrested for vagrancy in Savannah, Georgia.) Billy Wilder told a joke about the casting: "First then went to Marlon and asked him to be in the movie. Marlon said, 'Yes, I'll be in it, but I want to play the black man.' Then they went to Robert Mitchum. Mitchum said, 'Hell, I'm not going to be in any picture with no nigger.' So then they went to Kirk Douglas and asked him and Douglas said, 'Yes, I'll be in it. But I want to play both parts!'"

Kramer ultimately decided to cast Tony Curtis, a decision that amused the industry establishment. Even Kramer himself was unsure about his choice; he thought of Curtis only because there was a lack of other suitable actors available at the time: "But at this point I had gotten around to considering several actors who made Tony Curtis look like Laurence Olivier." Even though he had achieved recognition as a skilled dramatic actor for his performance in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Curtis "was still building a case to be seen as a serious actor." He finally overcame Kramer's doubts during their interview, when he passionately discussed his craft. "I spend all of my days trying to think of ways to escape the prettyboy rut I'm in," he told Kramer. "I don't ever want to think about another Junior Prom or rich father-in-law. I've been begging producers to let me prove I can act, but you're the first one even to consider it." To prove just how dedicated he was to his role in The Defiant Ones, Curtis wore a misshapen plastic nose to make him look less handsome.

Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis
Filming on The Defiant Ones took place between late February and early April 1958. Kramer decided to keep a closed set throughout production so as to avoid distractions and controversies over the film's racial theme. He shot most of the picture on exterior locations across southern California, often in arduous conditions. Making The Defiant Ones was physically exhausting for Curtis and Poitier, who had to run through fields, swamps and woods, climb out of a deep clay pit during a rainstorm, brawl down the side of hill and cross a swollen river all while being bound by a 29-inch chain. For the river crossing, they wore skin-tight diving suits under their prison uniforms to be able to endure the 38-degree water. At one point, the current pushed them into rapids, but stunt men downriver saved them. Curtis said that there were no doubles for the clay it scene, which he deemed the hardest sequence in the film. In fact, most of the grueling stunt work was done by the two stars themselves.

Poitier came to set of The Defiant Ones with a deep admiration and respect for Kramer. "Stanley was always a forerunner of terribly good things; he was the type of man who found it essential to put on the line the things that were important to him," Poitier later said. "People have short memories: in the days he started making films about important social issues, there were powerful Hollywood columnists who could break careers. He knew this, and he said to himself, 'What the hell', either I do it or I can't live with myself.' For that attitude, we're all in Stanley Kramer's debt. He's an example of the very best of a certain type of filmmaker." Curtis also strongly believed in Kramer and the project, although he often felt that the director showed favoritism to Poitier. "Because of the racial climate of the time, he went out of his way to be more agreeable to Sidney," Curtis wrote in his autobiography. "I noticed that in his direction and his behavior. He never treated me with the same reverence he did Sidney. I wasn't mad about it. That's just the way it was. Sidney was a hell of a talent, no matter what color he was, and this was a time when Hollywood was just starting to realize maybe it could do something positive for civil rights."

Sidney Poitier, Tony Curtis and Stanley Kramer on the set
When filming was completed, Curtis paid tribute to his co-star in an unique way. "Tony performed the most generous act I ever received from an actor in my life," Poitier said. "My contract called for me to be listed among the supporting actors. Tony had top billing alone, but he went to Stanley Kramer and said, 'I want you to put Sidney's name up there with mine.' And that's exactly what happened. That's how I got top billing for the first time in my life. I think that speaks a lot of him." As Curtis recalled, "I thought it was unfair for him to be a featured player when it was a picture of a black and white. I was offended by that." In his autobiography, Curtis also wrote: "I insisted that he and I share top billing, because I felt that if my name was on top of the title and his name ran below it, that would contradict the entire premise of the movie: that these two convicts from different races had to accept each other as equals."

The Defiant Ones debuted in July 1958 at the Berlin Film Festival, where Poitier received the Silver Bear Award for Best Actor. The European praise was so strong that Kramer hastened its American premiere. The film opened in August at the Roosevelt Theatre in Chicago, breaking house records and earning good reviews from critics. On September 24, The Defiant Ones reached the Victoria Theatre in New York, before premiering in other major cities the following week. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called the picture "a remarkably apt and dramatic visualization of a social idea" and applauded the performances of its stars: "Between the two principal performers there isn't much room for a choice. Mr. Poitier stands out as the Negro convict and Mr. Curtis is surprisingly good. Both men are intensely dynamic." The reviewer for Variety magazine was also impressed by the acting, noting that "the performances by Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier are virtually flawless." In fact, Newsweek deemed Poitier "the country's finest Negro actor." Produced on a modest budget of $778,000, The Defiant Ones turned in a profit of $1 million.

Tony Curtis and Cara Williams
At the 31st Academy Award held at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood in April 1959, The Defiant Ones garnered nine nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis), Best Supporting Actor (Theodore Bikel), Best Supporting Actress (Cara Williams), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography (Black and White) and Best Film Editing. Unfortunately, the nomination of both Curtis and Poitier in the same category cost each actor a chance of victory. "It was a token nomination," Curtis sneered. "The Academy patted myself and Sidney on the head by stepping up to the racist plate, but it wasn't going to go any further. The only way either of us could have is if they found a way to cut the statue in half." Indeed, the Best Actor winner that night was David Niven for his performance in Delbert Mann's drama Separate Tables (1958). Kramer lost Best Director to Vincente Minnelli's for the musical Gigi (1958), which was also named Best Picture.

Nathan E. Douglas and Harold Jacob Smith did win Best Original Screenplay, signaling another important shift in Hollywood politics. Before the nominations were announced, it was been revealed that "Nathan E. Douglas" was actually the pseudonym for the blacklisted writer Nedrick Young. Realizing that The Defiant Ones was a likely nominee for a screenwriting award, the Academy rescinded its 1957 bylaw prohibiting blacklistees from eligibility for Oscars. This decision led an official of the American Legion to publicly issue a prostest, undoubtely prompted by an editorial in the Los Angeles Herald Express proclaiming that "the Commies are back." The article motivated Otto Preminger to hire Dalton Trumbo, a member of the "Hollywood Ten" a group of blacklisted screenwriters and directors to pen the script for Exodus (1960). Trumbo had actually written The Brave One (1956), winner of the Best Original Screenplay two years earlier, under a pseudonym. The Hollywood blacklist further dissolved when Kramer hired Young and Smith to write Inherit the Wind (1960), a courtroom drama starring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March.

Curtis was deeply disappointed when he did not win the Oscar. "I thought, What the fuck is the Academy doing?" he wrote. "I said as much to Lew Wasserman [Curtis's agent], who replied, 'Don't worry about it, Tony. They're not ready for you yet. You  need a few more pictures.' But I was angry, and disappointed in my profession. I felt The Defiant Ones was making an important statement about the time we lived in. I also felt my own time had come. I was making important pictures, and I felt I deserved some acclaim from my peers. But Lew was right. The Defiant Ones was ahead of its time, and I needed to wait my turn." Sadly, Tony Curtis's time never came. Although he went on to appear in many other noteworthy productions, including Some Like It Hot (1959), Spartacus (1960) and The Last Tycoon (1976), he never did win that Oscar.


American Prince: My Autobiography by Tony Curtis with Peter Golenbock (2010) | Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness by Hernán Vera and Andrew Gordon (2003) | Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon by Aram Goudsouzian (2004) | The Defiant One: A Biography of Tony Curtis by Aubrey Malone (2013) | United Artists, Volume 2, 1951-1978: The Company that Changed the Film Industry by Tino Balio (1987) | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review | Variety review


  1. Thanks for all the historical context! It's a shame Elvis didn't get to do the movie, when he wanted to so bad, but I wouldn't want anyone but Poitier and Curtis in it (I wondered why Curtis looked different in the movie! It was the nose!). It's a shame he never got an award either. I love watching the clip of Poitier getting his Oscar. I tear up every time :)

  2. i am thunderstruck by all the actors i admire that were not eager to work with sidney poitier and who in retrospect never worked with sidney poitier since being approached to do the defiant ones. i'm not surprised about robert mitchum's reaction to working with poitier. perhaps i should admire him for his honesty. peck, sinatra, lancaster, and douglas maybe did not invoke the n-word, but maybe they felt exactly the same way as mitchum. that sentiment would certainly be ironic for peck considering his role in to kill a mockingbird. i am bemused by the fact colonel parker was fine with elvis assailing sammy davis, jr. with the n-word, but he just didn't want the audience to think in the end that he could be friends with a man of color. that speaks volumes.

  3. Pretty absurd that Niven that year beat out both Curtis and Pottier for best actor Oscar.
    As for Mitchum, I don’t dismiss the possibility of making a comment like that to a drinking buddy, but I somehow doubt that he actually said the words as paraphrased.