Oscar Actors: Poitier, Sidney–Winner for Lilies of the Field

Ralph Nelson’s Lilies of the Field is mostly known today for the Oscar-winning performance of Sidney Poitier, the first black actor to win an Oscar for a leading role.

This was Poitier’s second Best Actor nomination, following the first one, in 1958, for The Defiant Ones, in which he co-starred with Tony Curtis (also nominated for Best Actor).

The film’s title derives from Matthew 6:27-33, of the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament and its parallel scripture from Luke 12:27-30.

In this modern and idealistic parable, Poitier is charmingly cast as Homer Smith, an ex-G.I. handyman who helps a group of nuns from behind the Iron Curtain to build a chapel in the Arizona desert. Unmoved by their mission, he is at first only interested in making a day’s wage.

But in no time, Smith finds himself softening to the simplicity of the nuns’ preaching. Treating him as if he were sent by God, in answer to prayer, the mother superior thinks he should not expect any pay.

The friendship between these two outsiders, a black man who needs to assert himself, and a strong-willed political refugee, is fascinating to watch. Beneath Poitier’s casual bravado and candid irreverence, one senses his strong need to reaffirm his racial pride.

The purity of the Arizona landscape, its uninhabited expanse, has been used for mythic purposes in many movies. “Lilies of the Field” boasts a gritty Southwestern look. Shot in black and white, the movie speaks the sinewy poetry of the desert, finding its real music in the landscape itself.

The movie differs from the original source material. The book ends with a chapter in which Homer (remembered as “Schmidt,” the nuns’ name for him) and his work have become a legendary myth among the townsfolk, in which he is an angel. The painting placed on chapel is of a saint who looks like Homer Schmidt.

End Note

A TV sequel, Christmas Lilies of the Field, was made in 1979.

Detailed Plot

Homer Smith, an itinerant handyman, stops at a farm in the Arizona desert to get water for his car. He observes some women who speak little English as they working hard on a fence. The mother superior persuades Homer to repair the roof, and he accepts the job, hoping to get paid by quoting Luke 10:7: “The laborer is worthy of his hire.” Mother Maria Marthe (Lilia Skala) then asks him to read another Bible verse from the Sermon: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

The nuns have no money and live off the land, depending on the variable climate for their basic food. Homer agrees to stay another day, hoping Maria will pay him for his work. Soon, the nuns begin to believe that Homer has been sent by God to fulfill their dream of building a chapel for poor Mexican.

On Sunday, Homer drives the sisters to Mass in his station wagon, but declines to attend because he is a Baptist. Instead, he gets his first proper meal from a trading post. The proprietor, Juan (Stanley Adams), tells Homer about the nuns’ hardships in emigrating from Eastern Europe (the Berlin Wall) and then living a meager existence on a farm left to their order.

Homer stays longer, and loses another battle of Bible quotes. He confesses to his old goal of becoming an architect, though couldn’t afford school. His unfulfilled dream motivates him to agree to undertake the job of building a chapel. He also helps the sisters to improve their English. Gradually, a genuine friendship evolves, based on sharing their respective music and folklore, Catholic chants and Baptist hymns, respectively.

The nuns write letters to philanthropic organizations asking for money to get supplies but their requests are denied. As word spreads out, the locals contribute materials, but Homer contends that he alone should do the job, and indeed, upon completion, he places the cross on the spire himself. Too proud to ask him to stay, Maria insists that he attend the opening Mass to get recognition from the congregation. Homer takes one last look at the chapel he built before driving off.

Cast:

Sidney Poitier – Homer Smith
Lilia Skala – Mother Maria
Lisa Mann – Sister Gertrude
Isa Crino – Sister Agnes
Francesca Jarvis – Sister Albertine
Pamela Branch – Sister Elizabeth
Stanley Adams – Juan
Dan Frazer – Father Murphy

Credits:

Produced and directed by Ralph Nelson
Screenplay: James Poe, based on the novel by William E. Barrett
Camera: Ernest Haller
Editing: John McCafferty
Music: Jerry Goldsmith