Oscar Movies: Porgy and Bess (1959)

Genius composer George Gershwin, who died very young and at his prime,┬áconsidered his masterpiece “Porgy and Bess” to be a “folk opera.”

Gershwin’s score reflected traditional songs he encountered in visits to Charleston, S.C. and in Gullah revival meetings he attended on nearby James Island. Controversy has stalked the production history of the opera that Gershwin created with DuBose Heyward, who had written the original novel and play (with his wife Dorothy) and penned lyrics with Gershwin’s brother Ira.

The lavish film version was produced in the late 1950s as the civil rights movement gained momentum and a number of African-American actors turned down roles they considered demeaning.

Harry Belafonte, who refused the part of Porgy, explained, “in this period of our social development, I doubt that it is healthy to expose certain images of the Negro. In a period of calm, perhaps this picture could be viewed historically.”

Dissension also resulted when producer Samuel Goldwyn dismissed Rouben Mamoulian, who had directed the play and musical on Broadway, and replaced him with Otto Preminger.

Produced in Todd-AO, a state-of-the-art widescreen and stereophonic sound recording process, with an all-star cast that included Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis, Jr., Pearl Bailey, and Diahann Carroll, “Porgy and Bess,” now considered an “overlooked masterpiece” by one contemporary scholar, rarely has been screened in the ensuing years.

Oscar Nominations: 4

Scoring of a Musical Score: Andre Previn and Ken Darby

Cinematography (color): Leon Shamroy

Sound: Gordon E. Sawyer

Costumes (color): Irene Sharaff

Oscar Awards: 1

Scoring of a Musical

Oscar Context

Ben-Hurn swept most of the Oscars in 1959, including Best Picture, Director, Cinematography (Robert L. Surtees), Sound (Franklin E. Milton), and Costumes (Elizabeth Haffenden).