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Mister Tibbs! Mister Tibbs!
by Asa Butcher
2008-02-24 10:00:52
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Information
Film
In the Heat of the Night
Directed by Norman Jewison
1967, MGM Entertainment

In 1928 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowed the very first Best Picture Academy Award to William A. Wellman's Wings. Eighty years later billions of viewers will be tuning in to discover which of the five nominations will walk away with the 80th Best Picture Oscar. While most of the world prepares for tonight's star-studded gala and red carpet fashion show, I want to take you back forty years to the 40th Academy Awards hosted by Bob Hope.

The ceremony was originally scheduled for April 8th, 1968, but the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4th led to the awards being postponed two days. The US was reaching the pinnacle of the Civil Rights Movement, with the Civil Rights Act of 1968 that prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental, and financing of housing being signed into force the day after the 40th Academy Awards.

In my opinion, the 1968 Academy Awards contributed significantly to the Civil Rights Movement with the nomination of In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, both starring Sidney Poitier and both dealing with racial prejudice. In the Heat of the Night walked away with Best Picture and Best Actor for Rod Steiger, while Guess Who's Coming to Dinner took Best Actress and Best Writing. Between the two films they collected seven wins and ten nominations.

In the Heat of the Night was the overall winner on the night and remains one of the best 'issues' films of the past fifty years. It sits proudly beside the aforementioned Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, plus To Kill a Mockingbird, Mississippi Burning and Gentleman's Agreement, each of which influenced a generation. Based on John Ball's 1965 novel, In the Heat of the Night follows the story of Detective Virgil Tibbs (Poitier), a black police detective from Philadelphia, who becomes involved in the murder investigation of white wealthy factory owner in the fictional Mississippi town of Sparta.

Truthfully, the plot is of very little consequence because it is the relationship between Det. Tibbs and Sparta's Police Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) that drives the film. Tibbs has to overcome his own prejudice towards the white and wealthy, while Chief Gillespie faces his own racism and the pressures of the townsfolk's opinions, yet as they reluctantly work together they begins to win the respect of one another.

Sidney Poitier's line "They call me Mister Tibbs!" was voted the 16th best movie quote in the American Film Institute's "100 Years...100 Movie Quotes" list - the line was sandwiched between "E.T. phone home" and "Rosebud". However, the power of the scene in which the line is delivered cannot be believed until you actually watch it, and then it isn't the best scene in the film. My personal favourite is the scene in the sheriff's house, with Tibbs and Gillespie drinking bourbon together, and it's even more impressive knowing that most of the dialogue came from improvisation.

Surprisingly, Poitier did not receive a nomination for either Guess Who's Coming to Dinner or In the Heat of the Night, but amends were made with Rod Steiger beating the heavyweight list of Warren Beatty, Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman and the late Spencer Tracy for the Best Actor award. I believe that it was his constant chewing of gum that won him the award because there really was something hypnotic about his constant jaw action - apparently he went through 263 packs of gum during the shooting of the film.

While on the subject of awards, In the Heat of the Night was director Norman Jewison's first Academy Award nomination for direction (he was previously nominated as producer for The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming), but in 1968 he failed to win once again being beaten by Mike Nichols for The Graduate. In his career, Jewison went on to get three more producer nominations for Best Picture and two more director nominations, but has never won.

In 1999 he was finally awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, which has a certain sense of irony because at the 1968 Academy Awards Alfred Hitchcock received the same award after he too had missed out on a number of nominations. Back in Issue #11 of Ovi I reviewed Norman Jewison's 1965 The Cincinnati Kid starring Steve McQueen and in my review I noted that Jewison and Editor Hal Ashby worked on five films together, yet it was only his superb work on In the Heat of the Night that finally earned him the recognition of the Academy.

Sadly, In the Heat of the Night is still topical today and remains an example to us all on how to overcome prejudice of any kind, so take a moment and search out this cinematic masterpiece… you won't be disappointed. When you tune in to watch the next Academy Awards take a moment to think about the winners and whether their message will stand the test of time and if it really will be worth writing about them in 2048.


     
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Emanuel Paparella2008-02-24 14:57:17
Perhaps it is worth mentioning here that "In the Heat of the Night" went on to become a suceesfull TV series between 1988 and 1994 which won four golden globe awards.


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