Porgy And Bess (1959)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB

USA, 1959Screenplay by , based on the musical by , from the play by Cinematography by Leon ShamroyProduced by Music by Production Design by Costume Design by Film Editing by .  

Otto Preminger brings George Gershwin’s hit Broadway musical to the big screen with partially successful results. A tiny South Carolina fishing village, whose obvious artificiality as a film set is both jarring and pleasant, is the place where a number of characters interact before the focus is pulled by a disreputable woman (Dorothy Dandridge) who seeks shelter from an abusive lover with a disabled beggar (Sidney Poitier). Her ex (played by Brock Peters) is on the run for murder, and while the villagers have no kindness to offer Bess, Porgy falls madly in love and won’t be convinced to stay away from her despite how much it threatens his own livelihood.  A great deal of the score is intact, Gershwin’s gorgeous melodies (most famously including “Summertime”) sound great, but Preminger’s decision to shoot the entire thing in static long shots (done as a way of keeping studio executives from messing with the film’s content) ends up keeping the audience at an emotional distance from everything that is happening. Poitier reportedly had reservations about playing the role and he clearly maintained them while performing it, he seems desperate to get away as soon as the cheque has cleared, and having both his and Dandridge’s singing voices dubbed further isolates the viewer from sympathizing with their relationship. Reportedly, the Gershwin and Samuel Goldwyn estates were both disappointed with the end result and have yet to come to an agreement about releasing this one on home video format.

Academy Award:  Best Scoring of a Musical Picture
Nominations:  Best Cinematography-Colour; Best Costume Design-Colour; Best Sound

Golden Globe Award:  Best Picture-Musical
Nominations:  Best Actor-Musical/Comedy (Sidney Poitier); Best Actress-Musical/Comedy (Dorothy Dandridge)

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