Debuts

To conclude our Beginnings series, two contributors discuss their favourite ‘firsts’ from an actor or director.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Written by Katie Lynch

TW: Racial Violence

Sidney Poitier was the first Black man to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in The Defiant Ones (Stanley Kramer, 1958), and the first to win the award for his 1963 film Lilies of the Field (Ralph Nelson). He made a successful career from helping films about racism and race-relations to reach mainstream screens. One such film was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Kramer, 1967). Featuring Poitier as Dr John Wade Prentice, we follow as he meets his White fiance’s parents for the first time, only to be met with unearthed racial prejudice from self-proclaimed liberals. Although the vocabulary and attitudes portrayed are outdated, self-congratulatory for the White characters, and occasionally patronising towards the Black characters, it is a touching story; packed with powerful performances especially from an elegant Poitier and a monumental Hepburn. Bear in mind that interracial marriage had been illegal in several US states until mere months before the movie was released, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr was yet to come in 1968. Poitier was taking risks. His onscreen kiss with his White counterpart, Katharine Houghton, even incited death threats from the public. 

Poitier may have been the first Black man to take home the Best Actor award for his politicised work at a time of heightened prejudice and violence, but the award has since gone to only three other Black men. Perhaps the language around race issues has changed since 1967, but the lessons from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner remain unlearned.

Primal Fear

Written by Saoirse Mulvihill

They Got Away With Murder!

A debut from an actor I thoroughly enjoyed is that of Edward Norton in the 1996 neo-noir film, Primal Fear (Gregory Hoblit). The story follows the morally questionable defence attorney, Martin Vail (Richard Gere), as he takes on the case of an altar boy accused of murdering the town’s beloved archbishop (Stanley Anderson). In this film, we see Edward Norton filling the shoes of said altar boy; the shy, gentle, stuttering Aaron Stampler. The film is fairly complex and occasionally intricately interwoven, and the audience will often find great enjoyment in trying to figure out what really happened before it is revealed. It is a clever, yet sometimes shallow film, driven home by the pure talents of Richard Gere, Frances McDormand and – most notably – Norton himself, who managed to snag the title for Best Supporting Actor at the 1997 Golden Globes for it – an incredibly impressive feat for anyone’s debut role.

Although I respect the attempt at a both logically and philosophically intelligent film, it does occasionally miss the mark ever so slightly – yet Edward Norton’s performance alone is undeniably impressive and utterly unforgettable (as is the 90’s saxophone soundtrack).

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