Moviecrazed
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BE THANKFUL YOU'RE NOT AS HANDSOME AS HARRY

It was 1972 when I interviewed Harry Belafonte for The New York Times, and he was not pleased about the deception taking place in the Nixon White House or the continuing bloodbath in Vietnam. Nor was he pleased about being cursed with sexy good looks that made it so difficult for moviegoers to realize what a fine actor he was. We should all be so cursed. --Guy Flatley

"One day, right here in this house, it happened. I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, brushing my teeth, and suddenly it hit me: ‘It’s my teeth,’ I thought. ‘It’s my goddam teeth! Every time I open my mouth, every time I smile, my whole face lights up!’ ”

Harry Belafonte smiles, and sure enough, his whole face does light up. The smile and the face are almost as famous as the husky, honey-coated voice that helped transform the down-and-out ghetto dweller into a finger-snapping, body-swaying, folk-singing millionaire.

But tonight, Belafonte speaks of his magnetic physical presence as if it were some shameful burden with which he has been saddled. He sighs, recalling the tortuous uphill struggle that finally led to his triumph as the scraggly, un-sexy bible-thumping preacher of “Buck and the Preacher.” Buck, of course, is Sidney Poitier, who also directed this rompingly popular western about a pair of blacks who out-fox and out- shoot a crew of cut-throat white bounty hunters.

“This personality thing has plagued me throughout my film career,” says the strapping actor, brooding over a Scotch and water in the spacious living room of his luxury apartment on West End Avenue. At 45, he looks almost youthful and every bit as handsome as he did 13 years ago when he had audiences calypsoing in the aisles at the Palace Theater. “From the beginning, I cut a certain figure on the stage, a figure that has come to mean something specific in the minds and hearts of people around the world. I’m the guy in the cutaway shirt and the tight pants, the guy doing all those catchy songs. People have always brought this image of me into the theater with them, and no matter what I’ve felt internally, they just wouldn’t buy a lot of the things I was trying to project.”

Belafonte shakes his head over the cruel curse of charisma. “A lot had to be done to enrich the character of the preacher in the movie and subvert the personality of Belafonte. I had to get rid of the kempt hair – the coiffure or whatever the hell you call it. And no more body-fitting garments; I had to wear raggedy clothes, mess up my face, wear a beard and moustache. After doing all this, I made some tests, and when I looked at the results I was really bugged. The one thing I was trying to bring off wasn’t coming off. I was still the same old Belafonte.”

But that was before the moment of bathroom truth. “Standing there before the bathroom mirror, I took my wife’s eyebrow pencil and began blacking my teeth., and – sure enough – that did it! So, down in Mexico, where we made the movie, I started off each day by stuffing my jaws with cotton, to keep from salivating, and then shading my teeth with an eyebrow pencil and coating them with nail polish. And in order to justify those dirty teeth in the movie, I took to chewing tobacco.”

It was an un-tasty price to pay, but Belafonte figures it was worth it. The film, which he co-produced with Poitier, is riding the red-hot crest of the black-movie wave, and critics are calling Belafonte a dramatic “find," a tribute he has been waiting to hear ever since those long-ago days when he – and his classmates Marlon Brando and Walter Matthau – studied acting with Erwin Piscator down at the New School for Social Research.

Not that Belafonte is a newcomer to the screen. His dreams of cinematic glory began as long ago as 1953, the year he made his debut opposite the late Dorothy Dandridge in a modest drama called “Bright Road.” But Hollywood, with its traditional reluctance to cast black actors in challenging roles, failed to develop the dynamic singer’s potential. Belafonte disappointed his fans by playing docile cardboard characters in such flimsy films of the fifties as “Carmen Jones,” “Island in the Sun” and “The World, the Flesh and the Devil.”

He did, however, turn down one bigger-than-life role, one which was eventually played by Sidney Poitier. “When I was approached by Sam Goldwyn to do ‘Porgy and Bess,’ I told him I had no interest in doing such a film at that time. The leading man was a black man on his knees, the leading lady was a black whore, Crown was a sex maniac, Sporting Life a cocaine pusher. That was not where my head was at.”

Where Belafonte’s head was at was almost exclusively in the civil rights movement, and aside from two noble failures – “Odds Against Tomorrow", in 1959, and “The Angel Levine,” in 1970 – he steered clear of the movie cameras.

“I began to grapple with the whole Hollywood thing, and I had to conclude that it wasn’t just Hollywood that was at fault. Hollywood was just an extension of the United States of America, a country that had been ignoring the basic priorities and passions of a vast number of its own
people. So I decided to reflect on those passions and priorities and see how they could best be recorded.”

Belafonte saw “Buck and the Preacher” – with its story of freed slaves being stalked by brutal bounty hunters and forced to return to unofficial slave labor in the South – as the perfect opportunity to present a true picture of black Americans. “When Drake Walter, who had been a member of my apprentice program on ‘The Angel Levine,’ showed me his script, I was grabbed by the fact that the characters of Buck and the Preacher were placed against this fascinating background, this important chapter of history that most Americans – white and black – knew nothing about.”

While all the critics were grabbed by Belafonte’s bravura performance as the boozing, gun-toting preacher, they were not unanimously grabbed by the movie itself. “I’m disappointed when I see white critics dismiss ‘Buck and the Preacher’ as innocuous entertainment. Some of them have even had the audacity to suggest that they’ve seen similar movies in the past – that it’s all been done before. What irony! What a shoddy, conscienceless, parochial approach to life.

“Other critics complain that it's too violent. Well, we told it like it was. I don't know how one shows what took place in the West without showing the white as the villain. In fact, Sidney and I did not set out to make a great work of art. But we did make a movie that deals with social, political and ideological realities. We made compromises; everyone compromises – that’s the name of the game. But we are artists, and we made an honest film.”

Does Sidney Poitier’s knee-length performance as Porgy fall into the category of compromise? “I’ve known Sidney for 26 years, and one thing that has sustained our friendship is that I don’t challenge what I have in him. He’s my friend, and that’s it. He knows why I turned down ‘Porgy and Bess’ and I know why he accepted it, and never the twain shall meet. But I have never caught Sidney in an immoral act, in anything that is the least bit unethical.

“And it is perfectly clear that he has been treated unfairly by the press, by your own paper. He is treated qualitatively different from the way white superstars like Burt Lancaster and Paul Newman are treated – actors who have done movies every bit as poor as the poorest Sidney has made. Where are all the articles about their failures, the disappointing moments of their careers? Laurence Olivier has been in some of the most dreadful movies ever made – where are the articles decrying this? And Laurence Olivier had more choices than Sidney ever had. When I see this happening to Sidney, I refuse to be part of the parade of pain that is heaped upon him. An awful lot is expected of that man, and for no reason except that he is black.The microbes of racism run deep.”

It is wrong to apply discriminatory standards to black artists, but, according to Belafonte, it is equally wrong to make excuses for inferior black art. “Neither ‘Shaft’ nor ‘Cotton Comes to Harlem’ appealed to me. It’s a multi-leveled thing, of course – how can I be against a movie that uses a black crew? And Ossie Davis, the director of ‘Cotton,’ is a close friend of mine. Nevertheless, being black does not automatically make it good. I’m simply not turned on by pictures that seduce an audience with the use of violence in the name of race. The fact that it’s ‘Shaft’ doing it doesn’t make it any more palatable to me than the white flicks that do it. It’s true that there is some violence in ‘Buck and the Preacher,’ but it is not violence for violence’s sake. I’m very much concerned because I believe there is a dangerous spiraling taking place. The excess violence in films is forcing the industry to find more and more graphic methods of showing more and more violence. And something subliminal is happening to the audience – if the film is not violent, then it is not dramatic enough for them.”

Belafonte’s aversion to violence stems in part from his friendship with Martin Luther King. “What he represented – what he had to offer – is still the most valid way for Americans to reach a solution to their problems. Nobody yet has been able to convince me that violence is going to get us where we want to go. Dr. King was one of the first to speak out against the war in Vietnam; I remember very well a New York Times editorial criticizing him for that stand and saying he should stick to civil rights.”

One of Belafonte’s most stirring memories is that of marching beside Martin Luther King in 1963 “I felt very optimistic at the time of the March on Washington. Now I am more cautious about my optimism. After all, at the time of the march, we had more to work with. We had Martin Luther King, the Kennedy Administration, the Peace Corps. There were certain kinds of honorable commitments, and victory seemed not too far off. “But then we began to see how strong the adversary was. We had assumed that when blacks and whites marched together in favor of peace and accommodations, the rest of the nation would rise up and profoundly support the cause of justice. Instead, the marchers met with tear gas and clubs and killing and Kent State and an intensification of the Vietnam war. It was not what we had fantasized at the beginning. I have not abdicated but, as I say, I am more cautious now about how I go about things.

"A lot of people have the attitude that if you’re a public performer, you forfeit your right to express your political point of view. Well, I’ve always been involved in politics, from the Paul Robeson years till now. The fact that I’m an entertainer doesn’t make me any less the victim of conscienceless politicians and mismanaged government. If there is a shaky economy, the people don’t buy tickets, and I don’t eat. If there is an atomic holocaust, artists have no special place to hide. If there is a war, my son is not exempt from the pressures and conflicts that come from a war. “David is only 14, but I’ve already told him what I’d say if he were drafted: ‘There is nothing in this day and age and at this stage of man’s development that can justify the taking of another man’s life.’ I’d encourage my son to defy the draft; he’d be supported fully if he made that choice.”

The Belafontes also have a 10-year-old daughter named Gina, and Belafonte has two older daughters, Adrienne and Shari, by a former marriage. Julie Belafonte, who appears in a small role as an Indian in “Buck and the Preacher,” was the only white dancer in the Katherine Dunham company before she married Belafonte in 1957. “When I first met Julie, there she was with a host of blacks, and there she is still. As a matter of fact, I’ve brought more white friends into our circle than she has. Our marriage has not affected my career – except positively – nor has it affected our relationships with other people. We still see the people we want to see, still have the friends we want to have.”

But there have been problems. “Just let me say that two of my children have experienced a great deal of both the anti-blackness and the anti-Semitism that is to be found in this city. But I have opted not to live in Beverly Hills. I believe that New York is the most pluralistic and open section of the country. My children are not insulated. They have met all kinds of people. Martin Luther King was a constant visitor in this house. And Stokely Carmichael. And Shirley Chisholm. The first time my children met John Kennedy, he was sitting in the chair where you are sitting now.

“My children move with easy sophistication,” he continues with paternalistic pride, “and they don’t mind challenging me – constantly. They challenge me as a father and as a singer. ‘What kind of songs are those you’re singing?’ they want to know. Put it this way: Belafonte records are not the most played records in this house.”

Of greater concern to Belafonte than what record is being played is what TV program is being played. For years he has protested the fact that there are no suitable shows for black children on television, no images with which they can identify. “The situation is not improving”, he says. “Certainly not with ‘Sanford and Son.’ I have a great deal of conflicting feelings about that show. I’m caught up in the great gift those people have for provoking laughter, and yet that show has a powerful anti-feminist format, a put-down of black women. And there is this constant belligerence between the father and son. I find this quasi-white middle-class approach to family relationships very upsetting.”

It’s doubtful that Belafonte himself will be popping up with much frequency on the home screen, now that “Buck” has brightened his movie future. “Sidney and I plan to do more and better films. It is crucial that films be made and seen, confirming for the third world people that there is a majesty to their history, films that take the misinformed and misled white society and help it understand that the glory of mankind is not its exclusive domain.”

And Broadway will play very little part in Belafonte’s future. “Five years ago, a Broadway musical would have been peachy-keen. But with what’s beginning to happen in films – where you have the capacity to reach so many people – Broadway doesn’t say as much to me as it used to.” Belafonte appears to be thinking an especially deep thought.

“Of course,” he says after a moment, “if you walked in here with a great script for a Broadway musical, I probably wouldn’t even wait for the elevator. I’d just jump out the window.” He smiles and his whole face lights up. It’s the goddam teeth.