December 8, 2019
Lilies of the Field (1963)
Grade: 63/100

Director: Ralph Nelson
Stars: Sidney Poitier, Lilia Skala, Stanley Adams

What it's about. Black itinerant construction worker Sidney Poitier makes a pit stop at a country farm, because his car radiator needs water. Because it's a movie, the farm is the residence for five refugee German nuns: serious and bossy Lilia Skala, and good-natured Lisa Mann, Isa Crino, Francesca Jarvis, and Pamela Branch. The latter is only 17 years old, because cameras like young faces.

Skala promptly attempts to convince Poitier to remain on the farm, and work there without pay, until he has completed a chapel. Because it is a movie, Poitier does so, albeit reluctantly. Nearby Hispanics, who attend religious services with the nuns, eventually pitch in to help. Even Stanley Adams, who is not religious, aids the cause.

Poitier gets along well with the four friendly nuns, and especially enjoys singing with them, and teaching them English. He butts heads with Skala, because she can't pay him, and can't feed him well, and is always laying a guilt trip upon him.

Because Poitier needs an income, he works two days a week for Ralph Nelson, the local construction businessman. Nelson at first borders on racist in his interactions with Poitier, but soon learns to respect him enough to offer him a job as foreman. But it's back to the road for Poitier, as soon as the chapel is finished. And the chapel is so nice that even impresses jaded Father Murphy (Dan Frazer), the traveling priest of the vicinity.

How others will see it. Lilies of the Field was a low budget movie with exactly one famous actor in the cast: Sidney Poitier. But his efforts were rewarded when he won the coveted Best Actor Oscar, almost forty years before Halle Berry won Best Actress for her role in Monster's Ball.

But Poitier must have had an inclination that taking the role would pay off. The script was good, certainly, but the clincher was director Ralph Nelson, whose previous film Requiem for a Heavyweight was named one of the Top Ten Films for 1962 by the National Board of Review.

Poitier also won Best Actor at the Golden Globes. And, the film was nominated for Best Picture, and Skala was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, by both the Oscars and Golden Globes.

Today at, the movie has a middling 8K user votes. But, the user ratings are fairly high at 7.6 out of 10, and they climb to 8.2 among women over 45, who tend to be the most independent and discerning viewers.

The user reviews confirm what one might expect: the ever-likable Sidney Poitier has a big, big role here, and nobody does it better, not even James Bond. It is remarkable that, as of 2019, Poitier remains the only black to win the Oscar for Best Actor, and in doing so took the trophy away from Paul Newman, whose very best film, Hud, came out the same year.

Lilies of the Field was based on a book and, like Jaws or Gone With the Wind, nobody says the book was better. More than one viewer uses the word "perfect" to describe the film. Only one viewer calls it a feel-good film, though this was the director's intention. Of course Poitier will remain on the farm with the nuns until he builds the chapel. That's the story.

How I felt about it. It is a good movie. True, it is predictable, but so are episodes of "Perry Mason." Just because Mason always gets his client off, after his interrogation makes a witness confess to murder on the witness stand, week after week, when this never happens in real life, doesn't mean it isn't a good television show.

In real life, of course, Poitier would demand payment in advance for patching the roof. When Skala wouldn't and couldn't pay him, Poitier would be gone. And that would be that. Viewers would miss out on all the fun of Poitier partying with the four nice nuns.

We notice that the four nice nuns are interchangeable. One is younger and more pretty than the other three, but that is simply the casting.

We also notice that Poitier's singing is dubbed. And the nuns sing really well, if not as well as the Singing Nuns, who topped the Hot 100 chart that year with "Dominique."

We get the film's message. A young black protestant and an elderly white nun can find common ground and accomplish great things. The Hispanics are also different, and can contribute too. They end up building the chapel as much, or more so, than Poitier. And even the seemingly racist construction businessman learns to respect the black man, the Hispanic volunteers, and the German immigrant nuns.