EXACTLY. Precisely. Just so.
"There are so many different tastes of lipstick, and the textures of lips," says Sidney Poitier at 53.
He flares his do-you-understand-me eyes, uncoils his arms in a great cosmic shrug of wonder, then reels them back in to poise his hands before his chest, back to back, while he thinks of . . . precisely . . . what he means to say, how to say it in words he seems to carve out syllable by syl-la-ble:
"I began . . . to try to figure out that just . . . at the moment of contact, some women tend to . . . relax. I've seen people come up to ask for a kiss or an autograph, and before the first syllable is out of their mouth . . . I've got a reading. They're absolutely naked and at their most vulnerable at that moment!
"I've seen some people so embarrassed that they don't know how to walk away, to . . . disengage. I can see the muscles in their faces begin to jump in fear, a sign of their being naked and vulnerable.
"So I take the time, I try to make them comfortable. It's a bitch. I'll tell you that."
The cases in point are the swarms of people who the day before had lined up all the way down the sidewalk outside the Brentano's bookstore on Fifth Avenue to meet Sidney Poitier, buy his autobiography, "This Life," and get kissed, kissed and kissed, handing their cameras to the rent-a-cop who took their pictures being kissed by Sidney Poitier.
He is pure nerve endings, a fierce jollity, a charisma that glows like the arc lights in an all-night construction site, especially in the tenebrous hush of the Carlyle Hotel dining room.
It's a strange, windowless place, like something you might find at the exact center of an Egyptian pyramid, except for the potted plants.
It's the kind of place where dowagers in broad-brimmed hats tell the waiters everything they bought for their grandchildren that morning.
It's the kind of place you'd go for lunch after the reading of a will.
It's a place where Sidney Poitier seems wonderfully, happily out of place, a place asking for another table, which he does, is like asking for a change of pew at a formal wedding, but the maitre d' seems almost to be rooting for him, delighted.
A waiter sidles into a lull in the conversation to ask for drink orders. A woman from Knopf, Poitier's publisher, says she'll have, let's see, some soda water.
"No!" Poitier says, and quick as a lizard's tongue he's paying total attention to her, a barrage of insight: "You started to say what you really wanted. But then . . . you changed your mind ! What was it you really wanted, my dear?"
She is naked, she is vulnerable, she looks immensely flattered because, after all, he is right.
"White wine," she confesses.
Poitier smiles, a deep delight. He flares his fingers as if a glass of white wine might materialize just beyond them in the air.
"White wine," he says to the waiter.
He has projected this same immediacy and precision for 30 years in the movies, "In the Heat of the Night," "Blackboard Jungle," "To Sir, With Love," "The Defiant Ones," Uptown Saturday Night," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," "Buck and the Preacher," and "Lillies of the Field," which won him an Oscar.
And now, as his acting career has slowed, (but his directing career is booming), he has done the same for his autobigraphy, whose sales broke all previous records for a Brentano's booksigning. It's a book full of the mix of the colloquial and the formal that he exudes here in the Carlyle. For instance, his description of his mother, at the age of 68:
"Not a line in her face, not a line. And although her hair went gray, one would think she was a woman still in her late thirties. She was quick to anger -- quick to anger. No, she wasn't. She was volatile, not angry. But when you did get her angry, O'Lord!"
This grace came only after endless revision involving two tape recorders, two transcripts, editing, revisions, whole afternoons spent on one paragraph.
"Do you know the way you feel it comes to life on the page only if you put it in exactly the right . . . (he brings his hands together and wiggles his fingers as if he were crumbling a piece of bread) . . . words? I don't speak until I've completely and satisfactorily given flight to the thought. I know every word in each paragraph. I wanted to get it down exactly as it happened !"
The precision is not so much a reflection of his nature as a way of controlling it, the reaction of a man who has been encountering one fresh, new, puzzling, frightening, marvelous environment after another, ever since he was 10 months old on Cat Island, in the Bahamas, and his mother taught him to swim. He writes:
"My mother threw me into the ocean like a sack of garbage and stood by expressionless in a dinghy boat watching me go under, sputtering, splashing and screaming. . . . Suddenly, mercifully, my father's hands scooped me up, held me above the water for a moment, then passed me up to my mother -- who promptly threw me back into the ocean again. That went on for hours over a two- or three-day period. At the end of which time I knew how to swim."
At the age of 9, Poitier and his family sailed away from Cat Island to settle in Nassau, where there were cars -- "these beetlelike fellows absorbed my complete attention" -- and ice cream: "It looked like mashed potatoes to me. I bit into it and the shock was overwhelming, I almost fainted, it was so cold."
Sink or swim, innocence and experience: He taught himself to drive a car the same way. At 15, having emigrated to live with relatives in Miami, he decided to be a parking-lot attendant. "I looked into the window at the attendant who was parking the car, to see exactly what he did with his hands and his feet. I concentrated on the hands first and memorized the sequence of every movement that triggered the car into motion. Next I made a mental note of every movement made with his feet, however slight. After a while I thought: I can do that."
By the end of the day, he'd wrecked "six or seven cars" belonging to customers at six or seven parking lots, doing his precise mental evaluations after each wreck, determined to learn from his mistakes. He held down another job for all of the next day before getting fired, and then another before he learned that he also needed a driver's license, and was too young to get one.
As a Bahamian, he also new nothing of American racism. "I couldn't even, at the time, define it as racism. Instead, I characterized it as white people being unnecessarily unfair."
One day he needed a document from the police station.
As he describes it in the book, the desk sergeant welcomed him with:
"Take off that cap, nigger.'. . . So I said, 'Are you talking to me?' He said, 'Yes, I'm talking to you.' I said, 'Are you crazy?' He said, 'What did you say boy?' I said 'Boy? My name is Sidney Poitier, you calling me names? Do you know who you are talking to?' The room is full of lots and lots of cops, and at this point they're falling down on the floor with laughter. Never in their lives have they seen such a nutty little black boy -- he's got to be insane or somebody's paid him 50 cents to come in and play this little charade."
And so the desk sergeant began to call him "sir," having realized "that I just didn't know what was going on; that I just wasn't familiar with the established behavior pattern."
The thing was, Poitier has always made this ignorance work for him. Instead of acting as if he didn't know better, he has acted as if he didn't know worse.
It created a world bountiful with opportunity.
Freezing half to death in New York as a teen-aged dishwasher, he came up with a "brilliant solution." Which was a letter: "Dear President Roosevelt, my name is Sidney Poitier and I . . . would like to go back to the Bahamas, but I don't have any money. I would like to borrow from you $100." He sent it off, "and never heard from the cat. Never heard from the cat. . . . In all sincerity, ignorance, and possibly insanity, my letter was an honest appeal, but there was no response at all from the White House -- not a word."
By spring, he decided to go back to washing dishes, which is how he got into acting. He saw an ad for actors next to ads for dishwashers and decided to give it a try. Unfortunately, he couldn't read well enough to read a script at an audition. So he lerned from a dishwasher friend, but neglected to ask what he ought to read at an audition. So at his next one, he stunned the audience with a selection from "True Confesions" magazine.
He got himself into acting school, got kicked out, back in again. He wasn't sophisticated, tired, jaded, savvy or hip enough to know he couldn't do it.
It was an innocence that has never left -- or failed -- him.In 1950, just as his stage career was starting to take off, Joseph Mankiewicz cast him in the movie "No Way Out," which led to the part of the young priest in "Cry, the Beloved Country." His career has culminated now in the autobiography and a four-year directing contract. (He just finished shooting "Stir Crazy" with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.)
He has had no shortage of experience on which to test his innocence.
He conned his way into the Army, lying about his age, then conned his way out with a psycho discharge.
Years later, ironically, he would spend years in psycoanalysis.
He has been both emblem and goat of black political movements. In the '60s, after years of favorable reviews, and credit for opening up feature films for blacks in leading roles, The New York Times printed an attack entitled "Why Do White Folks Love Sidney Poitier So?"
Critic Vincent Canby said that his "blackness is now invisible."
Pauline Kael wrote that by getting into low comedy in "Let's Do It Again," he was "violating his essence as a gift to his people."
Now, Poitier says that "I can't show people how to go after their dreams. There was a neurotic supposition on my part at one time that I could help save somebody or a body of people. But I have never allowed color to define me."
He has had two marriages, the present one to actress/model Joanna Shimkus.
He has six daughters.
He had a long and tempestuous affair with Diahann Carroll.
He has survived his three-pound premature-birth weight to fulfill a fortuneteller's prediction to his mother: "He will walk with kings. He will be rich and famous. Your name will be carried all over the world. You must not worry about that child."
In writing down his mother's account of that prediction, Poitier details the strange gestures of the fortuneteller and the noises that "gurgled up" "Some inner turbulence was loose in this woman, and she was struggling to harness those forces -- bring them to order -- regain control."
He might be describing himself.
"I have a resource that is very advantageous to my being a dramatic actor," he says over a bowl of fresh raspberries and blueberries he eats with the same savor as if he'd picked them himself.
"There is a part of me down deep somewhere. . . " he says, holding out his palm as if he were weighing something in it, ". . . there is a part of me that is . . . volcanic. It's always there. Very seldom is it called on, in life or art. When it does gurgle, I hasten to batten down the hatches."
"At night I grind my teeth, and my wife says it's very weird, I make a keening sound when I have nightmares."
What are the nightmares about?
"I dream that I am asleep. I am in the light sleep area but suddenly I begin, against my will, to fall into the deep, deep, deep sleep. I am fearful and reluctant to go into that one. My fear is that I'll never come out of it. In it nothing happens. Falling into it is loss of control. Control! Death is a stillness, death is a deep sleep. . . . "
Life has been meant being totally awake, struggling for control by observing every nuance, be it in the taste of ice cream, driving a car, surviving in New York and Hollywood, the taste of lipstick, or his luncheon partner's thirst for white wine, everything.
Now, eating lunch in the Carlyle Hotel; a raconteur who is talking and eating after most of the other tables have been cleared, he worries that he's missed out on things.
I'd like to walk down the street, see a flower, bend over and smell it and say: 'Hey, I'm smelling flowers!' I'm 53, and I pass them by, I'm not aware of them. I'm thinking about dollars, about race, about society, ego, Con Edison. . . "
This puts a listener in mind of Cat Island, and the way Poitier writes about it: "The beaches on the north side were lined and shaded by hundreds of coconut palm trees that simply grew at random along the waterfront. Flowers, edible fruit and berries could be found growing wild almost everywhere."
Would he like to go back to that life, the way it was then?
"Oh man! Yes, yes, yes."