Tuesday, February 20, 2018

For Love of Ivy (1968)

Today is Sidney Poitier's birthday! The legendary actor turns 91. To celebrate I'm taking a look at Poitier's film writing debut from 1968: For Love of Ivy. 1967 was a good year in Poitier's career especially with the release of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, In the Heat of the Night and To Sir, With Love. He was in a position to take on a new challenge. Poitier wanted a part as a romantic lead; something in the same vein as a Cary Grant movie. In a rush of inspiration Poitier wrote down an outline for a story. He simply called it Ivy. Poitier later collaborated with Robert Alan Arthur who would be integral in taking the outline and fleshing it out into a full fledged movie. The story was a romantic comedy, meant for a mainstream audience, with two African-American leads. It would be ground breaking. The end result was For Love of Ivy (1968).

Ivy Moore (Abbey Lincoln) is a 20-something who works full-time for the wealthy Austin household. She's not just their maid, she's like a member of their family. She's an integral part of what holds them together. When Ivy announces to Doris (Nan Martin) and Frank Austin (Caroll O'Connor) that she plans to leave her job for a new life in the city, they panic. The Austin kids, free-spirited hippie Tim (Beau Bridges) and boy-crazy Gena (Lauri Peters) concoct a plan to keep Ivy around. Tim, who does a bit of gambling on the side, enlists his one African-American friend Jack Parks (Sidney Poitier) to go out on a date with Ivy. If Ivy finds a guy and settles down, surely she'll reconsider leaving the Austin household. Tim and Gena try everything to get Jack and Ivy together. Jack is comfortable in his bachelor lifestyle. He runs a shipping company called Par-Tal which is really just a front for his illegal underground casino. Ivy has no idea what she's getting into. Thrust into an awkward situation, she makes the best of it while keeping true to her fiery independent spirit. Will these two fall in love or will Tim and Gena's plan be a total and utter disaster?

More than 300 women tried out for the title role of Ivy. It ultimately went to jazz singer Abbey Lincoln. This was her second film in a very short film career. Both Lincoln and Poitier are charismatic on screen. However I didn't buy them as a couple. Something seemed off. Maybe it was a lack of chemistry with each other, the deliberately slow pace of the story or some other factor. Once something started to happen I was relieved because the waiting was torturous. Intended to be a romantic comedy, For Love of Ivy isn't very funny. With the exception of a few outrageous scenes, it doesn't try very hard to be comedic. According to Poitier biographer Aram Goudsouzian "Daniel Mann's direction sapped the pungency from the better one-liners. He rendered the actors excessively mannered, and the picture moves slower than the light script demands. Thanks to Mann, the romantic comedy had little comedy." The film is more heavy-handed than it is light-hearted. For Love of Ivy has potential that it does not deliver. The film made a modest profit at the box office and Sidney Poitier received on-screen credit for his original idea.

Race is not intended to be at the forefront of the story but it's always there on the surface. The story juxtaposes a wealthy white family whose antics are always ridiculous with more grounded sensibility of Ivy and even Parks. I thought it was interesting that Parks' underground casino is run by African-American and serves a strictly white clientele only. When Ivy tries to bet, Parks refuses saying that he doesn't allow his people to gamble there.

The performances really save the picture. Poitier is charming and it is so good to see him in a bonafide romantic leading role. Lincoln proves her worth to be the center of the story. Beau Bridges is a delight as scheming hippie son of a wealthy family. Caroll O'Connor is the confused and angry patriarch in an all too short a role. Nan Martin is over-the-top as the flustered matriarch. I also enjoyed Leon Bibb as Billy Talbot, one of Parks' main men who is eager to take over the business.

For Love of Ivy (1968) is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

Thank you to the folks at Kino Lorber for sending me the Blu-Ray for review.

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