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BELAFONTE’S ONE OF A KIND

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, March 13, 2020

EDITOR’S NOTE: I met Harry Belafonte once in the 1980s when he was in Salt Lake City for a concert and made a promotional appearance on KSL’s noon TV-news hour. It just happened to be on a day when I was there to do a movie review, and I couldn’t resist approaching him and gushing a bit. I had been a fan since childhood when my parents bought his two hit record albums, ‘Belafonte’ and ‘Calypso’ (both 1956), and I wore out the grooves playing them over and over. But it was just a quick hello as he finished his interview and was hustled away by his publicity crew. Fortunately, I was able to do a chatty interview with him, albeit by phone, a decade or so later when he was promoting Robert Altman’s movie ‘Kansas City,’ which is benefiting from a new Blu-ray release. This article, under the headline, ‘Belafonte sings a happy tune on return to films,’ was published in the Deseret News on Aug. 15, 1996. (And by the way, Belafonte is still active at age 93, his most recent film appearance being in Spike Lee’s 2018 dark, satirical biographical drama ‘BlacKkKlansman.’)

Harry Belafonte hadn’t played a movie role in more than two decades when Robert Altman asked him to help develop the ensemble period piece “Kansas City.”

And the role Belafonte plays — a vicious, foul-mouthed mobster who runs a jazz nightclub during the Depression — is certain to raise some eyebrows.

“I think people will be shocked,” the performer said during a telephone interview from his New York office. “I think those who come with certain expectations will be shocked. But moviegoers in general will be delighted.”

Although Belafonte was enthusiastic about helping Altman develop “Kansas City” (which opens Friday at the Cineplex Odeon Broadway Centre Cinemas downtown), he was also somewhat leery about taking the part of mob boss Seldom Seen. “When he said he wanted me to play it, I told him I thought he was nuts,” Belafonte said in that familiar raspy voice, with a quiet laugh.

“The public perception was such to the contrary, I thought, ‘Why burden the film with the audience sitting there dealing with — is that him? — rather than dealing with the character.” But, he says, Altman was insistent. “So I said, ‘Bob you’ve got it — from now on it’s your baggage.’ I said, ‘I’m gonna do my homework, and I wish us both luck.’

“But I really got into it, and I was very satisfied that I would get outside of my skin and into the heart and soul of this villain, and be able to breathe some life into it.

“Bob is an astounding filmmaker. The way he works, he has such integrity. He made all of this quite doable. I believe I had my best moments in cinema and achieved a level that I had not achieved before.”

Belafonte noted that his “comeback” film was actually “White Man’s Burden” last year — but that picture came along while he was in the throes of developing “Kansas City” with Altman. “I originally turned (‘White Man’s Burden’) down, and John Travolta called me and tried to make some sense of it. And after all this time I was making movies again.”

Though he had made brief onscreen cameo appearances in Altman’s films “The Player” and “Ready to Wear,” and helped produce a couple of other films, Belafonte says he considers his last film to be “Uptown Saturday Night,” the hit comedy he made with Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier (who directed and co-starred) in 1974. “It was hugely successful, and then it went into the sequel world (with follow-up films ‘Let’s Do It Again’ and ‘A Piece of the Action’), and I didn’t want to get caught up in that.

“These kinds of pictures are mindless and meaningless, and I don’t want to get into that rhythm. I originally took it because it was Sidney’s picture, and everybody thought it was not going to make it. But it took off. I took the part to get the thing to float, but I stepped away from the sequel.”

     

           Harry Belafonte, 'Kansas City' (1996)

Of course, Belafonte didn’t intend to step away from the movie business altogether. “I thought I’d wait a year or two and another script would come along. But after awhile I think Hollywood believed, ‘He doesn’t want what we do.’ The pieces I took, they were constantly rejected.

“So I had really given up, and I really knew that I’d never be very much involved in the film world again. Yet, here I am at the top of my creative energy.”

Altman is a friend and neighbor, Belafonte said, and when “Kansas City” came along, it just seemed right. “When he first approached me in the very early stages of developing the film, he was going to enter the black world and the jazz world and the black underworld, and he needed to have someone whom he trusted and could bounce information off of. And I like Bob very much, we live close together, and we spent a lot of afternoons and evenings analyzing and debating.

“The next film Altman and I are doing is ‘Amos and Andy’ — about the radio show, the guys from whom (it was stolen), the lies and how upset black people were. It’s a huge canvas. I’m so excited — it’s a h--- of a project. This was Altman’s idea. Every time he gets a black idea he comes to me — I’m automatic.”

Belafonte is also plunging into directing for the first time, a TNT basic-cable film called “The Port Chicago Mutiny.” “It’s a true story about sailors charged with mutiny, which was punishable by death because it was during wartime, and they were found guilty — but Eleanor Roosevelt intervened.

I’ve never directed. The quality here had some value — and I’ve been kind of pleased to hear that quality has a price.”

Over the years Belafonte has turned down a lot of quality material that he felt just wasn’t right for him. Some of those roles went to his good friend Sidney Poitier — including the one that garnered Poitier his Oscar. “I turned down ‘Lilies of the Field,’ vigorously. I didn’t want to do ‘To Sir, With Love,’ ‘Porgy and Bess.’ And I have no regrets.

“I had my music — and if I really had to make my living on an everyday, payday basis, I might have made a deal with Hollywood in a far more compromising way.”

Ah, the music. That came first, and it still comes first. Belafonte, born in Harlem and raised in Jamaica, was studying acting in New York and singing in the famous nightclub the Royal Roost (with a backup band that included Max Roach, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis) when he veered from jazz toward a form of musical expression he found more fulfilling. The sounds of Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger led him to folk music.

As an actor, Belafonte won a Tony in 1953 for his Broadway role in the musical “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.” That same year he also made his film debut (in “Bright Road,” with Dorothy Dandridge) and signed a record contract with RCA. Two years later, his third album — “Calypso” – became the first recording to ever sell more than 1 million copies.

Also in 1955, Belafonte made his second film, “Carmen Jones,” an Americanized adaptation of Bizet’s opera “Carmen,” with English lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. Incredibly, however, Belafonte’s singing voice was dubbed.

“The opera was written by Bizet, and the family owned the rights to it universally, except in the U.S.,” Belafonte explained. “And when the studio, 20th Century Fox, and (director Otto) Preminger decided to do the Hammerstein interpretation, the Bizet family estate said no! They would not permit it to be shown, and they would sue for violation of copyright. It had been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, German — but they were opposed to the black English, and giving it another environment.

“(Fox) thought of they kept the legitimacy of the score, in the same key it was written, the voice it was written for, they could convince the Bizet estate to relent, because all they did was change the environment.” Hence, Belafonte’s voice was dubbed by LeVern Hutcherson (and Dorothy Dandridge’s by Marilyn Horne). Belafonte said he took the role anyway, because he had another agenda.

 

“You see, up until that movie, the mythology was that black movies were not economically viable. “Stormy Weather” and “Cabin in the Sky” didn’t make money. So the myth was out there that black pictures couldn’t make money. So, Pearly (Pearl Bailey) and Dorothy and myself, and Preminger — we thought, ‘If we can pull this off, we can strike a severe blow to the mythology.’ So when the picture came out and was hugely successful, it did a lot to establish that maybe everybody should take another look at this myth.”

Belafonte said he is glad to see the inroads being made by black filmmakers today, though he feels the best is yet to come. “I think there is a numerical increase in the making of films dealing with black artists, certainly. There’s some evidence of black independence by the Spike Lees of the world, and John Singleton. To that extent, in all honesty, there is an improvement in the numerical equation.

“But the quality of the product — well, I don’t know if the pictures of the ’80s or ’90s are very different from ‘Shaft’ or ‘Cotton Comes to Harlem.’ The quality of the films is what people are so anxious about, that’s what everybody’s adrenalin is up about.

“The degree to which we black filmmakers begin to harvest our new base and sense of power — whatever that is — and energize films that give us dimension as a nation and culture, the richer and stronger we will be. Because the audience will be inspired and titillated by that journey.

“At the moment, it leans heavily on movies in the hood, films about urban-driven youth. It’s getting a little different, it’s getting a little away from that, with ‘Devil in a Blue Dress’ and the success of Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman playing in white movies as above-the-line stars. That’s very encouraging but it might just be a cycle.

“But we need a balance. The white people have a much bigger canvas from which to present their images. You might not like what you find here and there, but you’re always going to get a ‘Remains of the Day,’ a ‘Postman,’ a ‘Bicycle Thief,’ a ‘Citizen Kane,’ etc., etc., etc. — some film by some courageous filmmaker who takes you to another level. We’ve never had that.”

But what about the music? Has Belafonte’s own resurgence in filmmaking hindered his musical career? “I’ve had less time to be indulgent, but I’ll always make time for my music. That’s my firstborn, my favorite child.

“I was once asked by a journalist what kind of an actor did I think I was, and I said, ‘Great!’ And he said, ‘Don’t you think that’s a little arrogant?’ And I said, ‘Well, I am telling the truth.

“The fact that I’ve convinced people for almost 50 years that I can sing proves what a great actor I am.”

With that Belafonte let out another raspy laugh.