No, I didn’t arrive by limo. Downhome gal that I am, I took the Metro from Santa Monica to DTLA (that’s the new hip name for Downtown Los Angeles) to Hollywood and Highland, where sits the Chinese Theatre in all its glory. (Today it’s actually the TCL Chinese Theatre, not Grauman’s, and it’s owned by actual Chinese.) I could have sidestepped the red carpet and entered the theatre directly, but an intrepid blogger named Raquel Stecher, whose long-running vintage film site is called Out of the Past, wanted to meet me. Naturally, I obliged. Anything for the press!
Meanwhile a handful of excited volunteers in basic black were lined up, ready to greet arriving celebrities. Those elderly folk who arrived in my presence were not people I recognized, but they seemed delighted by all the attention. Later, after I’d filed into the splendidly exotic Chinese Theatre (whose lobby is filled with costumes of stars like Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe), the truly big guns showed up. On this festival premiere night (co-sponsored by the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures), they included the team behind the featured film of the evening, 1967’s In the Heat of the Night. After we’d all sat for a long time, nibbling free popcorn and watching an endless loop of festival promos, the real entertainment began. First came a heartfelt video tribute to longtime TCM resident host Robert Osborne, who passed away one month ago. Next, Osborne sidekick Ben Mankiewicz, grandson of the man who wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane, sat down for a chat with In the Heat of the Night’s producer, Walter Mirisch, its director, Norman Jewison, and featured actress Lee Grant. All are upwards of 90, though Grant, in particular, looks surprisingly fit. When Mankiewicz welcomed the three to the stage, Jewison quipped, “I’m just glad to be alive.”
In the audience but not taking part in the discussion was the one and only Sidney Poitier, who elicited a long ovation from the crowd. Though Poitier didn’t speak, he was often evoked by the others. Mirisch noted that he and Poitier—best friends through the years—have lunch together on a weekly basis. And Poitier was much involved in the shaping of this film, which began with Mirisch uncovering a story that would highlight Poitier’s talents and outlook. Many of the anecdotes that came up were familiar to me: how they avoided shooting this tense racial drama in the Deep South (where Poitier might have faced hostile locals) by finding a suitable small town in southern Illinois; how Rod Steiger (in an Oscar-winning performance as the small-town Southern sheriff) chose to define his character by the way he chewed gum; how the moment when Poitier’s character (a Philadelphia police detective) returns the slap of a bigoted Southern overlord galvanized moviegoers everywhere.