When Sidney Poitier went to the Moscow Film Festival ‘Literary Axis’

The Cold War and the conflict of ideas with the Soviet Union were high on the agenda for the US Information Agency as I was planning to lead the US delegation to the 1963 Moscow Film Festival. “I agreed to serve on the jury in Moscow,” producer and director Stanley Kramer told me on a Hollywood phone call. .

Stanley was a friend who was known for making successful films with social content. She suggested that this was an opportunity to show American films behind the Iron Curtain. Stanley was keen on the idea, so working with the young State Department officer at the US Embassy, ​​Terry Katherman, I compiled a list of Kramer’s films to determine if the Russians would accept.

And surprisingly quickly, they indicated their willingness to host shows Judgment at Nuremberg, inheriting the wind And The the challenge At the Union of Filmmakers in Moscow, I invite Kramer to speak. I knew Stanley would effectively represent an American viewpoint.

There were reports that the State Department had concluded that the proposed films were “inappropriate”. they thought the challenge , With Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as prisoners of a serial gang, they would confirm the Soviet line that the United States was a racist state, and Verdict in Nuremberg Our ally will undermine West Germany by reminding viewers of Nazi atrocities.

Bureaucratic disagreements escalate quickly and opinions harden, so I reach out to a new acquaintance, Avril Harriman, a prominent figure in the Kennedy-era State Department. Avril served as governor of New York and was our ambassador to Moscow during the war, attending the Yalta Conference with Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin. Now in his seventies, they are the reins of power.

His mental agility and hard thinking led his colleagues to call him “the crocodile”. (“He lay there on the river bank, his eyes half closed, and he looked drowsy. Then, whap It bites. I made my case about Kramer and the kind of movies we wanted to show, and I was relieved that he shared my point of view.

Harriman called me home at seven the next morning. (I later questioned him about these early calls. “I like to get people to think about my problems before they get too busy thinking about ours.”) “Your problem is Tommy Thompson,” he said. “I will arrange for you to see him.”

It occurred to me that if we could persuade Sidney Poitier to come to Moscow, his charismatic presence would cast a positive light on the public display.

Llewellyn E. Thompson, twice US ambassador to Moscow, was now Kennedy’s ambassador-at-large on the National Security Council, advising the president on Soviet affairs. I felt like a Hollywood novice when I got off the elevator on the seventh floor, where the power was at the State Department.

Ambassador Thompson was kind but polite, and seemed ready to have a serious discussion. He listened as I explained my point that Soviet filmmakers whose creativity was restricted by the state would respect these films and envy Americans’ freedom to tackle controversial issues. The ambassador surprised me by reversing and agreeing to the offers, with the caveat that Kramer’s films would only be shown to the film community, not to the general public.

Terry Katherman met me at Sheremetyevo Airport on a gray July day and took me to the Moskva Hotel. He was working on preparations for Harriman’s test ban negotiations but was excited about his concurrent duties with our delegation. Moscow was gloomy, gloomy and inhospitable to tourists, even in the middle of summer. We shall soon refer to Moskva – a huge gray neo-Stalinist building near the Kremlin with a lobby resembling a train station – by the name of Comrade Hilton.

There were delegations from 64 countries, including the client states of the Soviet Union, North Vietnam, Cuba and East Germany, which gave the festival a political aspect not seen in Cannes or Venice. Present was the Minister of Culture, Yekaterina Furtseva, who made her way from a weaver in a textile factory to the first woman to sit on the powerful chair. There was a saying: “Whatever Khrushchev thinks, says Furtseva.” She wore more elegance than usual for Soviet women and was especially hospitable to the charming left-leaning Simone Seguret and her husband Yves Montand, and to Federico Fellini, who arrived with his wife Giulietta Massina and his new film, 8 1/2.

But when it was time to negotiate, Furtseva offered Foulath a party apparatus. Her deputy, Vladimir Baskakov, a towering man with a rigid eye which gave him a serious look, was in control of the festival. A Russian friend warned that Baskakov was a bad deed.

The opening ceremony was in the newly built Congress Palace inside the Kremlin, a 6,000-seat hall with marble columns where major political events took place. Senior officials and astronauts sat on the podium decorated with the flags of the participating countries. To our surprise, Stanley Kramer received a standing ovation when the jury members were introduced. Later when his films were shown, the audience chanted “Krah Mir, Krah Mir”.

I explained my view that Soviet filmmakers whose creativity was restricted by the state would respect these films and envy Americans’ freedom to address controversial issues.

Our delegation also included Danny Kaye, Geraldine Page, Shelley Winters, composer Elmer Bernstein, screenwriter Abby Mann, and Elia Lubert, a Lithuanian American who was President of United Artists in Europe. Intelligent, tough and able to swear an oath in seven languages, Elijah became my advisor and dear friend.

“Hollywood – a hit in Moscow!” The banner address was in diverse. Reporter Harold Myers wrote that “Hollywood took a major hit at the Moscow Film Festival in stark contrast to its involvement in previous years.”

So far, so good.

Minister Baskakov saw the response to Kramer’s films and surprised us by announcing – contrary to my agreement with Ambassador Thompson – an offer in public on Sunday night. the challenge In the Conference Palace. I went to see Baskakov and took Ilya Lubert with me. “Vladimir,” I said, “our agreement is that Kramer’s films will only be shown in the Union of Filmmakers.” Baskakov was strict. He had the film and was going to show it on Sunday, showing that possession in the Soviet Union is 100 percent of the law.

Elijah and we withdrew to my suite. I was upset about the violation of my understanding with Ambassador Thompson, but it occurred to me that if we could persuade Sidney Poitier to come to Moscow, his charismatic presence would cast a positive light on the public display. Ilya and I dealt with the insane Soviet telephone system, and three hours later I called Sydney, who was filming in London. She told him about the show at the Kremlin Palace of Congresses.

“Sydney, your presence will make it a great night for America in Moscow. Ilya can arrange with United Artists for you to have a Saturday off. Will you come?”

I’ll be there,” Sidney said after a pause. “I’ll get my own ticket.”

On Saturday afternoon, Ilya, Ilya, and Terry Katherman were about to go to meet my Sydney flight in Sheremetyevo when the phone rang in my suite. It was Pskakov. Mr. Stevens, the Kremlin Palace is no longer available. the challenge Now at the Sports Palace on Sunday morning.” Shocked by the shell, I looked out of the phone. Ilya grabbed her and began cursing Baskakov in several languages. We are now faced with telling Sydney that the prestigious Kremlin Palace parade is now taking place out of town on Sunday morning.

Sydney, sir, gracefully accepted the news and Stanley Kramer joined us for dinner at Aragvi, a Georgian restaurant favored by the cultural elite (we called it Sardi’s Very East). We had a dinner full of vodka, joked about Soviet duplicity, and returned to Moskva early in the morning.

We saw a serpentine line of eight thousand Russians standing in the cold morning. They were waiting to see the American movie.

The American delegation had a great credit for our appointed translator, Vladimir Posner. In his mid-twenties, Vlad went to Stuyvesant High School in New York until his father, a Russian-born film director, was accused of spying and returned to Moscow. Vladimir’s English had the outer layer of New York, and his fluent Russian made our translated notes accessible and our events interesting. (Two decades later he became a prominent commentator on Soviet affairs at ABC night line.)

Vlad joined Sydney, Stanley, Elijah and Susan Strasberg, who were part of our delegation, in a pickup truck Sunday morning to the sports arena. We blocked the highway, circled the parking lot, and approached a huge wooden building – at which point we saw a serpentine row of eight thousand Russians standing in the morning cold. They were waiting to see the American movie.

We went up the stage and I talked about the freedom we enjoy in the United States. “I’m glad so many of you can see it the challenge , A film that explores the tensions in our society.” Vlad translated my words and then Kramer. “This film deals with some of our shortcomings and reaches you for your understanding,” he said to applause. “We hope that one day you will be able to explore the issues that matter to you in your country.” Revered and charismatic Sydney said, I live my life as an actor and enjoy the opportunity to play challenging roles.” The lights went out and the challenge Not disturbed.

Tony Curtis, an evil gang prisoner chained up to his fellow Poitiers as they try to escape, says, “You know the problem with us? We spend our whole lives without saying a word—waiting until we’re dead before we shout.” This elicited spontaneous applause.

At the climax, their chains broke, the two men ran to jump on a moving train. Sydney raises itself. He reaches out and Curtis hooks her. Poitier struggles to get him on board. The audience started applauding, only to see they both stumble off the express train and get caught again.

Henry Tanner reports in The New York Times Describe Russian viewers jumping on their feet. In an extraordinary display of emotion, almost the entire audience began to pour toward the corner of the huge auditorium where Sidney Poitier, the Negro star the challenge , was standing. There were mostly young people. Many wipe tears from their eyes while others cheer and clap.” I saw Sydney looking down and noticing how Susan Strasberg moved, I watched her point her to her feet, her sunglasses dropping, revealing tears as she publicly cried. Sydney embraced her and the roar of the crowd intensified.

Note Tanner in times, “Young Soviet artists and thinkers who are fighting for greater freedom of expression have reasons to be happy about what happened here during the 3rd Moscow International Film Festival.”


Adapted from My Place in the Sun: Life in the Golden Age of Hollywood and Washington By George Stephens, Jr. Copyright © 2022. Available from University of Kentucky Press.

Featured image: Sidney Poitier pays tribute to interpreter Vladimir Posner upon his return from the screening the challenge At the Palace of Sports in Moscow, July 1963. From left to right: John Strasberg, Susan Strasberg, Stanley Kramer and Stevens Jr.

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