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Sidney Poitier Wins Best Actor Oscar

Apr. 13, 1964 - Motion picture history was made tonight at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium when Sidney Poitier became the first Negro to win an Oscar for best performance by an actor. Mr. Poitier received the statuette at the 36th annual Oscar ceremonies for his portrayal, in “Lilies of the Field,” of an itinerant construction worker who builds a chapel in the Southwest for refugee nuns. Patricia Neal won the best-actress award for her portrayal of the housekeeper in “Hud.”

Named best picture of 1963 was “Tom Jones,” the adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 18th-century novel, which satirizes English morality and literature. It was only the second foreign-made movie to be named best picture by the Academy. The first was Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet,” in 1948.

But it was the stirring ovation for Mr. Poitier that was the dramatic highlight of the evening. While many millions of Americans watched on ABC-TV, the local audience, containing some of Hollywood’s most famous celebrities, burst into applause and cheers as the tall actor strode to the stage to accept his Oscar from Anne Bancroft (right), last year’s best actress.

After accepting the award with a broad smile, he said somberly that “it has been a long journey to this moment.”

The outburst for Mr. Poitier was recognition not only of his talent, but also of the fact that Hollywood has felt guilty about color barriers of the past, some of which still exist there.

Mr. Poitier’s victory was particularly bright because it was against very strong competition. His four rivals were Albert Finney (“Tom Jones”), Richard Harris (“This Sporting Life”), Rex Harrison (“Cleopatra”), and Paul Newman (“Hud”).

This was the second time Mr. Poitier was nominated for best acting. The last time was for his role as an escaped convict chained to Tony Curtis in “The Defiant Ones.” The winner for that year, 1958, was David Niven, in “Separate Tables.”

Until tonight, the only important Oscar award to a Negro was for best supporting actress. That one went to Hattie McDaniel as Vivian Leigh’s house servant in “Gone With the Wind,” in 1939.

Tony Richardson won the directing award for his work on “Tom Jones.” The Oscar for best supporting actor went to Melvyn Douglas as the honorable rancher in “Hud,” who refuses to be corrupted by money. The best supporting actress Oscar went to Margaret Rutherford, for “The V.I.P.’s.” She played the part of a duchess who remains valiant and good-humored in spite of poverty. Chosen as the best foreign-language film was Federico Fellini’s “8½.”

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