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Abbey Lincoln: "You can't really tell the story until everyone gets on the stage."

Sidney Poitier and Abbey Lincoln.

Some of the critics said "For Love of Ivy" was just one more stereotyped Hollywood boy-gets-girl comedy, only this time Sidney Poitier got Abbey Lincoln instead of Cary Grant not quite getting Doris Day. "Well, yes, we're all stereotypes," Abbey Lincoln said. "That's because people tend to be alike. In the movie, Ivy is a colored maid. But if she had been a doctor, her emotional experiences would have been the same. And the movie could have been shot in Japan or Germany, and you would still care about what happens to Ivy."

What happens to Ivy is that she announces one day she's going to quit as the maid for the Austin family. The Austin family looks just like the typical upper-middle-class white suburban family you've seen in a hundred films: There's the wife, who hasn't sliced a tomato in 10 years; the husband, a bumbling, well-meaning business executive; and the two teen-age kids, one boy and one girl, who look a little like hippies, but underneath you can see they're as wholesome as Ozzie and Harriet's kids.

The thing is, the 100 other movies you saw were always about this family, and the maid had a walk-on part to give the kids their orange juice and breakfast cereal. In those long years of stereotyped roles for black actors, the maid would go back through the swinging door into "her" kitchen, shaking her head and sighing about these young folks today: "I sho doan understan' dem."

But now, in "For Love of Ivy," the stereotype is turned right around and the movie is about the maid for a change. And not a stereotyped maid, but an intelligent woman who would very much like to get out of the kitchen and into the city, maybe to go to night school and try to improve her position.

The Austin's are disturbed, naturally; for one thing, they like their maid and they'd be next to helpless without her. For another thing (and this is buried very deeply in a film more subtle than it appears), it would disturb their vision of the world if Ivy really did "improve herself."

Because that would mean she wasn't ecstatically happy washing the dishes. And that would mean she was doing a job beneath her ability, and that in turn would bring up all sorts of embarrassing guilt feelings about their real relationship with Ivy.

So they offer her anything if she'll stay. "Even a trip to Africa," Mr. Austin pleads at one point. And the kids get busy as matchmakers, fixing her up with Sidney Poitier, a wealthy trucking tycoon. Maybe all she needs is a man, right?

So, sure, these are all cliches. But they're the other side of the old cliches. They show the same happy, middle-class white life, but from the other side, and suddenly the maid is the one with hopes and dreams, and her employers have the walk-on parts. So if "For Love of Ivy" is a remake of Doris Day and Cary Grant, it's a remake unlike any ever done before.

"I'm so happy that Poitier made the film about a domestic worker," Miss Lincoln said in an interview. "Women know what it's about, and Lord knows it's skilled work. All women are maids anyway, no matter what else they're supposed to be.

"And here is a woman, Ivy, who lives in this home, not as a relative but as a skilled employee. She has a job, and she does it, and that brings about mutual respect. But she wants to improve herself, to go further, to make another step.

"She knows that as a maid she has no chance to meet the kind of man she yearns for, no chance to make a better life for herself. I think this kind of feeling is shared by a lot of black women.

"And, you know, a lot of people are interested in women like Ivy right now, and men like the character Poitier plays. This is a film that shows fairly honestly what goes on in their emotional lives...and I imagine some people will be relieved to find out it's just like everybody else's."

Miss Lincoln was the last to be auditioned for the role. It is not hard to discover what impressed Poitier and his director, Daniel Mann. She is a direct, honest and open woman: She speaks her mind and doesn't have to hunt around for opinions. Her smile is radiant.

Since she made the film she has adopted the African, or natural, hairstyle, and for the interview in the Ambassador East she wore a golden African dress.

She started as a singer, up in Kalamazoo, Mich. singing in churches first and then getting nightclub bookings here and there. She performed for a year in Honolulu, As her reputation spread the bookings became better, but there weren't many film roles: Until Poitier's emergence as a superstar, there were never many film roles for black people.

"I sang a song once, in a Jayne Mansfield movie," she said. "Then there was nothing else until 'Nothing But A Man' in 1965. That didn't do much business, although now I understand the 16mm prints are being rented a lot by schools, civic groups, people like that."

But now, perhaps, more movies, more honest movies, will be made about black people in America.

"It is obvious that Sidney Poitier has proven that black people are salable products at the box office in America, Miss Lincoln said. "I hate to put it like that, so bluntly, but that's what it amounts to."

She said that movies in general have been getting better, more honest, in recent years.

"Look at 'The Graduate.' You wouldn't have thought a film like that could be made, and it's going to be the most popular of all time," she said. "I imagine it struck some sort of chord in people.

"And in 'Ivy,' there's also a new approach that people are interested in. Look. People are intelligent. You can only give them so much rubbish on TV and in the movies, and they get hungry for a movie that says something. And they reach out and demand it.

"And maybe it makes them happy. Why shouldn't it? Life isn't supposed to be this hard. People shouldn't be so miserable. The theater is good therapy. It helps you escape, and it helps you understand.

"So here is a film about a black domestic worker, and what's on her mind. A lot of people will care about that. And they'll recognize the character Sidney Poitier plays, too. He has a legitimate job, and then he runs a gambling operation. That's familiar. A lot of people have a hustle on the side - they need it. My father raised 12 children, and I imagine he did whatever he could to get the money we needed.

"So now you get a film about people like this, people who have their counterparts in thousands of lives. And that helps to fill in the picture. You can't change, or add, or subtract from yourself, but you can look at what you've got and where you are.

"I think this movie will help to fill in the picture of the black American's life today," she said. "You know what? You can't really tell the story until everybody gets on the stage."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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