Cicely, Cloris, and two paths to Hollywood immortality – The Boston Globe

Posted: February 2, 2021 at 7:46 pm

In remembrances of Cicely Tyson and Cloris Leachman, two acting titans who died last week, one couldnt help but notice parallels between their careers.

In the early 1970s when they first achieved national acclaim, both were already in their mid-40s. Leachman won an Academy Award in 1972 for her supporting role in The Last Picture Show. That same year, Tyson starred in Sounder, becoming only the second Black woman nominated for a best-actress Oscar.

Both also enjoyed success on television Leachman on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and, later, her own spinoff series, Phyllis. Tyson soared in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and Roots. At 80, Leachman won an Emmy, her eighth, for Malcolm in the Middle. Tyson, also a multiple Emmy winner, made a celebrated return to Broadway in The Trip to Bountiful, winning a Tony when she was 88. And each continued to work into their 90s.

Yet theres a jarring difference. On the Internet Movie Database, Leachman has 287 credits while Tyson has 94, although their career longevity was roughly the same. Of course Leachman, as a white actress, always had more opportunities. Tyson could have worked more, but instead she chose only those roles that exalted the emotional complexity of Black people, especially Black women.

I made up my mind that I could not afford the luxury of just being an actress, and I would use my career as my platform, Tyson told CBS This Morning cohost Gayle King in one of her last interviews. She was promoting her autobiography, Just as I Am, written with Michelle Burford, where she explains the promise she made to herself.

As an artist with the privilege of the spotlight, I felt an enormous responsibility to use that forum as a force for good, as a place from which to display the full spectrum of our humanity, Tyson wrote in the book, which was released two days before her death. My art had to both mirror the times and propel them forward. I was determined to do all I could to alter the narrative about Black people to change the way Black women in particular were perceived, by reflecting our dignity.

Like Lena Horne, who years earlier refused to accept roles she found demeaning, this meant that Tyson often found meaningful work scarce. If Hollywood refused to acknowledge the depth of Black lives, that would be the industrys shame. Tyson would not perpetuate its lies for more money or greater fame.

Still, I wonder what else Tyson might have given us if allowed the breadth of opportunities Leachman enjoyed. (In my casting director fantasies, I long imagined Tyson playing political trailblazer Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress.)

In her career, Leachman could move from the drama of a depressed woman having an affair with a much younger man in The Last Picture Show, to the narcissistic and neurotic Phyllis Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, to the hilarious Frau Blcher in Young Frankenstein. Her range was inexhaustible.

The same could be said of Tyson, who also carried the burden of correcting this nations disgraceful image of Black people, one very much reinforced by popular media. To be clear, I doubt she saw that weight on her petite shoulders as a burden at all. It was the cost she willingly paid for her time on this earth. Thats a choice many Black people confront throughout their lives whether to prostrate themselves for white acceptance or create a life where they can lift their people as they climb.

From Coretta Scott King to Harriet Tubman to a sharecropper fighting to save her family from the ravages of the Depression and racism, Tyson excelled in playing tenacious, undefeated Black women. She held up a mirror to her community, and what we saw reflected was beauty, substance, and self-respect. For more than six decades, Tyson refused to stand in a spotlight that shone on her alone.

Both Leachman and Tyson are icons. One will be remembered for finding that distinctive spark in every part she played. Tysons greatest role was her sacred belief that what was best for her culture would be best for her career. A love of Blackness was her true compass, and with it she defied ignorance, saw light in desolation, and traced a path from our broken places to glory and grace.

Rene Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.

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Cicely, Cloris, and two paths to Hollywood immortality - The Boston Globe

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