“I sucked my fingers for 12 years. I never spoke … but I was a great observer.” — Cicely Tyson

It’s her birthday today.

One of my earliest memories seeing a movie – I had to be 7 or 8 – was watching Sounder with my parents. I sat on the floor in front of the television. My parents sat on the couch behind me. They were probably both smoking. Because it was the 70s! The movie made a vivid impression on me – so much so that when I finally re-watched it – maybe 20 years later – I remembered specific SHOTS. But what I remember most of all is the “reunion scene”, and if you’ve seen the movie you will know what I mean. It was overwhelming to me, but I was a child, and not quite sure what to do, so I turned around to look at my mother. And she sat there, with tears streaming down her face. Normally I would get alarmed if my mother cried. This time though I just felt: “Oh. Okay. That’s confirmation that what I am seeing is incredible.” lol I mean, I can’t have thought exactly those things, but I do remember the feeling of satisfaction in being confirmed in my own personal impression of a piece of art that my parents were letting me stay up and watch.

As an adult, I can now watch the performance and marvel at what she is doing and conveying. It’s so REAL. She has one moment that makes me weep every time, and it’s not at all a huge moment of catharsis. It’s very very small. Her son, home from his time away at the country school, writes a letter to his beloved teacher – and reads it out loud to his illiterate mother and his siblings. Cicely Tyson sits, listening, and then says, proudly, but also with a little bit of awe, and also the warmth of a mother’s support, “That’s a fine letter.” It’s so small, but in that moment, you believe TOTALLY that Cicely Tyson is who she says she is in that character.

Cicely Tyson was one of the great American actresses. If you have seen The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, then you know that she gives one of the all-time great performances. You can’t compare it to anything else because there ISN’T anything else like it. Miss Jane Pittman shattered barriers, expectations, raised the bar, and etc. and etc. and nobody but Cicely Tyson could have played the role in that way.

Like this scene from The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Even just looking for the clip made me want to cry.

Watch her movements. She is meticulous without being showy about it. Watch her gestures. You know me! I’m all about gestures!

It was an honor to write about Sounder for Film Comment. That film is so important to me because it connects me with the dawn of not just my movie love but my discernment of what was good, my EYE.

She has within her the most important of combinations: such deep empathy that she wants to do right by her characters, and that means becoming them, imagining her way into their shoes, how does this woman cook, walk, stand up for herself, cry, love? It’s got to be specific. We are not monolithic. We are individuals. Tyson cares deeply about that. But she also has within her the greatest capacity for expressiveness and emotional catharsis: meticulous character work can sometimes inhibit emotion, OR an actor focuses so much on the character work it becomes show-y, or worse, show-off-y, and so any catharsis feels empty. On the flip side, if you ONLY focus on emotion, and leave out character/objective, then you also just have something that is empty. (My friend Shelagh tells a great story of one of her best acting teachers: a woman was doing a scene, and she was SOBBING, copious tears STREAMING down her face. After the scene, the teacher said, “I can see your emotion but I can’t FEEL it.”) Cicely Tyson is so open that you FEEL what she feels. She is that powerful. When Judy Garland makes a gesture, it goes right through you. Cicely Tyson is the same way. The way she throws her arms out to Paul Winfield as she runs towards him in the reunion scene in Sounder – the way her arms are stretched out – and her fingers are moving a little bit – restlessly – her fingers are DYING to touch him, her fingers TWITCHING to touch him, and her body – every single bit of it – is so filled with her NEED to GET TO HIM, get him in her arms NOW – that I am in tears just writing these words. That’s storytelling at its most pure, primal, and important. An actor is the vehicle through which the story is told.

We are so lucky she graced us with her enormous gifts, in movies, in television, on Broadway. It’s hard to imagine our world without her performances.

This entry was posted in Actors, Movies, On This Day, Television, Theatre. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to “I sucked my fingers for 12 years. I never spoke … but I was a great observer.” — Cicely Tyson

  1. Jim Reding says:

    And I remember thinking “Last Flag Flying” was a rare Richard Linklater misfire, but her brief performance was one of my favorites of that year. I would’ve happily watched a whole movie about her character.

    • sheila says:

      Oh yeah! I forgot about that! (Not a good sign – and he’s one of my current faves). But you’re right about Tyson! She elevates everything she’s in.

  2. DBW says:

    She was a very special person, in addition to her incredible acting skills. She was a rare talent, with, as you noted, an empathy for her characters that had real impact. On top of everything else, she was married to Miles Davis for a time, which should qualify her for minor sainthood status. Talk about a formidable couple. I can’t even imagine an evening in their home. She is one of my favorites, even though I might have shrunk up to a peanut in her presence. If she had been born twenty years later, imagine the kinds of roles she would have gotten–not to diminish the amazing work she did.

    • sheila says:

      // which should qualify her for minor sainthood status. //


      // imagine the kinds of roles she would have gotten //

      I know. It was so exciting when she showed up, suddenly, in Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying, about the Vietnam veterans. I think it was mid 2000s. (I liked that movie.) Her showing up was an EVENT – very few actors have that ability – to make whatever they are in an EVENT!!

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