Life is really all about timing.
It may have appeared that Cicely Tyson’s timing was a little too late. She was 30 before she was “discovered” as a model in the most storybook of ways! She was walking down a street in New York on a lunch break from her job in the Red Cross typing pool when the right someone spotted her and declared she should be a model. With that willowy frame and glorious face, they were right. At an age when most models are “hanging up their stilettos,” Tyson just got started.
She passed away a few weeks ago at the age of 96, just days after the release of her memoir, “Just As I Am.” The timing is a little heartbreaking. The release of a memoir almost always means a press tour and rounds of interviews and an opportunity for the memoir’s subject to animate their stories. But we didn’t have a chance to enjoy the full press tour.
And how delicious it might have been to hear the inimitable force behind movies like “Sounder” and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” bringing to life her own story beyond words on a page.
It takes moxie to bring powerful stories to life — including your own — and Tyson had it. Here’s how:
Moxie is timeless.
Tyson began acting in her twenties. By the time she was in her 30s, she had earned some recognition for her off-Broadway performances, but her breakout role didn’t come until she was well into her 40s. Tyson’s performance of Rebecca Morgan’s in the 1972 movie Sounder brought her significant attention, an Academy Award, and a Gloden Globe Nomination!
Once she got started, she was unstoppable. Tyson continued to work well into her 90s and even earned Emmy nominations through 2020 for her role as Ophelia Harkness on the series How to Get Away with Murder.
Age and experience seemed only to add to Tyson’s power as an actor, and she seemed to thrive and grow with each new experience.
“I think when you begin to think of yourself as having achieved something, then there’s nothing left for you to work towards. I want to believe that there is a mountain so high that I will spend my entire life striving to reach the top of it,” she said.
Moxie puts in the work.
The key to Tyson’s success was her intense, focused preparation. She didn’t just play a role; she researched and rehearsed until she embodied the character as thoroughly as possible!
“How do you project a character if you don’t have a sense of where she is from? I’ve always just gotten on a plane to go to the area to get a sense of what it is like, to smell it, feel the earth, hear people talk, go to the marketplaces,” Tyson explained.
Her role in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” required Tyson to portray a centenarian through decades of her life, starting in the Civil War era and continuing through the Civil Rights era. Tyson spent hours in nursing homes in preparation, studying older adults’ movements and expressions until she mastered each. The result was a stunning tour-de-force performance.
Moxie is defined by what it won’t do.
Perhaps one of the reasons Tyson’s roles were so powerful and so memorable was that she only took on characters whose stories were worth telling. (Somewhat like the invitations I extend to a prospective guest of MoxieTalk). Tyson steadfastly refused to take on stereotypical roles that limited Black women to roles as servants or prostitutes or the like with little to do beyond serve as a backdrop for others. The characters she took on had rich stories to tell and inherent dignity.
That meant she endured some lean years, with opportunities few and far between.
“Whatever good I have accomplished as an actress, I believe, came in direct proportion to my efforts to portray black women who have made positive contributions to my heritage,” she said.
What role will you remember Tyson for?
Cicely Tyson’s Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cicely_Tyson
1972 Major Motion Picture Sounder’s Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sounder_(film)
1974 Major Motion Picture The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman’s Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Autobiography_of_Miss_Jane_Pittman_(film)