Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Day 21: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

"It's not that I don't want to know you Hilary, although I don't. It's just that I'm afraid we're not really the sort of people you can afford to be associated with."

Much easier to digest than In the Heat of the Night, but no less prescient or ahead of it's time is Stanley Kramer's fellow Best Picture nominee Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? The films share a ton of common threads but the latter is more writerly and much more about dialogue and performance than the mood, atmosphere and intensity displayed in the former. The stakes are high, but you feel much more at ease when watching Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? because the characters are not dealing with life and death, they're dealing with something equally important but much less intense... love.

Joanne Drayton (Katharine Houghton) is a 23-year old woman returning home on a surprise trip to introduce her parents to the man she wants to marry, Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier). While this is a seemingly innocuous setup, John is black and Joanne is white and this is 1967, so we're only four years removed from the Civil Rights Act, and interracial marriage was still illegal in sixteen states (every single one of them save Delaware was below the Mason-Dixon line, so just saying...) Joanne feels fairly confident though that her parents Christina (Katharine Hepburn) and Matt (Spencer Tracy) will welcome John. You see, they're the model of the well-to-do liberal white Americans at the time. They raised their daughter to be accepting of all people, they just never knew how they would react when she fell in love with someone of another race.

While their initial reactions are equal parts shock and dismay, Christina finds herself being the first to be won over, because she is a proud mother, swept up in the love and joy she sees radiating from her daughter. Matt takes the position of overly concerned father, worrying more what the world will think of or, worse yet do to, the couple, and refuses to give his blessing. Giving the proceedings the necessary amount of urgency, John is leaving in the morning for Geneva where he is taking a position with the World Health Organization, and Joanne has resolved herself to leave with him, whether her parents give their blessing or not.

John's parents have decided to make a trip to San Francisco that night as well, ostensibly to see their son off before his trip, but also to meet his betrothed and her family. They are equally shocked to find out that she and they are white. The immediate worry for me became that the film would paint the problem of racism as being more on the side of the black family than the white family. The film spent so much time building the Draytons up to be the model of acceptance and progressivism that the only thing that would mount the tension again would be to have the Prentice family be the stereotypical "angry blacks." Thankfully Kramer and screenwriter William Rose aren't dumb enough to fall into so obvious a trap. The parents end up mirroring one another with the mothers being the solid voice of understanding and the fathers be the less accepting, more concerned voice of opposition.

My favorite moment in the film comes when Matt and John's mother (wonderfully played by Beah Richards) have a conversation in which she says that she doesn't understand what happens to men when they grow old. She sees her husband forgetting what it's like to feel passion, and while she had clearly thought it was just him, after hearing Matt's objections, she realizes that it's all men. This conversation is intercut with ones between both Christina and Joanne, and John and his father. All three wonderful conversations/arguments that sum up the myriad feelings that all of the parties involved are having. It's a truly remarkable piece of writing in that it manages to lay bare all of the feelings and anxieties that everyone is having and get them all explained so succinctly. Of course it all culminates in Spencer Tracy's wonderful final monologue where he delivers his thoughts, and the knowledge that it's his last moments on a movie screen ever give them even more weight, emotion and purity than even the brilliant script can provide. Watching Katharine Hepburn watch the love of her life deliver this speech is one of the more moving things you can see in a film.

The performances in the film are uniformly good, with Hepburn being the standout. She won the Best Actress Oscar for the film and was fully deserving. The quote at the top of the review is from her speech when she fires her assistant, and that moment is so incredibly wonderful, it's the perfect synthesis of writing and performing. Stanley Kramer's direction is very classically staged, lots of coverage, everyone is given the proper focus at the proper time. It's essentially a chamber piece, but Kramer opens things up enough (the excursion by the Draytons to get ice cream is particularly funny) so as to not make the film feel stuffy. My only complaint is the god damned score. The song "Glory of Love" was written for the film and the entire score is nothing but a variation on that piece, making it grating, cloying and downright maddening near the end. You should never notice a score in a film, and this one can't help but make you notice it every few minutes.

I would love to say that 45 years after this film was made that things are so much easier for the Johns and Joannes of the world, but they're not. There may be more interracial couples now thanks to Loving vs Virginia, but Americans as a whole seem just as apprehensive about the whole thing as they did then, and of course the raging debate over same-sex marriage shows how this country can skew even less tolerant when given another issue to fume over. The world will never be a perfect place, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? knew that then, just as we know it now. It's up to the brave souls who know the greatest thing in the world is love to continue blazing that trail, and maybe someday, we can all live in peace. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? has a lot of hope for the world and leaves you feeling like things can change. I hope it's right.

I'll be wrapping up my look at the 1967 Best Picture race tomorrow with Doctor Dolittle starring everyone's favorite speak-singer Rex Harrison.

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