Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967, Stanley Kramer)
!! CAUTION !!
Stanley Kramer’s competence was always handily outshined by his absence of anything distinctive or worthwhile to say, so it follows that his automatically dated film about interracial marriage has little value now because it fails to compensate with anything rich or deeply observant. All of the characters are ciphers, and the story and script are insipid. No one will tell you that it isn’t painful today, but I’m having trouble buying the notion that it ever wasn’t. Director Kramer was the Paul Haggis of his time; he made screeds, not movies. Like most screeds, his had a brief shelf life. The film shows itself as ineptly out of touch as can be imagined in its title sequence, when this Important Social Comedy of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’s reaction to their daughter’s black fiancé opens with some kind of fucking pseudo-easy listening garbage that belongs in a movie made about fifteen years previously. Moreover, this film that pretends to say something about the ’60s generation uses generic rock music like the fake MIDIs that come with your soundcard for the duration. Kramer knows nothing about people, about youth, about race, about anything. It shows. He might know less about romantic relationships. Shouldn’t we actually feel like we know the couple that the love story is ostensibly about? Can we ever feel we “know” Norman Rockwell-style caricatures? And on and on.
This ridiculous slice of faux-liberal self-congratulation is not only so dated it passes “camp” and approaches “pain,” it actually is racist. I doubt it was realized by Kramer or anybody working on the movie, except perhaps Sidney Poitier, but no joke, this thing stumbles over its good intentions to become pretty offensive, in part because Spencer Tracy talks about how he’s noticed that negro kids dance better because they have the jungle in their bones, in part because Poitier’s kindly doctor is blander than a bag of Munchos since the movie’s message might crumble if the Good Negro were allowed to show any trace of personality (and don’t misunderstand, he’s a great actor and I don’t blame him for this debacle), in part because it picks up the Hattie McDaniel character from Gone with the Wind, gives it to Isabel Sanford (!), and sets it in 1967. The black maid in the film disapproves of the pending marriage as much as Tracy does, and she actually says “Civil rights is one thing, but this is too far!” She says that. There’s also a part in which the title query is posed to her and her guess is “The Reverend Martin Luther King!” YEAH the only famous person black people have heard of, ever! Scott Foundas referred to Crash as “the best movie of the year for people who like to say, ‘A lot of my best friends are black.’” Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is the all-time favorite of those people, those upper crust progressives who would kill themselves to avoid coming face to face with their own values, and whose second favorite movie is goddamn The Way We Were. What’s especially amusing is that the film specifically accuses its characters of being same.
There is some truth in the argument that Guess would probably fail by modern standards regardless of its content, because its premise was still, amazingly enough, too risky in 1967 to competently function as a film story — and now, its subject is so obviously uncontroversial that it’s quite laughable to see all the people in this film going ballistic over it, hence its story beats are incomprehensible and all of its characters seem deplorable in one way or another. Kramer and screenwriter William Rose’s actual intent was to make Poitier’s John a “perfect” man, so that the only possible objection one could have was his race. (They didn’t quite think this through; the two sets of parents’ more legitimate complaint might be that their chldren are marrying someone they just met, but that too is an artifact of the time.) There was always a stumbling block in the ’60s of toeing the line between political correctness and blandness; one did not wish to patronize black audiences, but to so much as feature black and white children in school together, say, would generate protests and hand-wringing far and wide, as witness the problems Charles Schulz ran across when he introduced Franklin to Peanuts. Franklin is often considered much like John in this film: a placid, boring straight man with no meaningful flaws or personality traits. At least Franklin is funny, remembered for his jabs at Peppermint Patty and general eye-rolling; John may as well be a robot. No doubt, though, Franklin in modern times should and would have been better handled as a character, and when no less a giant of great characterization and compassion than Schulz falls into that trap, such a mediocre artist as Kramer is doomed.
It is not the movie’s fault that things were different in the ’60s. Racism is racism, and what’s here cuts plenty deep; it doesn’t feel simply like marginal casualties of the march of time. It’s interesting to me that the black man who becomes the love object happens to be an extremely prestigious Yale-educated doctor with prospects and history and money and drive. The message of the movie therefore becomes: be supportive if your white daughter marries a black man… just as long as the black man is rich and has a good job and is famous in the medical field! It’s not that there aren’t many black people like that, it’s that there aren’t many people like that, and basing your screed on such a lame concept is a dubious act of deception, stacking the decks high in your favor to avoid saying anything of significance. Not only that, John and his girlfriend — Joey, played blandly by Katharine Houghton — haven’t even yet tried to have sex! What a perfect fucking little world we occupy! Moreover, the film makes the argument that a married couple simply isn’t married unless they have kids! Excellent batting average here. As if it hadn’t thrown enough veiled contempt around, the movie’s resentful argument later on is that men invariably forget what it is to be a real person while women never ever lose that knowledge or self-awareness, demonstrated by both aging married couples (Beah Richards and Roy Glenn are fun to watch as John’s parents but are largely wasted).
Perhaps the film’s most cynical action is also its saving grace. It pretends all those shots of Hepburn looking mournfully onward with tears in her eyes are about anything besides the impending death of her longtime partner and lover Tracy, who was barely able to make it to the set each day and died just a matter of days after the film wrapped. It’s thus easy to take it in as a documentary of the last weeks of Tracy’s life — and of Hepburn’s heart breaking. It helps that the two of them are quite wonderful in thankless roles; I laughed heartily at several terrible lines simply because Tracy delivered them so brilliantly; there’s a long sequence of Tracy eating ice cream that is the undeniable highlight of the picture. The entire film should be nothing but Tracy driving around and ordering food, then eating it. That would be far less creepy and more universal. So if you can accept the idea of watching and digesting completely different aspects of a movie than were intended, this is really an essential experience. Ignore the cliché-driven approach to race, which it either just ignores or pares down to stereotypes of Sass and Attitude, and comedy, which it isn’t.
The ’60s produced some of the most admirable art of the last century, in my opinion. But there are also many reasons to resent the late ’60s, and this is at the top of the list, a lingering thread of brutal old-world shallowness, and in fact reminds us that the hippie counterculture did have something to fight against in a cultural sense (I don’t consider fighting for civil rights, protesting Vietnam or voting against Nixon strictly causes of hippiedom, or of Boomers). It’s finally too tone-deaf and simple-minded to live up to Kramer’s clearly noble ambitions for it. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is an unintentionally hateful, riotously awkward, phenomenally stupid antique. It’s not a reflection of this time, of 1967, or of anything. It says nothing. The only question worth asking about it on its own terms —- the only thought really worth giving to it —- is why anyone still remembers it fondly today.
[The screencaps on this post are courtesy of moviescreenshots.blogspot.com, because I had technical problems with my Netflix disc and I absolutely did not want to spend another second dealing with this damn movie. The review above is a reedited version of my original one from 2007, with a new paragraph and some other changes scattered.]