Thursday, August 26, 2010

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

On the 12th of June, 1967, the Soviet Union launched a probe toward Venus, a planet named for the Roman goddess of love. On that same day, The U.S. Supreme Court made a pro-love decision in the case of Loving v. Virginia. They declared that it was unconstitutional to prevent an interracial couple from getting married, thus overturning anti-miscegenation laws in sixteen states.
Exactly six months later, on December 12th, Columbia Pictures released a very timely love story. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was many things; a showcase for amazing performances, a love story that dealt with the racial issues of its time, the last Tracy/Hepburn film.

Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made nine films together, from 1942’s Woman of the Year to this film made a quarter century later. Unfortunately, it would be Tracy’s last. He died of a heart attack seventeen days after filming was completed. While circumstances prevented them from marrying or even publicly admitting their love for one another, the affair was an open secret in Hollywood and has achieved an almost legendary status as one of Tinseltown’s great love stories.

While telling the story of Joanna Drayton, a young white girl from a liberal San Francisco family who falls in love with the too-perfect African-American Dr. John Prentice while vacationing in Hawaii, the film was able to focus on multiple aspects of the racial questions of the time, from the horrified reaction of Mrs. Drayton’s gallery manager to the alarm expressed by Tillie, the Drayton’s housekeeper, over seeing a member of her own race “getting above himself”. The doctor’s father was also shocked and suggested that this marriage would make a criminal of his son in certain states. However, the primary focus was on the reaction of Joanna’s parents.

Matt Drayton is the owner of a San Francisco newspaper and is well regarded as a fighter for liberal causes. His wife Christina runs an art gallery and also seems to be a strong individual dedicated to what she thinks is right. Joanna is certain that her parents will have no problem at all with her decision to marry John because they raised her to ignore a person’s color and judge people only on their character. Joanna is in for a surprise. Christina initially looks like she might faint once she sees John, but she comes around pretty quickly. Matt, however, cannot see past the problems the couple will have with the world at large and feels that he cannot approve.

The character of John Prentice is almost too perfect to be believable. This was intentional. How could any father object to his daughter marrying a world-renowned physician who has developed medical facilities throughout the third world, was an assistant professor at Yale Medical School, was an assistant director at the World Health Organization, and the guy doesn’t even bum long distance phone calls. The point being that the only possible reason the father could complain would be John’s race. Or maybe the fact that they only met ten days previous.

I want to point out one scene that I thought was quite interesting. While Tracy and Poitier’s characters are discussing the potential problems that the children of the proposed union would face, the doctor mentions that Joanna thinks their child will grow up to be President. He then quips that he would be satisfied with Secretary of State. The comments were delivered in a comical fashion as if such a thing were an unfathomable improbability. In 1967, when the film was released, Barack Obama, the first African American president (and racially mixed, as well), was six years old. Colin Powell, the first African American Secretary of State, was already 30 years old and a major in the US Army.

Like Bonnie & Clyde, the film had ten Oscar nominations (tied for the most noms of 1967) and two wins. The nominations were for Best Picture, Best Director for Stanley Kramer, Best Actor posthumously for Spencer Tracy, Best Supporting Actor for Cecil Kellaway, Best Supporting Actress for Beah Richards, Best Adapted Score, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, and Best Editing. The two Oscars went to William Rose for Best Original Screenplay (It was his fourth nomination and only win) and Katharine Hepburn for Best Actress. It was her tenth nomination in the category and her second Oscar. She would go on to be nominated twice more and win both times. She holds the record for most acting wins at the Oscars, but her 12 nominations have since been surpassed by Meryl Streep.
As I said before, this movie was a true actor’s showcase. The performances were wonderful across the board. I’ll be considering the following group for my Oscars…
For Best Actress, Katharine Hepburn for playing Christina Drayton. This was a well-deserved Oscar for Ms. Hepburn. As of this moment, she’s my front runner. She brought some amazing elements to this character, but hey, it’s Hepburn. She wasn’t declared the greatest female movie star of all time by the AFI for nothing. I was particularly taken with the scene where she fires her gallery manager for being a great big racist. I loved the little grin that hit her face as she walked over and even danced a little to drag the woman out of the house and terminate her. This was not a lady to be messed around with. “Don’t speak Hilary, just go.” Sometimes I wish I could tell people off with that much style, wit and grace.  

For Best Actor, Spencer Tracy for playing Matt Drayton. Mr. Tracy was also represented on that AFI list. He was ranked the 9th greatest male movie star of all time. It was his 9th nomination for Best Actor. He won two little gold men in consecutive years, 1937 & 1938. I was always a big fan of Spencer Tracy. He carried an intensity and level of gravitas that few actors could match. My favorite things about this performance were his incredible facial expressions and the rising level of exasperation as his feelings contradicted his principles. Poor guy couldn’t even have his “Boosenberry” ice cream in peace. His last scene, the last one he ever filmed, contained a deeply moving monologue where he stated that the opinions of outsiders be damned; love must win out in the end. That scene alone might net him my Oscar.

For Best Actor, Sidney Poitier for playing Dr. John Prentice. Sidney Poitier also made that AFI list. They declared him to be number 22 amongst the greatest male movie stars. The role was perfect for him and he had a fantastic year also starring in To Sir, With Love and In The Heat of the Night. He was utterly charming throughout the film and had several remarkable scenes. I was rather impressed by the scene where he argued with his father. 

For Best Supporting Actor, Cecil Kellaway for playing Monsignor Ryan. The supporting categories are always much more competitive simply due to more people being in the pool. I’m not certain that Mr. Kellaway deserved the nomination considering the choices that 1967 provided us, but he did a fine job acting as the conscience of Tracy’s Matt Drayton, goading him to make the right decision.

For Best Supporting Actor, Roy E. Glenn for playing Mr. Prentice. Essentially, all he had to do was alternately appear shocked or angry. He did both quite well.

For Best Supporting Actress, Beah Richards for playing Mrs. Prentice. I find it interesting that she got the nomination when the other two supporting females turned in stronger performances; however she projected herself with great dignity and poise.

For Best Supporting Actress, Katharine Houghton for playing Joanna Drayton. Katharine Houghton was Katharine Hepburn’s actual niece and you could tell they were related. She was absolutely lovely and reminded me a great deal of Hepburn in her younger days. I was considerably taken with her performance. Her determination combined with her sunny attitude drew you in and made it easy to see how the good doctor fell in love so quickly.

For Best Supporting Actress, Isabel Sanford for playing Tillie Binks. Isabel Sanford was just straight up awesome in this role. I’m sure most of you remember her as Louise Jefferson and I do too. I grew up watching The Jeffersons and loved the show. It was great to see her in such a different role. I was very entertained by the scene where she went off on Poitier. 

Man, Weezie really let him have it.

All in all, a tremendous movie with an important message.

That’s the story of, that’s the glory of love…

Comments and opinions are welcome and encouraged.

Thank you for your interest.

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