Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
They don’t make them like this anymore.
One of the most surprising things I found about Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was that I hadn’t seen it yet.
A friend of mine (who knows I’ve see everything) just naturally assumed I had, in the lead-up to its screening at the MFAH on Monday, September 21, because it’s one of those movies everyone has seen, like Casablanca. Or Star Wars. Except more important, obviously, because Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a Message Movie. And in 2009, they only make one kind of Message Movie: the long, boring, artistic affair which you are told you need to see, because it’s so important, but at the same time are so incredibly bored by even while consciously aware you’re receiving a message. Maria Full of Grace. Babel. The Reader. Milk. Important films all, with a capital I, and all exceptionally well-made…but not exactly a jolly time out at the movies.
So rare is the entertaining Message Movie, in fact, that last year when somebody finally made an entertaining one, it was awarded a Best Picture Academy Award. And at the heart of Slumdog Millionaire, like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, is a romance. But while Slumdog dealt consciously and almost exclusively with matters of gender and economic standing, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner deals with absolutely everything, making it now, 42 years later, still, the gold standard of not just the Message Movie, but of anything examining the state of race relations in America.
Despite what we’ve seen lately, a film with a message, or at least a firm political point of view, need not be stoic and self-important. A movie in general, in fact, need not be so easily pigeonholed, and yet in the early 21st century, that’s where we’ve ended up. Video stores and Websites divide movies casually into comedy, drama, action, horror, and foreign, and if you get a really progressive one, they’ll throw in animation and alternative lifestyles.
In 1967, your white daughter marrying a non-white man wasn’t just an alternative lifestyle, but was — to use the most diplomatic word possible — atypical. Just as unusual today as, say, if your white daughter announced she was going to marry someone else’s white daughter. Whether it’s your first viewing of the film, or your 10th, the parallels ring out so clearly that the movie doesn’t seem dated at all. It doesn’t need to be remade. It just needs to be re-released. Or watched again every few years, like all good social commentary.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is an important film, but it is also a genuinely funny movie, and not just because people really did dance like that in the late 1960s. It’s a genuinely dramatic movie, and not just because a young, well-off white woman brings her black fiancé (a doctor) home to meet her parents. It is a genuinely foreign movie, because it takes place in San Francisco in 1967, a place as alien to us now as it was to the rest of America when the film was new.
Most important, however, is that it’s a staggeringly well-made movie. Made in a time when directors came from live theater and not music videos or commercials, every shot is as carefully thought-out as the paintings hanging in the Museum of Fine Art where the film is being screened. In fact, some of the shots may even resemble paintings you’ve seen pass through its hallowed halls (notice an early visual reference to “American Gothic”).
Director Stanley Kramer gives attention to every last millimeter of film, with even characters who have less than sixty seconds of screentime giving memorable performances. Pay close attention to the waitress at the drive-in — in 2009, this is a throwaway part, but in Kramer’s film, her every expression is as telling as anyone else appearing in the movie. Like it would be on the stage.
The film is genuinely entertaining in only the most positive meaning of the phrase, from a time when “important movie” and “good movie” were not necessarily mutually exclusive. And while being entertaining (the first reason any film should be made), it has important things to say about not just any racial hierachy, but economical, social, political, generational, and even sexual (it must not be coincidence, surely, that the mother and daughter at the heart of the movie are nicknamed Chris and Joey).
In spite of all this, the film never feels like it’s trying to preach, as each character is so well-realized that even the climactic speech (though grandly shot) is as natural as anything else appearing in the film. It never talks to the audience, only with them. Or perhaps it’s designed with the hope that they will talk, and listen, with each other.
At the risk of putting a pun forth, the discourse between cultures has always been more than just a black and white issue, but rather about all the shades of grey in between. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is not an important film made to preach or showcase the talents of the filmmakers in hopes of winning Oscars (though Katherine Hepburn did)…it’s merely a film which became important, designed to discuss over dinner afterwards, with whomever you happen to wish to invite.
And, of course, whomever they choose to bring with them.
Starring Sidney Poitier, Katherine Houghton, Isabell Sanford, Katherine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy in his final film role.