Film Diary: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (Stanley Kramer, 1967)
Sunday, 14 September 2008
1967. Martin Luther King is making headlines at the head of the civil rights movement. In a third of the States, mixed-race marriages are illegal. Vigilantes hunt down voter registration campaigners. Hell, killing a Negro doesn’t even count as murder. And the Oscar for Best Picture goes (all right, will go to) a film in which a black FBI man comes face to face with a rednecked Alabama police chief.
White America is polarised between the old-guard bigots and the liberal intelligentsia intent on sweeping them away. But what happens when those liberals come under scrutiny? What happens when the daughter of a crusading San Francisco newspaper proprietor brings home the man she’s fallen head-over-heels in love with and plans to marry come hell or high water? And the man concerned is a brilliant doctor and medical academic who just happens to be Sidney Poitier? And what about his parents? And, er, the black skivvy in this exemplary liberal household? The racial revolution of the sixties has been the subject of a lot of films, but not many of them have turned the spotlight so searchingly on the motives of the white middle-class campaigners.
For all that it had its finger on the Zeitgeist (as it were), it’s a curiously old-fashioned piece. By that I don’t mean that its mid-sixties ambience seems ‘dated’ now – it’s of its time and thet’s fair enough. But it looks so terribly stagey. The most surprising thing about it is that it won the Oscar that year for Best Original Screenplay, because it looks like a theatrical performace, acted out before a painted backdrop of San Francisco Bay as if it were a piece of early Alan Ayckbourn. There are a couple of moments when the action moves away from the house – presumably intended to emphasise the aging Spencer Tracy’s growing estrangement from the bright young world around him – and they are gruesomely, wince-inducingly, bad. But it would be unfair to judge the whole film on two short scenes. It rolls fairly predicatable on to a conclusion in which Tracy gathers all the protagonists around him to give a long speech like an avuncular Poirot, and you want to scream at him to stop wittering and get to the point. Then you remember that Spencer Tracy was seriously ill at the time, that Stanley Kramer didn’t know if he was going to make it through filming, that it was the last scene he would ever record in a long and distinguished career. He would be dead in just a few days.