I’ve seen a handful of Stanley Kramer movies ... a few more if I count the ones where he produced but didn’t direct. I have a pre-conceived notion about Kramer that poisons my ability to fairly evaluate his work. I don’t like his movies. But I realize that it’s been a long time since I’ve seen any of them ... I have never given a rating to his films, because I haven’t seen one since I first began assigning ratings. So I’m revisiting Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but I’m rating it for the first time.
The only time I saw it was more than 40 years ago, and my memory is that I hated it. This time, I felt obliged to bend over backwards to see its good points, and I admit there are a few.
Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are very good. Beau Richards is OK. Having said that, too many actors here are hamstrung by the parts they are asked to play. It’s not that Katharine Houghton, in her first movie, is bad, but she is given a character with no shadings. Houghton plays the wide-eyed idealist in love as well as can be expected, but like almost every character in the movie, she isn’t playing a person but a placeholder in a framework. Roy Glenn seems to exist solely to give Sidney Poitier one scene where he can turn on the fire. Cecil Kellaway is the Irish monsignor, a part he could do in his sleep. And he, too, is only in the film to show the expansive liberal nature of Spencer Tracy, whose best friend is a monsignor even though Tracy’s character isn’t Catholic.
You can already see how hard it is for me to say something nice. I began the above paragraph noting some of the movie’s good points, only to quickly move into attack mode.
Your reaction to film’s approach to Poitier’s character, Dr. John Prentice, likely colors your reaction to the film as a whole. The film exists to make a comment about interracial marriage, and Dr. Prentice is the black half of that relationship. Prentice is perfect: he’s a doctor, he does good all over the world, he’s on his way to Zurich to do more good, he’s great looking, he is, in short, the Perfect Man. Some of us feel this perfection undercuts the film’s seriousness ... wouldn’t it make a better point if Prentice was a real person with real problems, instead of an idealized man the likes of which have never walked the earth? In fairness, Kramer knows this ... in fact, he did it on purpose. His idea was to remove any possible objections to Prentice, so that the only possible reason why you wouldn’t want him to marry your daughter is because he is black and your daughter is white. For Kramer, the focus is unmistakable, which forces the audience to consider race and only race.
Kramer doesn’t trust that audience. He clearly doesn’t think we have the ability to ascertain character in a person who is as complex as any other person. He reduces Prentice to “Black Man” because he worries that otherwise, we won’t be sympathetic to Kramer’s central (i.e., only) theme.
One result is that Kramer turns Poitier, one of our most dynamic actors, into a quiet man who wants to please. By turning off Poitier’s capacity for anger, he makes Prentice more like a stereotypical “boy” than like the man he is supposed to be. And while Kramer does give Poitier one scene where he lights up, he directs his anger at his father ... he never lets any of the white characters see what might be seething underneath the mask.
The film benefits greatly from the presence of Hepburn and Tracy. I’ll be kind and say that while Kramer knew the backstory of the two, he didn’t necessarily milk it. Well, I think he did, but I have no evidence. It was known that Tracy was dying ... it was known by the audience, since Tracy had died before the film’s release. This adds poignancy to every scene between the two stars. When Tracy gives his final soliloquy, talking about true love, Hepburn is crying real tears, because she hears Tracy in the context of their love affair. At one point, we get a one-shot of Hepburn and her tears, and Kramer holds it for a few seconds, after which he switches to a one-shot of Tracy looking at Hepburn, also for a few seconds. The two shots are designed to elicit tears from the audience, and even I can’t say Kramer shouldn’t have given us that moment.
It reminds me very much of a scene that tears me up every time I see it, and I’ve seen it a lot of times over the years: the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are great in that movie ... as fine actors, they convince us of the connection of their characters. And when they die, we get a brief moment where they look into each other’s faces. But the real impact comes from the brilliant editing of Dede Allen, who uses quick cuts to give us the last seconds of the two outlaws. Is that any more “artistic” than Kramer using longer cuts to draw emotion out of the last scene of Tracy and Hepburn? I know which one I prefer. But I must accept that I am unfair if I don’t accept the power of Kramer’s work here, as well.
So I still want to hate Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. But it’s time I pulled back. It’s not a very good movie, but it’s not worth the energy of my ire. 6/10.