Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Birthday Take: Stanley Kramer in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (1967)

Scene from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Stanley Kramer
Born: September 29, 1913
Died: February 19, 2001 (87 years old)
Nomination: Best Picture (nominated) for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

The Take

Nowadays, it is easy to get wrapped up in the idea of socially conscious movies. Coming off of the 2014 nominees, it does seem like more progressive films like Selma are still a bit of a challenge sometimes at the Oscars. However, it still feels like there's such things as the Oscar bait movies hidden within. I'm talking about films that deal with these subjects in a manner that sentimentalizes them and makes it almost too accessible to white audiences, as if pandering to logical consciences. Many complain that Crash is a recent example of this. However, they always existed - even running rampant in the 1980's Best Picture winners. But are they really all that bad?

It may seem like an odd choice, but Guess Who's Coming to Dinner feels nowadays like an "Oscar bait" movie by nature. This isn't through manipulation, but more from dated views and the fact that it stars most of the Hepburn family acting dynasty being proven that black lives matter. This isn't such a terrible concept, especially with the film premiering in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. However, it does feel like it tackles certain subjects square on the nose in ways that do feel obvious nowadays. Racism is bad and that we shouldn't let discrimination keep us from loving who we love. These are profound ideas, and it does make sense why this film feels in some ways important. However, it also feels authentically white.

There's one particular notion that is hard to ignore: this came out the same year as Sidney Poitier's other racially charged movie In the Heat of the Night. That was a film that saw him tackling racism from a more bleak and charged angle. It felt exciting and raw. It's why it won Best Picture. Through no fault of its own, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner feels like the "white" version of this in which the racism is often implicit and everything is solved through conversation. Even the sets look a little manufactured in an old Hollywood style of manner. This isn't to say it is bad, but one feels progressive where the other is progressive.

There's a lot to dissect from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, though having director Stanley Kramer was a good start. As an activist filmmaker, this doesn't feel like a random passion project but one that felt significant to him on a moral level. It felt like a drama that would challenge the societal norms and change our views on interracial relationships. Kramer was always about pushing boundaries, and that's what made this choice particularly interesting. The only issue is that it in hindsight feels relatively dated by the unfortunate timing of In the Heat of the Night. It almost feels too safe by comparison, even with an adequate cast and script. It feels like Oscar bait, even if it actually isn't.

Is there any shame in this? Not exactly. Kramer knows to make racism only part of the story's main draw. The characters all have their own motivations outside of race. The film itself is a fine drama about naive young lovers. However, it is hard to get around the racial tension that doesn't feel as prominently there, especially as Spencer Tracy gives a rousing speech at the end that summarizes the plight of intolerance. In that sense, the film lost its bite over time, especially as the themes have become more commonplace. However, it's still a decent film from a time where it was important to say these things. Is it a testament that it has tamed out? I'm not sure. But don't let this stop you from thinking it doesn't have merit. It has plenty. It's just not as exciting as you'd think.

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