Yet Another Love Story
Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner: Moralistic and UnrealisticBy Amandeep Loomba
This is the first installment of Rental Guidance, a new column that aims to guide you in your weekly selection at the video store (Hollywood Express, not Blockbuster; or if you must, NetFlix). By distilling each film to a single moment of importance, the column aims to present the sort of economical viewing strategy that time-strapped MIT students are forced to employ in their film appreciation.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the Stanley Kramer-directed picture with the tagline “a love story of today,” triumphantly brings down racism in a fashion that leaves the viewer feeling less than fulfilled. Here we have what Hollywood refers to as a “message picture,” one that bothers to deal with “issues.” Indeed, the film is very upfront in its treatment of race, liberalism and hypocrisy. And you might think its message is ultimately noble -- or simply self-aggrandizing. But no one will ever say that the film tells a realistic story.
The interracial love between John Prentice (the god-like character whose tragic flaw is his race, played by Sidney Poitier) and Joey Drayton (the perfectly innocent daughter of white liberals, played by Katharine Houghton) is far too ideal to manifest itself in the real world. And while the conflicts the couple faces are real, the ultimate solution that the two reach is not. The film is fondly remembered by many for its climactic monologue, delivered with great passion and conviction by Spencer Tracy (his last lines on film, ever), as Joey Drayton’s father. As we watch the aging, white liberal come to terms with his daughter’s choice of a black man as her husband and lover, it is clear that we have reached the film’s emotional breakpoint. If up until now you have felt that the interracial marriage was wrong, this is where you start to think: Maybe it’s all right after all. If you were rooting for the young couple the whole time, this is where you start to think: Maybe people can change their views. Or something along those lines.
Or, that’s just what you were meant to think. Thirty-five years after its initial release, no one will say the film has aged well. It’s a sweet picture, but it’s not a great picture. Released in a year that saw a good number of films with something relevant to say and, more importantly, a relevant way of saying it (Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Two for the Road), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner just seems to lack the sophisticated complexity in both content and form of its 1967 companions. Race certainly remains a relevant issue, but the film’s treatment lacks just enough realism to consign it to irrelevance.
The scene that still resonates with the times has much less to do with race. When John Prentice finally gets his father aside from everyone else to have a private conversation, he ignites. Poitier’s fiery words form an angry harangue against his father’s belief that by marrying a white girl, he is somehow betraying his family:
“You listen to me. You say you don’t want to tell me how to live my life. So what do you think you’ve been doing? You tell me what rights I’ve got or haven’t got, and what I owe to you for what you’ve done for me. Let me tell you something: I owe you nothing!”
That Poitier manages to impart the statement “I owe you nothing!” without any malice, and only desperation and compassion, is itself an achievement. But the greatest thing about this scene is that it succinctly brings out all of the classic issues of the parent-child conflict. Poitier’s character is over 30, has already been married once and has a well-established career. He is by all means an adult. Yet he somehow still finds it necessary to engage in the struggle of making his parents understand that he can act as an individual.
There is something exciting and pleasing about hearing a grown man lament his relationship with his parents by imparting the classically rebellious statements of teens everywhere:
“But you don’t own me! You can’t tell me when or where I’m out of line, or try to get me to live my life according to your rules. You don’t even know what I am, Dad, you don’t know who I am. You don’t know how I feel, what I think. And if I tried to explain it to you for the rest of your life, you would never understand.”
Hearing Poitier elucidate the grievances of youth pulls the film off of its platform of ideals and ideologies, back into the real world. No matter how strongly or perfectly Poitier portrays his character, he still can’t convince his dad that he knows what he’s doing.
Poitier concludes the outburst by slowing down and delivering one of the film’s famously endearing lines: “Dad, you’re my father. I’m your son. I love you. I always have and I always will. But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.”
It is impossible to watch the film and leave content with the resolution of the whole affair. Mentions are made of the troubles that the mixed couple will face, but it seems we’re to assume that love will conquer them all. The idealism of the children conveniently bleeds into the parents’ long-dry liberal veins. Poitier’s character strikes a blow for the younger side of the ongoing child-parent struggle, and Katharine Hepburn wins an Academy Award.
But it seems like any credit we give to the picture for the way it deals with “issues” are just attempts to convince ourselves that these issues can even be raised, or that they can be examined as simply as they are in the picture. The truth is that Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is not “a love story of today,” of yesterday, or of any other day. It’s just another love story.