Saturday, June 19, 2010

Spirit of '67: Pictures at a Revolution (Part IV)

"Casting is destiny." -- Warren Beatty

Mark Harris proves Beatty's point over and over again in Pictures at a Revolution, and not just concerning Bonnie and Clyde. "'Casting really controls story. One guy would do a thing, another guy wouldn't,'" Beatty continues. "'And if you're the guy in the close-up, character acting isn't going to help -- you either are that guy, or you aren't.'" Harris adds that if this is the case..."(then) it's hard to find a movie from the mid-1960s in which it is more the case than Guess Who's Coming to Dinner...." Today it is a movie that looks hopelessly quaint; then, however, the film featured a subject so controversial that it would demand perfect casting for the three starring roles to get made. And this was no easy feat: one of the required trio had withdrawn from the limelight; the second was growing weary of playing saints; and the third was dying.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

Of the five Best Picture nominees of 1967, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner occupies a curious middle ground. Aesthetically and generationally, the picture is as Old Hollywood as Doctor Dolittle. Yet its topic -- interracial marriage -- was as radical as the antiestablishment antiheroics of Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate. The contemporary cultural reactionaries of FOX News often miss a point about Hollywood of which Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is a valuable reminder: Hollywood is liberal, yes; but it more readily embraces what may be called "soft liberalism" -- the cuddly, feel-good strain that doesn't scare audiences and is more likely to win awards (e.g., Crash, Slumdog Millionaire, Dances with Wolves, Driving Miss Daisy, and countless other examples, including the fifth Best Picture nominee from '67 that ended up beating Dinner and the other nominees). Radicalism scares the studios, because radicalism is a hard sell. To get a place at the table, it needs to be made palatable.

  • Stanley Kramer was "as enshrined a member of the Hollywood establishment as anyone in the movie business, and there was probably not an active producer or director who would have hated that description more."
  • His films were usually message movies with socially conscious topics such as racism (The Defiant Ones), evolution (Inherit the Wind), nuclear war (On the Beach), and the Holocaust (Judgment at Nuremberg). His movies frequently received Oscar attention but often failed to turn a profit and, occasionally, as with The Defiant Ones, wouldn't play in regions like the Deep South.
  • Thus Kramer saw himself as an antiestablishment renegade and couldn't understand why some critics like Pauline Kael mocked the plots of his films as "'original sin meets Mr. Fixit.'" After all, he was taking a stand! Perhaps for this reason, Kramer did receive generally positive reviews. Yet Harris astutely notes that when Bosley Crowther praised Judgment at Nuremberg for being "'persuasive,'" that he failed "to explain what exactly he had needed to be persuaded about...."
  • The consensus, then and now, was Kramer was a good producer but left something to be desired as a director. Harris observes: "He didn't possess what came naturally to many of the directors he admired -- an unforced sense of pacing or camera placement or a particularly visual imagination -- and the screenplays for his films (which he did not write) often omitted nuance, surprise, and specificity in favor of a stentorian sense of the wrongness of things that all right-thinking people already agreed were wrong...."
  • By 1965, Kramer was planning a Civil War drama called Andersonville and, more intriguingly, had bought the rights to a Vietnam War novel titled Seek Out and Destroy, which made him very cinematically forward-looking on that subject.
  • Yet the following year, he got sidetracked from those projects due to an original screenplay about interracial marriage by William Rose, whose previous scripts included the popular Ealing Studios black comedy The Ladykillers, Norman Jewison's recent surprise hit The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming, and Kramer's own It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.
  • As those credits suggest, Rose was a gifted screenwriter with a knack for comic structure. Yet his early drafts for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Harris notes, were a few decades behind the Civil Rights movement: "Rose was so appalled that Cassius Clay had, in 1964, changed his name to Muhammad Ali...that he mentioned it in his treatment."
  • Kramer "managed to comb out some, though by no means all, of the screenwriter's condescensions and stereotypes." However, understandably yet perhaps fatally, he insisted that the African-American bridegroom, Dr. John Prentice, be so infallible that only a racist would object to him. "Kramer was sure that if Prentice had any flaws at all, bigots in the audience would seize on them as a reason to disapprove of the marriage," Harris notes, "but in seeking to avoid that trap, he fell right into another one: the return of the exceptional Negro, a character type that had by then become so familiar that even white critics were beginning to react against its persistence."
  • Sidney Poitier emerges as a fascinating individual in Pictures at a Revolution, his public persona at odds with a growing private discord about his movie parts and the subject of race in America, which were inexorably linked. Put succinctly: "Hollywood needed an 'Exceptional Negro'...and Poitier was perfect in the role."
  • Poitier's screen debut was as a doctor in No Way Out (1950), and he was versatile enough to portray a teenager a few years later in The Blackboard Jungle (1955). In 1959, he became the first African-American to receive a Best Actor nomination, for The Defiant Ones. In 1964, he became the first black actor to win the prize, for Lilies of the Field. Presenting the award to Poitier -- and spontaneously embracing him, in what would prove to be one of the few highlights of a dismal ceremony -- was Anne Bancroft, the previous year's Best Actress winner for The Miracle Worker.
  • Unsurprisingly, Sidney Poitier was not perfect. Although married with children, he had had a longtime affair with Diahann Carroll, but his eventual divorce would be carefully suppressed as it was potentially damaging. This is why, "(i)n the press, he walked a fine line almost unerringly: He was humble but never servile, concerned but rarely intemperate, unwillingly to pretend bigotry was anything other than an immense national problem, but optimistic that it would eventually give way." Still, he was frequently goaded by his friend/rival Harry Belafonte, who was much more outspoken on racial issues and incessantly urged Poitier to be the same.
  • While Poitier was wrapping up In the Heat of the Night, Stanley Kramer went to work on pulling his dream cast together for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, which required "a kind of diplomatic gamesmanship at which Kramer, as a veteran producer, was an expert," Harris writes. "His plan was to convince Poitier that he already had Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn lined up, tell Tracy and Hepburn that Poitier was eager to make a movie with them, inform Columbia Pictures that all three stars were ready to go, and conceal the full extent of the film's potentially controversial subject matter from the press until the contracts were executed and the money was committed."
  • Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, of course, were the most famous screen couple in Old Hollywood. Wisely, Harris does not belabor the well-known details of their private relationship, merely stating that Hepburn's public persona as a proto-feminist contrasted with being essentially Tracy's doormat in real life. She had always been his supporter and enabler, and as his health failed in the last years of his life, the more she embraced these roles instead of any onscreen.
  • Before signing on, Tracy and Hepburn invited Poitier over for dinner -- "an unofficial dress rehearsal" for the movie. Poitier found them decent, despite having to endure Tracy's interminable stories about the good ol' days, Hepburn's clueless opinions on civil rights, and the former telling the latter repeatedly to shut up. It was the opportunity to work with a pair of Hollywood legends that attracted Poitier far more than the script itself.

  • I watched Guess Who's Coming to Dinner for the first time in preparation for this piece, and I agree with Harris that it remains a charming and funny comedy of manners when focused on (in the words of one character) "'a broken-down old phony liberal face-to-face with his principles,'" but totally out of its depth when attempting to address racial issues. (Listen to Isabel Sanford as Matt and Christina Drayton's family maid for numerous cringeworthy examples: "'Civil rights is one thing, but this here's somethin' else!'")
  • The author's Old Hollywood vs. New Hollywood theme surfaces in interesting ways with the making of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? Spencer Tracy had nothing but contempt for the "unmasculine oversensitivity" of Method acting, and even he had not been seriously ill, he would have balked at a lengthy rehearsal and multiple takes. Katharine Hepburn, meanwhile, aggressively courted the press for her comeback film, offering a range of telling opinions such as dismissing Antonioni's Blow-Up as "a bunch of claptrap."
  • While Tracy soldiered through the picture with half-days of work and rarely more than one or two takes per scene, Poitier's difficulties had to do with correctly believing the movie a step backward following his energizing collaboration with Rod Steiger and Norman Jewison on In the Heat of the Night. (More on that film in Part V.) While he enjoyed working with Hepburn and Tracy, Poitier felt that his own character, Dr. Prentice, suffered from an unreconcilable contradiction: that an African-American man would be so progressive as to propose marriage to a Caucasian woman, yet so squarely traditional as to put the fate of the union entirely in the hands of her father. (The schema of Rose's screenplay is if Tracy's Matt Drayton refuses to give them his blessing, then the wedding is off.)
  • Another problem was the sketchy writing of the Drayton's daughter, as well as the awkward performance of Katharine Houghton, a novice actress and Hepburn's real-life niece. Her character comes across as naive -- if not downright vacant -- in her obliviousness to the consequences of an interracial marriage in the 1960s, and unlike her famous aunt, Houghton was too unnatural a performer to fill in the blanks herself.
  • Spencer Tracy's eight-minute monologue that caps the movie was broken into increments and shot over six days. A year or two ago, James Wolcott mocked Tracy's performance and Hepburn's reaction shots during the scene, but Harris offers a touching counterpoint. He quotes the editor of the film that Tracy revealed "a kind of vulnerability he hadn't had before (in that scene)" and that Hepburn's tears were real.
  • Spencer Tracy would die of a heart attack less than a month after wrapping the movie, but not before calling his friends and exclaiming, "I did it! I've finished the picture! And I was betting against myself all the way."
  • Reaction to Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was mixed, not just among the critical establishment but oftentimes in the same reviews: gushing love for Tracy and Hepburn; utter disdain for Stanley Kramer's paint-by-numbers direction and William Rose's "deck-stacking" screenplay. Commercially, however, it was a huge success, the biggest ever for the studio, the director, and the stars.
  • Guess Who's Coming to Dinner tied Bonnie and Clyde with the most Academy Award nominations, ten, and went on to win two biggies: Best Original Screenplay for Rose (over David Newman and Robert Benton for Bonnie and Clyde), and Best Actress for Katharine Hepburn (over Anne Bancroft for The Graduate and Faye Dunaway for Bonnie and Clyde). Hepburn, naturally, was less pleased with her victory and more outraged that Spencer Tracy lost posthumously to Rod Steiger for In the Heat of the Night.
  • Nevertheless, the film stopped aging well almost instantaneously. One of the most vivid passages in Harris's book describes Stanley Kramer's disastrous nine-campus tour screening Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? for college audiences. "If the people who were attacking his movie as old-fashioned and cliched knew that he was getting anonymous phone calls from racists, even death threats," Harris writes about Kramer's aims, "surely he would get credit for the bravery and oral courage he felt it had taken to make the movie." Instead, students wanted to talk about Bonnie and Clyde, about Godard, about anything other than "the same hand-wringing, hypocritical take on race relations that they had been hearing from their own parents for years."
  • Perhaps it is fitting that the maligned Katharine Houghton is left with the most perceptive take: "'The real event of the film was the relationship between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy -- that was what was going on for audiences. The love affair between the white girl and the black man? That was never given any reality. It was a fable.'"
Next: Poitier's quest to prove himself an actor, Steiger's mad mad mad mad Method, and Jewison's little-movie-that-could becomes an unlikely Oscar winner....

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