Sunday, June 27, 2010

Czech Mate (Milos Forman's Loves of a Blonde)

There's a scene in Keeping the Faith, Edward Norton's underrated 2000 comedy, where Norton's young priest, who has fallen for a woman, listens to a piece of advice from the older and wiser Father Havel, wonderfully played by Milos Forman. "I remember I fell in love with this girl in Prague," Forman says wistfully. "She was beautiful. She looked like Carole Lombard. She grabbed me in the alley behind my church, she pressed me against the wall, she kissed me. I was so happy I thought I would die." Forman's Loves of a Blonde (1965), a movie which, along with the subsequent The Fireman's Ball (1967), helped establish him as one of the leaders of the Czech New Wave, is a vivid snapshot of the director's headier days. The setting is mostly in the small industrial town of Zruc, with only a brief stopover in Prague; and his leading lady, Hana Brejchova, resembles not so much Carole Lombard than a young Julie Christie. (Back, of course, when Julie Christie resembled a young Julie Christie.) Yet Loves of a Blonde is an enchanting, heartbreaking autobiographical portrait of a life he experienced and (in 1968, due to the Russian invasion) had to leave behind.

An 85-minute movie that feels even breezier, Loves of a Blonde is divided into three swiftly-paced yet immaculately-detailed sequences. In the first, Andula (Brejchova), a teenage factory worker, and her two friends attend a dance where they are awkwardly pursued by a trio of middle-aged soldiers. In the next, she is lured to the room of scrawny, caddish piano player Milda (Vladimir Pucholt), who teaches Andula how to defend herself against unwanted advances while seducing her with the same techniques. In the last, Andula pays a surprise visit to Milda's home in Prague, leading to a disastrous evening with his parents (the hilarious Josef Sebanek and Milada Jezkova). This impulsive move is uncharacteristic of Andula, who is the last girl who would press a guy against a wall -- not that it matters for Milda's mother, unhappy to play host (it's implied, yet again) for her twit of a son's latest conquest.

Seeing one of Forman's first movies near the end of his career is an odd experience, especially since it's better directed than many of the films that made him famous. Amadeus still holds up as a joyous, mournful masterwork; but One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has aged poorly, looking like a schematic play hustled to the screen. Hair is an ambitious, tin-eared mess; Man on the Moon strains to make a martyr out of a molehill; and even the engrossing, politically-charged The People vs. Larry Flynt is far better performed than staged. (In his review, Charles Taylor declared "there may be no major director with less visual sense" than Forman; adding, "I've seen enough movies shot by Philippe Rousselot to make a pretty fair guess that it's not his fault this one looks like dirty dishwater.")

So it's something of a shock to see how crisp Loves of a Blonde looks, with Forman filling each frame with funny, telling images. A factory manager persuades a military commander to lend his troops a stopover in Zruc because, he explains, the women in town vastly outnumber the men -- a biting social commentary staged before an oversized David Leanish map. At the horrible dance, the ogling soldiers order a bottle of booze to impress Andula and her friends, only to have a waiter serve it to the wrong girls. One of the soldiers, who is married, fumbles with his wedding ring only to chase it across the floor. Andula's visit to Prague climaxes with a drunken Milda forced to share his parents' bed, an Oedipal nightmare as uproarious slapstick. Yet beneath the wit and energy is a layer of melancholy. Oft-accused of misogyny later in his career (so many Nurse Ratcheds appearing as antagonists), Forman exudes nothing but empathy for his main character's lack of options. Which is why Forman's monologue in Norton's movie was a reassuring confirmation that whatever his failings, he took memories of actual Andulas with him.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Sizzle & Fizzle (Broken Embraces and Brothers)

With the declining box-office returns of every new Tom Cruise movie and the preprogrammed success of Pixar's animation empire (We make great movies...because we say so!) a license for every Arts & Leisure columnist to bemoan "The End of Movie Stars," it's worth checking out Broken Embraces, the latest by Pedro Almodovar, as a reminder of the essence of what Hollywood has either abandoned or forgotten. Stardom is the film's very subject: a former director of Spanish cinema (Lluis Homar), now a blind screenwriter going by the Graham Greene-ish name of Harry Caine, receives an unexpected visitor from the past with a link to the love of Harry's life, a fledgling actress named Lena (Penelope Cruz). What unfolds is a pair of related storylines: one in the present, where Harry investigates his suspicions of the stranger, who calls himself "Ray X" (Ruben Ochindiano); the other set fourteen years earlier, where we learn how Harry's relationship with Lena caused him to lose his sight.

There is much more to Broken Embraces than even that -- jealous husbands, drug overdoses, illegitimate children -- but the movie is a lot more complicated to explain than it is to watch. Almodovar relishes twisting his plot into knots (one critic accurately described it as Hitchcock-meets-Sirk) and providing nearly every major character with at least one pseudonym. Yet you always know where you are, who you're looking at, what they're feeling and why.

I'm a relative newbie to Almodovar, having seen four out of his last five movies but unacquainted with his earlier work. Some critics who are seem less impressed with Broken Embraces: the gist of many reviews is along the lines of: "Ho-hum! Another good movie." For me, though, the depth of emotion beneath the splashy colors and soap-opera antics is compelling to watch. It's also terrific fun. And Penelope Cruz, dismissed as a Hooked-On-Phonics joke in her American films prior to Vicky Cristina Barcelona (counting myself among her detractors), comes into full-bloom before Almodovar's gaze. Through Harry's eyes -- and, later, his memories -- we see how her Lena simultaneously destroys and fulfills him. It's quite a risk to draw visual allusions between your leading lady and the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, yet Broken Embraces proves that in the black hole of modern cinema, Cruz burns brightly.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S. of A., we have Brothers, a wartime melodrama that's like a Tennessee Williams heavy-breather performed by the St. Mary's High School Players. For the movie to work, we need to believe that Tobey Maguire is a hard-bitten Marine commander stationed in Afghanistan, and that Natalie Portman, as his wife back home, is a harried mother of two precocious daughters in small-town Red State America. It's not their youthful looks that ring false; it's their Hollywood smoothness that dooms the film from the start.

Still, Maguire and Portman try hard to make it work, as does Jake Gyllenhaal, more persuasive as the Marine's jailbird younger brother. When Sam (Maguire's character) is taken prisoner by Afghani soldiers and presumed dead, brother Tommy (Gyllenhaal) becomes deeply involved with Grace (Portman) and his nieces. I've found Gyllenhaal woefully out of his depth in Zodiac and other recent films (my dad once remarked, "He always looks like he's about to cry"), but he creates a fully lived-in character here. Sam is a screw-up who rises to the occasion when others need him, and Gyllenhaal renders authentic his feelings for Grace and Tommy even as Portman and Maguire fail to offer a reason why.

Brothers was directed by Jim Sheridan, possibly described best as a distant Irish cousin to the acclaimed American-Emo filmmaker James Gray (whose movies I loathe). Like Gray, Sheridan is praised for his sensitivity and overt embrace of emotion. Unlike Gray, he has a sense of humor and pacing and how to shape a scene: one such latter instance -- a tense birthday gathering where an unhinged Sam (newly returned from Afghanistan) confronts a resentful daughter, with a party balloon employed like a ticking time-bomb -- is staged masterfully. The director also tries some things with his young cast that work better than expected (Maguire, believe it or not, comes to bear a startling resemblance to Travis Bickle), and sets up a potentially tiresome character (Sam and Tommy's ultraconservative father, played by Sam Shepard) only to draw some surprising contours. However, as in his last film, In America -- which combined the stark realism of an Irish immigrant family's struggle to survive in New York with the fable of a black man dying so that they may live -- Sheridan can't distinguish his good ideas from his bad. Yet I suspect even he knows that his cast isn't up to snuff: in the Golden Age of Hollywood, they'd be caddies to the stars.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

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

In his review of Robert Altman's Cookie's Fortune, Charles Taylor conveys a description of the difference between racism in the North and racism in the South: "In the South...white people don't care how close black people get as long as they don't get too high; in the North it's just the opposite." This was still the case in the late-90s, at the time Altman's film was released. And it was certainly true in 1967, as Pictures at a Revolution makes clear, when a movie depicting a black detective from Philadelphia investigating a murder in Mississippi hit the sweet spot between popular success and Oscar contender.

In the Heat of the Night
  • Even in 1965, John Ball's mystery novel, In the Heat of the Night, didn't add anything revolutionary to what Mark Harris calls the subgenre of African-American mystery fiction. Authors like Donald McNutt Douglass, Ed Lacy, and Chester Himes had written award-winning novels featuring black detectives and police officers for years, yet "what made (their) novels strong on the page -- the specificity and 'blackness' of their worldview -- is exactly what kept filmmakers away." Nowadays, for all of Walter Mosley's success in the same genre (and Carl Franklin's superb adaptation of Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress, starring Denzel Washington, which sadly bombed at the box-office), it's apparent little has changed.
  • Ball's novel, however, was more accessible to Hollywood. The author, who was white, wrote in a sparse prose that didn't editorialize the relationship between the black detective and the white Southern sheriff who are forced to work together to solve a homicide; it merely presented events in the narrative as they unfolded.
  • Sidney Poitier, whose frustration at "becoming complicit in a fantasy designed to explain to white America that racism was wrong because it meant mistreating someone as free of human flaws and foibles" as he himself was purported to be was reaching a breaking point (cf. Tiger Woods), is surprisingly given little voice as to what he thought about playing Virgil Tibbs, the blank slate African-American policeman from the novel, other than Harris implies he signed on right away. Perhaps, having evaded disaster by being written out of Doctor Dolittle as Rex Harrison's native African sidekick, Poitier counted his blessings for becoming the first black actor to headline a detective movie. The search for a counterpart to play Chief Gillespie, the sheriff of the Mississippi town, would continue.
  • I've seen In the Heat of the Night maybe four or five times. It's a good movie, certainly not a great one; far more accurate than Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in its depiction of race relations, not a cinematic watershed the way Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate were in the same year. Yet I wonder if it wasn't a trailblazer, in its own understated way, as an interracial buddy movie and a fish-out-of-water film?
  • If so, much of the credit goes to screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, who fleshed out both Tibbs and Gillespie on the page. In the novel, Tibbs was from Pasadena; in Silliphant's original treatment, he was from Harlem; eventually, the compromise became Philly. Silliphant also made Tibbs more angry than he was in the book, and made the prejudices aimed at him -- toward his social standing --a more pervasive threat.
  • Virgil Tibbs became an interesting character for Poitier: in the wheelhouse of his previous cool-headed roles (like the line in Singin' in the Rain: "Dignity...always dignity"), yet with more rage coiled beneath the surface. As a related aside, it's amusing to see how the marketing of the character --
    -- has been altered in keeping with the times:
  • Norman Jewison, known at the time for directing The Cincinnati Kid with Steve McQueen and the out-of-nowhere Cold War comedy hit The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming with Alan Arkin, chose In the Heat of the Night as his next project (against the advice of his agent, who warned it was a small film). Jewison was, then and now, an intelligent and extremely affable filmmaker (see his engaging interview with Robert Osborne on TCM), not groundbreaking in terms of vision or technique, but unlike Stanley Kramer skilled enough to incorporate social issues at the service of a story.
  • For all his even temperament, Jewison also possessed reserves of steel and daring. He encouraged DP Haskell Wexler, fresh off his heated battles with Mike Nichols on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, to shoot In the Heat of the Night in color, then an unconventional choice for a "serious movie." Jewison also bucked the establishment by casting the blacklisted actress Lee Grant in a small but crucial part as the wife of the murder victim.
  • Jewison's most important collaborator on In the Heat of the Night was none other than Hal Ashby, credited as the editor of the film (as well as Cincinnati Kid and The Russians Are Coming) yet highly active in all facets of production. I enjoyed Harris's description of Ashby as "a rarity in mid-1960s Hollywood: a day-in, day-out pothead who was also a workaholic"...and "whose commitment to recreational drugs didn't seem to impede his skill as a superb detail man, to take care of every loose end.
  • Ashby, of course, would go on to direct a remarkable string of essential American films in the 1970s (The Landlord, Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, Being There) and whose body of work is enjoying a renaissance today.
  • Rod Steiger, who was enjoying an amazing run of his own as an untamable, chamelon-like Method actor (a Holocaust survivor in The Pawnbroker, a gay mortician in The Loved One, a Russian aristocrat in Dr. Zhivago), signed on to play Chief Gillespie after George C. Scott turned it down. Steiger, who would emerge late in life as a relatively more stable version of his On the Waterfront costar Marlon Brando, has a lively interview of his own that pops up from time to time on TCM, where he discusses his preparation for the role.
  • According to Steiger, he had trouble relating to the racist Gillespie and needed something physical as a gate of entry. After dismissing Jewison's suggestion that he smoke a cigar, he took the director's idea that he instead chew gum and ran with it.
  • Steiger is a lot of fun to watch in the movie: the way he slows down or accelerates the gum-chewing to convey Gillespie's thought processes; his growing frustration at how every well-meaning overture toward Tibbs gets interpreted (correctly) as bigotry.
  • Poitier "was unprepared for the Method-driven intensity that Steiger was bringing" to the movie -- remaining in character off-camera as well as on- -- and rose to the challenge by pushing himself farther than he had ever gone as an actor. Harris cites the key moment as the excellent scene where Gillespie and Tibbs appear on the verge of bonding over a drink, only to have Gillespie abruptly rebuff Tibbs' empathy.
  • In the Heat of the Night was shot almost entirely in Sparta, Illinois, to meet Poitier's understandable condition that the production stay above the Mason-Dixon line. Nevertheless, Jewison did manage to persuade him to film the pivotal sequence where Tibbs squares off with a plantation owner in rural Tennessee. For two sleepless nights, Poitier holed up in his hotel room with a gun under his pillow. Jewison worked fast during the day and got Poitier back to Illinois as soon as possible.
  • Although the above scene, with its famous exchange of slaps between the plantation owner and Tibbs, is still compelling to watch, it caused audible gasps among both white and black moviegoers back then. Initially Jewison was disturbed that their sneak-preview audience in San Francisco laughed throughout the film, but the tuned-in hippie Ashby explained that they were just grooving on the subject of "a smart black cop waiting with ever-decreasing patience for a backward southern sheriff to drag his carcass into the modern world." He assured Jewison, "'They were enjoying the film. They were into it. They get it.'"
  • In the Heat of the Night received generally positive reviews, yet many critics "treated the movie as if it had been hatched overnight" in response to the ugly racial clashes of the previous summer. Pauline Kael seemed to understand the movie best, blasting her colleagues for praising it "'as if it had been exactly the kind of picture that the audience was so relieved to discover it wasn't.'"
  • Yet In the Heat of the Night was exactly the kind of picture that often finds favor with Academy Awards voters: a box-office success, but not too successful; an espouser of socially liberal values without scaring the hell out of everyone. It tied The Graduate with seven nominations and won a surprising five, including Best Picture. Additionally, Steiger won Best Actor, Ashby for Best Editing, Silliphant for Adapted Screenplay, and Best Sound.
  • Naturally, Haskell Wexler's groundbreaking cinematography was ignored by the voters. Wexler, however, would win in 1976 for Hal Ashby's Bound for Glory. Lee Grant, whose bit part helped to revive her career, went on to win Best Supporting Actress in 1975 for Ashby's Shampoo.
  • Norman Jewison also enjoyed a productive career, possibly best known for directing the original '68 Thomas Crown Affair starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway and the sparkling 1987 comedy Moonstruck.
  • Yet Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier, two of the most wildly successful actors of the 60s, would both flame out after In the Heat of the Night. Bizarrely, Steiger never gained traction after his Oscar win. After turning down Patton (which was then offered, appropriately, to George C. Scott), he spent years in the Hollywood wilderness before enjoying a mild Hollywood comeback as a supporting player late in his career.
  • Poitier's career downturn was due to more complex circumstances. The trap Hollywood and American culture had put him in as a faultless, sexless, raceless icon finally closed in; he made two failed attempts to reprise his most famous character (They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! and The Organization), turned to directing for a spell, then vanished as an actor for over a decade before a welcome if all-too-brief reappearance in the late-80s and 90s. I'm partial to Poitier's supporting performance in the lighthearted heist comedy Sneakers, the most at ease he's ever been onscreen.
  • Fittingly, Harris ends Pictures at a Revolution with Poitier's words: "'I guess I was born out of joint with the times. I have not made my peace with the times -- they are still out of kilter. But I have made my peace with myself.'"
Thanks for reading!

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....