Sunday, March 1, 2020

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Wastes Good Actors On A Subpar Script

Given how I've already written and talked about Guess Who's Coming to Dinner extensively for my Race & Gender in Cinema class (in fact, that's the course that got me to finally watch this for the first time), this will be a shorter than usual review. The length of this review may be briefer but there is plenty to talk about here in Stanley Kramer's 1967 motion picture. This feature touted itself as something bold & transgressive but even by the standards of 1967 feels awfully dated. It's the originator of the kind of movie dealing with race in a soft manner meant to make it palatable for older White moviegoers that Hollywood loves. You'd think we'd have grown out of these movies by now...

Anywho, the central conceit of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is that John Prentice (Sidney Poiter) and Joanna Drayton (Katharine Houghton) have arrived to the home of Drayton's parents, Matt (Spencer Tracy) and Christina (Katharine Hepburn) with a surprise: John and Joanna are getting married! It's a revelation that hits Matt hard due to John being a Black man. Though Matt has professed his whole life to be a progressive individual, now coming face-to-face with actually having to live out his rhetoric turns out to be far more challenging than it seems. The rest of the story proceeds to follow Matt as he grapples with whether or not to bless the union between his daughter John and Joanna.

Honestly, the biggest problem with Guess Who's Coming to Dinner isn't its outdated approach to racial matters. After all, this is a mainstream movie made in older Hollywood, cringe-inducing approaches to race come with the territory. A more surprising negative quality is the screenplay by William Rose, which is poorly-crafted, particularly in terms of dialogue. Much of the time, the characters in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner speak either in clumsy recaps of events the audience just saw transpire or in overly obvious lines of dialogue that make their emotions as flatly obvious as can be. Occasionally, Rose really mixes it up by capping scenes off with a character looking at the camera and delivering a corny piece of comedic dialogue one step removed from "It's a living!"

Attempts at grandiose dramatic dialogue are even worse, especially the wretched line "You see yourself as a colored man, I see myself as a man!" that not even a gifted performer like Sidney Poiter  can make work. The subpar dialogue culminates in Matt giving a prolonged speech straight out of an after-school-special that never seems to end. Our protagonist speaks and speaks for eons yet never says much of anything. It's a pity the dialogue here and throughout the rest of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is so terrible because, otherwise, the remainder of the film is mostly agreeable though frequently eye-roll-inducing cinema.

Kramer's direction and Sam Leavitt's cinematography make the lush pad that Joanna's parents call home and where we spend much of the movie looking appropriately glamorous. Poiter is certainly charming in his on-screen charisma even if Rose's script stubbornly refuses to give him a character to play. The best part of the movie has to be Katharine Hepburn, a predictable proclamation from a self-professed Katharine Hepburn fanatic, I know. Still, her gift for memorable line deliveries and equally iconic body language result in the most entertaining moments of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. However, even a performer as amazing as Katharine Hepburn can't fully overcome the undercooked screenplay that keeps on dragging Guess Who's Coming to Dinner down.

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