Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Gay Marriage: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

I understand why many Americans are so bothered by the notion of gay marriage. It enshrines in our culture something we’re not used to seeing: two men (or two women) in love. And then, of course, proceeding from love to long-term commitment, sometimes complete with children. When social norms undergo a shift, it’s not always easy -- particularly for those of us who might be deemed the older generation – to adjust our thinking. That’s where movies have a role to play.

Movies, as fantasies writ large, allow us to see the world in new ways. Sidney Poitier is iconic because of how he expanded our view of the African-American male. When blacks were stereotyped as Pullman porters, janitors, and farmhands, Poitier played doctors, social workers, and police detectives. In many of his films, he wore a suit and carried a briefcase, providing a visual symbol of what African-Americans could potentially become.

Before Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, you couldn’t see a Hollywood movie about a happy interracial couple. Films like Pinky and Imitation of Life showed America that romantic relationships between black and white were doomed to failure. Larry Peerce’s One Potato, Two Potato (1964) bravely depicted a happy marriage between a white woman and a black man, but it reflected the reality of its day by painting society as not ready to accept such a relationship, especially when children were involved.

One Potato, Two Potato was a small indie, aimed at the art-house crowd. Then along came Stanley Kramer, a progressive thinker determined to explore the possibility that – under ideal circumstances – love can bridge the racial divide. That’s why he released a mainstream movie in which Poitier (as a brilliant young doctor) is introduced to Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn (playing a crusading newspaper publisher and his wife) as their daughter’s surprise fiancé. When Kramer made his film, interracial marriage was very much in the news. On June 12, 1967, just three weeks after shooting wrapped, the Supreme Court finally banned all race-based legal restrictions on marriage within U.S. borders. In September the wedding of the daughter of Secretary of State Dean Rusk to an African-American classmate so startled the nation that it made the cover of Time (and sparked rumors that Rusk had offered resign his post).

When Guess Who’s Going to Dinner (billed as “a love story of today”) appeared at Christmas, the nation was already so comfortable with Poitier that the film became a huge hit, even in the South. Yes, some hackles were raised and some hate mail arrived on Kramer’s doorstep, but most Americans seemed ready to consider the notion that a white family could welcome a (handsome, successful, well-spoken) black son-in-law. What viewers saw on a movie screen gave them permission to consider that this might be acceptable in their own world as well.

Gay marriage, I think, needs something of the same: an appealing gay couple whom we moviegoers can take to our hearts. The tortured love depicted in Brokeback Mountain showed the tragedy of anti-gay sentiment; what’s required now is an upbeat movie that raises the possibility of happily-ever-after among two gays by showing us what it looks like. Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids are All Right did a remarkable job of probing -- with humor and affection -- the domestic life of two gay women and their children. But a male couple in a marital-type relationship is even harder for many of us to imagine, which is why we need the movies to help us put two faces to an issue that’s not going away anytime soon.



  1. Great piece, Beverly. I agree, but I think it has to be in a larger context at this point because if the movie is about that, it would, unfortunately, be subjugated to the "LGBT films" category. Then, the people who most need to see it would not. So, a gay couple with a healthy family in a mainstream film with big names where they are not the main focus is probably best to start. If it's kept subtle, people will begin to see it as normal without even realizing it. Unfortunately, since interracial marriage is still a problem for many people in the U.S. (I know this because of a couple who tried to move to Boston and ended up back in NYC where they felt more accepted), it's probably going to be generations before same-sex couples are accepted throughout the country. I won't live to see it, but I can hold the hope for it.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Of course it can be argued that movie tastes have changed since 1967. Perhaps we don't have stars today of the magnitude of Tracy, Hepburn, and Poitier who can persuade by their example. (Remember that the movie hinges on Tracy -- as a stand-in for the audience -- struggling to accept Poitier, but finally and wholeheartedly welcoming him into his family.) As an Everyman figure with whom white middle-class audiences could identify,Spencer Tracy had no peer.

  3. As a resident of the state that upheld the ban *sigh* this has been a big topic among my social circle. I was very unhappy at the outcome of the election - but it does show we have a long way to go. And I have to agree with Unknown - there are scads of movies with a gay theme out there - surely a few of them must present a positive picture of married gay life - but they are shunted off to their own section where the mainstream viewer will not find them unless they are already comfortable with the notion and looking for them.

    But here's a little something we could do - let's come up with this movie together - what genre (comedy, drama, etc), who would we cast, who would we get to direct, etc. If you want to go for it - get us started and let's see what we would come up with.

  4. What fun! But my brain is mush right now. I think it needs to be a light comedy. For me one of the most interesting questions is this: do the actors need to be gay, or should they be played by attractive straight actors (as in Brokeback Mountain)? I've talked about that film a lot with gay men, who were comfortable with the Brokeback characters being portrayed by straights because they felt this would help mainstream audiences identify more easily. In the case of Sidney Poitier, there was no question he was black -- it was a fundamental part of the actor as well as the characters he played. And a white actor couldn't possibly play his roles. But you can PLAY gay without being gay. So do you get someone with the appeal of a George Clooney (let's say) to play a gay role, or find really likable gay actors for your movie? Neal Patrick Harris?

  5. Okay, so we'll go with a light comedy. You know who might be a good director for this? Maybe you've heard of him - Ron Howard?

    As for the cast - I think maybe somebody like Neil Patrick Harris - who has a lot of audience goodwill to bring to a project like this. I think other gay actors with particularly benevolent personas would be a bonus - so we need a Nathan Lane in there somewhere. He'll be the older generation who didn't have the marriage option - lots of sharp and observant lines from him.

    Next question - is this a story about a gay marriage, or a gay wedding?

  6. Ron Howard is a lovely idea. I think he has the sensibility for this, and he's good at light comedy (despite his last pathetic attempt, The Dilemma). You ask a great question: marriage or wedding. I'll have to ponder it when I've had a few hours more of sleep. Just finished with a big biographers' conference that was largely my doing, and I'm understandable frazzled.

  7. Still thinking -- I have a hunch a wedding film is too conventional and too easy. Aside from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, we've seen this in all sorts of movies, including the attempt at a Guess Who's Coming to Dinner follow-up, Guess Who, along with such familiar oldies as Father of the Bride. If we were to go that route, the movie would be all about the tangle of comic problems leading up to the big day. It's more substantive if we perhaps playa the wedding scene early on, and then go into the marriage. But the climax might be a baby, and perhaps society's not ready to go there yet. What do you think?

  8. I'm completely with you - the wedding movie has been done - and changing the gender of one of the couple to match the other doesn't change the kind of comic problems all of these movies bring to the table. So a gay marriage. I think the wedding scene could be videographer footage under the credits - if handled well, it could make for a fun scene, basically boiling what would have been the marriage movie into three or four minutes leading to Mr. Howard's "Directed by" credit. What do you think about a fifth or tenth wedding anniversary as the backdrop to the plot? Even if that might force the story into the future a bit?

  9. Mr. Craig, I really like the video footage idea as an opener. The anniversary celebration is a good idea. Question: should we establish kids in this marriage? I think marital partners of any stripe can develop conflicts as their progeny move out into the world. Maybe they have a child they dote on, but one parent wants a ritzy kindergarten that promises future social and academic success, but the other is idealistic about the local public school, far richer in terms of diversity. (And of course both are slightly panicky about how well this child of two fathers will be accepted within the school environment.) What think you?