Friday, March 31, 2017

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (but had better Get Out)

Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out, has been an unexpected 2017 crowd-pleaser. Since its release, it has proven itself a critical and box-office hit. Peele, part of the comedy duo of Key & Peele, was best known until now for his uncanny impersonation of President Obama. But he’d always wanted to work in the horror genre, and Get Out deftly mixes horror with social satire about the role of racism in America.

At the heart of Get Out is the visit of a young black man and his white girlfriend to the home of her unsuspecting parents. This makes the film an heir to the tradition begun by a classic from 1967, Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. As part of my own research into that great year for films (which will culminate in the November publication of my “Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation”), I spent many hours in  the Stanley Kramer archives at UCLA. Although by today’s standards, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner may seem tame, it raised hackles back in 1967. At the same time that hip college students were declaring it hopelessly old-fashioned, Kramer was receiving death threats for suggesting via this film that there was nothing wrong with a marriage between members of two different races.

Because Kramer was hard-headed enough to know that in 1967 such a message was inherently controversial, he sought to mollify moviegoers with a sort of drawing-room comedy, in which lovely people in beautiful clothes set aside their racial differences and become one big happy family. As he explained to a student who questioned the air of unreality floating over this film, “I wanted to make a pleasant experience for the audience, to make the situation as pleasantly acceptable as possible, to leave them with a glow.”

To that end, Kramer managed a casting coup. He persuaded his good friend Spencer Tracy to play the father, despite the ill health that would make this Tracy’s valedictory performance. By signing Tracy he managed a twofer, getting Tracy’s longtime companion Katharine Hepburn to take the role of his wife. For the prospective son-in-law who is perfect in everything but his skin color, the obvious choice was Sidney Poitier. With three megastars on board, Kramer easily convinced the brass at Columbia Pictures to back the film, without letting them in on its central premise. He was deep into pre-production when Columbia got wind of what this story was about. Rattled by fears of controversy, Columbia quickly decreed that because Spencer Tracy was uninsurable, the picture would have to be scrapped. Karen Sharpe Kramer recalls that her husband was devastated, but he soon regrouped. Announcing to Katharine Hepburn that he would put up his own salary as collateral to cover the risks posed by Tracy’s health issues, he urged her to do the same. (Their gamble paid off: Tracy completed the picture on schedule, but would die of a heart attack fifteen days later.)

According to Karen Kramer, Columbia Pictures hardly looked forward to the film’s release. In Los Angeles, the studio booked it into a single house, the Village Theatre in Westwood, “hoping that no one would see it, . . . scared to death that it would be an explosive situation they had to deal with.” But, as her late husband used to say, audiences can sometimes smell a hit: “The minute those doors opened, there were lines around the block. I mean twenty blocks long. And they never stopped coming.” Across the nation, too, this was a movie that had to be seen. 

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