Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), dir. Stanley Kramer

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a series of contradictions: liberal, radical, conservative, of its time, ahead of its time, timeless; in favour of civil rights and ‘miscegenation’; against black power and the Civil Rights Movement; favourable towards Reverend King; the N-word used between black characters. A colour studio picture, largely staged within a house; a Cukor-esque comedy with Hepburn and Tracy; a Sidney Poitier, race themed late 60s movie; a Stanley Kramer social issues drama; a film with yet another mammy archetype, Tillie (Isabel Sanford) – not a slave, but still a servant; a 1960s film with a cute interlude with groovy music, milkshake drive-ins, kooky art galleries; a film about a black family. Somehow, these contradictions resolve themselves.

Despite James Baldwin’s argument against John Prentice (Sidney Poitier) as an overqualified, immaculate, perfect, sexless black man: John Prentice taking his shirt off before being rudely interrupted and covering his modesty is kind of hot! Prentice is overqualified, serving a narrative purpose to portray the film’s message, endearing the character to the audience with his personal morality and explaining how he and Joanna met. His relationship with Joanna is mature, whirlwind, adorable, reasoned, cute, never out of place; Hepburn and Tracy as her parents Matt and Christina, in Tracy’s final role, will never be out of place. Kramer allows us to experience a generational difference, with John’s father being lower wage and social class: a mailman who lived through troubled decades with more explicit and fatal racial discrimination than John’s generation – with a closer chronological link to slavery.

My criticisms are that the emotional trauma John experiences from losing a wife and son tragically is never really explored, brushed aside so we can look at his blossoming relationship with Joey. Ten days in Hawaii solely together isn’t enough time to be able to commit to marriage, even in 1967: a few months should be the absolute minimum. There’s a level of miscommunication, uncertainty and a lack of an established relationship between the two families and Joanna’s desire to rush it that isn’t healthy, even if this film raises the idea that a mixed race relationship creates a stronger marriage from the societal challenges inherited. They shouldn’t even be dating yet: Joanna is young and not a child as her mother describes, but John, over 10 years her senior, acts much more mature than her in not wanting to create a rift. John doesn’t suffer from poverty, but is rich enough to afford a flight last minute. 

I feel very mixed about Tillie as a character overall, even though this film is able to place women – and indeed black women also – in a strong position. Her reaction against John being “above his class” to be with a white woman seems to play purely to black audiences against assimilation but in maintaining the black community, or white audiences seeking affirmation of their dismissive viewpoints. I really love Spencer Tracy’s mixed reactions and how he tries to resolve those contradictions within himself, but he still seems pretty racist, but also a realistic depiction and a figure who definitely appears time and time again in real life. I really appreciate his worries of discrimination by others without realising his perspective becomes discriminatory in action, and his feelings of what things will be like 50 or 100 years in the future.

There’s some feeling of everything being resolved, especially with Tracy’s speech at the end, but really it isn’t resolved. A mixed race kid that could grow to be president seemed believable only a decade ago. Karen Kramer, in her introduction for the DVD release, says that she feels so disheartened by still hearing racial slurs and discrimination in 2007, and look how things are in 2019! But I’m glad this film coincided with Loving v. Virginia and became a part of the public consciousness.

Once Upon a Time in America: Extended Director’s Cut (1984/2012), dir. Sergio Leone

A sprawling, stunning epic told across time, with Sergio Leone creating a stunning time travel transition from a car driving into the water into the political turbulence of the 1960s: exploding cars, vivid news reports on television broadcast into the diner.

Leone creates a vivid world the viewer is forced to immerse themselves in of different people and values, with greater depth than the talkies and gangster pictures coming out at the time and increased immersion than that same period within digital filmmaking: Jewish and Chinese communities, street urchins, prostitutes, speakeasies, silhouette projections, shootouts, sprawling skylines, no detail left unchecked, Morricone’s score electrifying the film’s textures.

Unlike Sam Peckinpah’s transition into filmmaking outside of the western genre, though Leone parallels the western with his interest in characters and a city and most obviously with the title, Leone is more interested in creating his own individual world. The conflicted running time and the 9 month shooting process would be no issue today: HBO or Netflix or Amazon Studios would funnel millions into it, giving a dedicated 10 hour season with a commitment for more, never straying from Leone’s vision. but there’s something to the ‘compactness’ of the 4 hour version, split with an intermission. The mirroring of the two periods requires the entire duration to unfold these parallels, but it’s worth it.

Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How “The Graduate” Became the Touchstone of a Generation (2017) by Beverly Gray

The cover to Seduced by Mrs. Robinson

And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson
Jesus loves you more than you will know

Mrs. Robinson (1967) – Simon & Garfunkel

Beverly Gray’s 300 page exploration into the production and cultural impact of Mike Nichols’ film The Graduate (1967), published by Algonquin Books, is at its most engaging in its second half (the book’s third section), where Gray focuses on how the film responded to – and was in turn interpreted by – the 1960s radical youth culture it emerged from, a generation Gray was a part of. Gray traces how much the film has stayed around in the five decades since its release, inspiring directors, actors and numerous parodies, and still initiates a response from the current generation. She covers the film’s political implications, the future careers of its cast and crew, and how the materialism of the parental world ‘sold out’ through how the film has been exploited and marketed in explicitly commercial contexts subsequently.

Unfortunately, the first half of the book (comprising the first and second sections), documenting production history and deconstructing the film, feels largely a retread of the sources Gray draws upon, bringing together references to contemporary interviews, autobiographies, DVD commentaries, Sam Kashner’s 2008 Vanity Fair oral history of the film and Mark Harris’ 2009 book, Pictures at a Revolution. Though welcome to see this sources in the same place, Gray’s original contributions are limited to her survey of screenwriter Lawrence Turman’s personal documents and her interviews with him. Gray draws upon a lot of sources with good detail, but there’s still gaps. The second section is weighed down by Gray’s detailed plot summary, igniting a memory of the film’s best scenes but distracting from her own analysis of why these scenes work.

Part of the frustration is Gray’s perspective as a California based youth of the 1960s who watched the film on its original release, and subsequently worked in the film industry alongside producer Roger Corman. Gray uses the perspective of cultural history through journalistic skill, achieving an analysis outside of academic film criticism or the research of film historians. I would have preferred a book with greater visual sources (only a handful of posters and set photos reproduced in the book’s centre, in black and white) and a sharper focus on responses towards the film.

Seduced By Mrs Robinson is probably best read by someone who remembers watching The Graduate years ago, but hasn’t seen the film’s recent rereleases and has no awareness of its production and response. Gray is certainly competent as a writer, but I can’t shake off how much more engaging Mark Harris is on the same subject, or the directness of the Vanity Fair piece, freely available online. Unable to achieve a greater impact, I’d more strongly recommend the book with an awareness of sections that can be skipped over, or using Gray’s bibliography as its own resource to be drawn upon. Recommended with major caveats.