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'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner' Dishes Up Glib Fare

April 15, 1993|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lancer who regularly writes about film for The Times Orange County Edition.

Stanley Kramer had already established himself as something of a cinema crusader by the time "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" came out in 1967.

"On the Beach" (1959) and "Inherit the Wind" (1960) were both considered message-making movies for taking on themes of nuclear war and social ignorance, respectively. Then there was "The Defiant Ones" (1958), one of the first pictures to deal with racism.

The film starred Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier as escaped cons chained together. Almost rabid and unrepentantly melodramatic, Kramer showed how a bigoted white and a cranky black could learn to get along. Being manacled at the ankles turned out to be great for compromises.

Kramer brought up racism again with "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (screening Friday night as part of UC Irvine's "Love the Whole World Round" series), but this time he tried to put a little smile over the grimace. It was supposed to be an urbane, city-smart take on one of our enduring ills, a movie that could show the truth while amusing, not offending.

"Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" went on to create a small whirlwind of controversy and was a big hit, both at the box office and various award ceremonies. It was nominated for 10 Oscars and won two, for William Rose's screenplay and Katharine Hepburn's performance as Christina Drayton. But there's no way it's a great movie--significant, yes, but really too glib, too frothy for its own good.

The movie begins with a lilting soundtrack, a tone-setter if ever there was one. The music is upbeat and meant to be ironic. In the opening scenes, we see handsome Sidney Poitier and pretty Katharine Houghton, obviously giddy in love, prepare to meet her parents, played by Spencer Tracy and Hepburn.

Houghton's Joey is a bit of a lovable bubblehead, with the best intentions and a whole lot of naivete. Poitier's John is almost 15 years older and not so sure about how things are going to turn out. Joey is positive her rich, liberal parents won't mind that he's a "Negro," but John's been around and knows better.

He's right, of course, and the film moves slowly, predictably through a series of consciousness-raising moments. Hepburn's Christina, initially stunned, is quick to recognize their love and accepts the marriage plans unconditionally.

Tracy's Matt, a big-shot newspaper publisher, doesn't like the idea, believing that a racist America will give the couple more trouble than they can handle.

Is he a closet bigot or not? We find out at the end, as we find out about John's equally uncertain mom and dad.

While watching the picture recently, I kept wondering how anyone would have the least bit of reservation welcoming John into the family. A world-famous doctor with a resume full of commendations and charity work, he's got the job part made.

He also has the moral integrity of a saint. A brilliant, kind, funny, thoughtful, generous and great-looking dude. He doesn't even believe in premarital sex (Joey, however, does). John's so perfect that he's a little annoying. Maybe that's why everyone has doubts.

What Kramer gives us is a homogenized view of an acceptable black man. This non-threatening vision was probably seen as essential for a '60s audience not ready for an ethnic image with flaws. But John comes off as unrealistic, even disingenuous, today. He's a glib creation. I wished a gangsta rapper had taken his place at the dinner table.

The dialogue also can be off-putting, with its attempt to balance hip comedy with hip social commentary. Everybody talks an awful lot, and usually at each other; the writing often reads like a dialectic on basic race confusion and stereotypes.

At one point, Matt earnestly explains how blacks "have rhythm" and "dance better" on all the TV shows. John keeps a straight face, calmly, instructively, replying that it's because African-Americans " are the Watusi." At least they don't discuss why blacks are so good at slam-dunks.

But "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" did get people thinking and talking, which is probably the best argument that can be made for it these days. It's a period piece, a heartfelt plea for brotherhood, but also a clumsy fable for guilty-feeling white folks.

What: Stanley Kramer's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."

When: Friday, April 16, at 7 and 9 p.m.

Where: Crystal Cove Auditorium in the UC Irvine Student Center.

Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (I-405) Freeway to Jamboree Road and head south to Campus Drive. Turn left onto Campus, then right onto Bridge Road into the campus.

Wherewithal: $2 and $4.

Where to call: (714) 856-6379.

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