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Posts tagged ‘Civil Rights’

Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

Driving Miss DaisyDirected by Bruce Beresford

It has taken me forever to finally get my thoughts about Driving Miss Daisy written down. It’s partly because my feelings about it are complex, but it’s also because I have a new boyfriend, and while I like to write about movies, there are many things that are more enjoyable that I can do with my boyfriend, so this has been put on the back burner for a bit. Once I get in the rhythm of having a boyfriend again, posts should start appearing with more regularity. So without further ado, I present my thoughts on Driving Miss Daisy:

As is oddly common with so many of these movies from 1989, Driving Miss Daisy is a movie I grew up watching. Again and again and again and again. Yet somehow, I haven’t ever gotten tired of it. In fact, immediately after I finished watching Deliverance and was traumatized by it and wanted to get it out of my head, I turned on Driving Miss Daisy. It calmed me down and got the scary, icky feeling to go away. It reminded me that there is good in this world.

So what’s the story?  After 72-year-old Miss Daisy Worthen crashes yet another car, her son Boolie decides that she needs a chauffeur. Against her wishes, Boolie hires Hoke Colburn for the job. Although Miss Daisy refuses to even acknowledge that Hoke’s existence at first, their relationship slowly becomes one of mutual admiration and friendship, something amazingly unusual between and white woman and a black man in pre-Civil Rights era Georgia.

The Good: Because I have a hard time explaining everything else, I’m going to start with the screenplay. It’s easy. The screenplay is wonderful. The author, Alfred Uhry, adapted his own Pulitzer-prize winning play for the screen. In my opinion, the best way to get a good movie from another medium is to have the author of the original medium write the screenplay. They know why they wrote the play/book/short story and can put that motivation and intention into the screenplay. They are able to take out the less important things and expose the important core more easily than some random screenplay writer. Anyway, back to the screenplay – it’s delightful. The speech patterns and expressions of the American South are fun, and in this case, you get to hear ways of talking from the black people and the white as Hoke and Daisy become close and share so much of their lives.

Here is where I come to the tricky part that I’m not sure how to explain. To show the passage of time in a movie that spans 25 years, everything had to come together perfectly–and everything did. The film elements do double duty; they show things about the characters, like social class and funny characteristics, but they also have to show the passage of time. Instead of making one long paragraph explaining how all the film elements came together to really show that the relationship took time to grow from nothing to tolerance to true friendship, I’ll write about each one separately to highlight how exactly it did its job.  

Acting: Jessica Tandy as Daisy and Morgan Freeman as Hoke both give amazing performances. Daisy, who is described as “too much there,” is intelligence, fierce and iron-willed, unyielding in her ideas of standards. Tandy shows how Daisy softens as she ages, realizing in her old age that maybe some of her ideals weren’t so good after all.  Freeman plays Hoke as a man who is too proud to take money for nothing, a man who knows his own worth but isn’t pushy about it. I love the habit that Hoke has of working his mouth in a certain way; it’s something I’ve always respected about Freeman’s performance. As he ages, Hoke realizes that he and Daisy are on a much more equal footing, and he acts accordingly. Dan Akroyd is excellent as Daisy’s only child, the long-suffering Boolie. Although he respects his mother, he is often impatient with her stubborn ways. He mellows, though, especially toward the end when he realizes that he misses his mother’s funny ways. Boolie’s wife, Florine, is played by Patti LuPone. Florine tries hard to be kind to her impossible mother-in-law at the start of the movie, but eventually realizes that no matter what how hard she tries, Daisy is never going to accept her. Florine remains high-strung her entire life; some people just don’t change. LuPone shows this to perfection.

Set Decoration: As happens in life, the things surrounding the characters change. Since the movie is about driving, the cars are an obvious example of this. The car that Miss Daisy crashes, the catalyst for the events of the movie, is a brand-new 1948 Hudson. Her car is replaced by another exactly the same, but whenever Boolie decides it’s time for his mother to have a new car, every five years or so, the styles change. The car from the fifties is longer and sleeker than the 1948 Hudson, and the cars continue to get more aerodynamic as time goes on. The photography occasionally highlights the registration tag, which changes year to year as does the registration on cars in real life. Daisy often calls Boolie, and since Boolie’s wife, Florine, is fashion-forward, her telephones are, too. They have a standard black dial phone in the 1940s, but the phone Boolie uses in the 1970s is harvest gold. It’s a teeny detail, but it’s evidence of how hard the crew worked to make everything perfectly fit the time. Boolie’s factory is another place where we can see the passage of time. At the beginning, it’s full of factory workers manually running the machines. By the end, the factory has many more machines with fewer people; these people are keeping an eye on the machines rather than physically running them. Even the songs used keep the passage of time in mind. The songs are always accurate for the year. Daisy sings songs that were written before the turn of the century, ones that a woman of her age would have learned as a child. When Florine throws her <GASP> Christmas party, one of her records is “Santa Baby.” Boolie is looking skeptically at it, as it’s the first year it came out. I suppose the music isn’t usually set decoration, but in this case, where it’s used to set the year and not just the feeling of a scene, I think it fits.

Makeup/Hair: Every single makeup artist who needs to age people for a movie needs to take note of the artistry of Driving Miss Daisy. Growing up watching  this movie may be why I am so impatient of poorly-done aging. (I’m looking at you, Giant!). All of the actors get more wrinkly as the age, even Miss Daisy, who is so old to begin with. She becomes skinnier the way that some old people do as they age. Boolie gets chubbier and balder with the passage of time. Hoke looked like an old man to begin with, but the makeup (along with Freeman’s old man walk) manages to age him, too, with the wrinkles on his forehead becoming deeper and more pronounced. His hair  slowly goes from grey to white. Flourine gets some wrinkles, but she also looks incredibly preserved, leading the viewer to wonder if maybe Florine got some work done. Her hairstyles change with the times perfectly. (Also, her makeup is so well-done that I didn’t even recognize Patti LuPone, even after I realized that she was in the movie.)  Near the end of the movie, Hoke’s granddaughter drops him off at the Worthen home. She has an Afro. Again, a tiny little detail is snuck into the movie to show how much time has passed and how the world has changed.

Costumes: The costuming was so crucial for this movie. If the clothes hadn’t been right, no one would have believed that 25 years had passed throughout the movie. Daisy’s clothes don’t change much, of course, because she’s an older woman and is happy in the clothes she has. My great-grandmother was the same way; when I was in my 20s, she was wearing the same clothes I remembered from my  childhood. Hoke wears a uniform, so his clothes don’t really change. But Boolie’s clothes – oh, they change. The first time we see him, his suit pants are high-waisted and his tie is very wide. Throughout the movie, the pants’ waists get lower, the ties get skinnier, and the colors of the suits vary as the styles change. He wears a hat at the beginning, but has given up his hats by the end of the movie. He starts wearing glasses as he gets older. While Florine is always wearing year-appropriate fashions, she’s not in the movie nearly as much as Boolie is. I can imagine her picking his clothes for him so that he is always stylish, and I can see him wearing whatever she tells him to because it’s just not  worth the fight.

The Bad: The score itself  isn’t bad; I once had a film teacher say it was “nice,” and you “can tell it’s nice, because it has lots of clarinet in it. Clarinets are nice instruments.” The themes are fun and positive. The thing that bothers me is that it’s always there. It’s like the filmmakers just couldn’t stand the silence. I realize that was how film music worked at the time, but I’m glad that’s not the fashion anymore.

The Ugly: It’s too nice of a movie to have anything ugly in it per se, but there is ugly beneath the surface. I just accepted the story as it was presented in the movie when I was young, but now I feel kind of uncomfortable watching it. There’s almost an undertone of “Isn’t the white lady wonderful because she made friends with a black man?” The only thing that makes me okay with watching the movie is that Alfred Urhy based his play/screenplay on the relationship of his white southern grandmother and her black chauffeur. I guess I would like to see the story from both sides: how did Hoke feel about the relationship? How did the growth of this friendship change or not change his life? Part of me wants to say it was just the South in the 1940s-1970s and to accept what’s there, but the rest of me wants to point out that Hoke has a life outside of being Daisy’s driver, and we don’t get to see any of that. It’s a two-sided story that only gets told from one point of view.  

Oscars Won: Best picture; best actress in a leading role (Jessica Tandy); best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium; best makeup.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best actor in a leading role (Morgan Freeman); best actor in a supporting role (Dan Aykroyd); best art direction-set direction; best costume design; best film editing.

Dead End (1937)

dead endDirected by William Wyler

“There was blood on his hands…and a price on his head!” I knew absolutely nothing about Dead End before I watched it, but this tagline made me pretty sure it was film noir. I was so excited; I love film noir. Turns out Dead End is not film noir, but something better: a look at the life of poverty-stricken people in New York’s Lower East Side.

So what’s the story? Drina is single and poor, struggling to raise her younger brother, Tommy. She has always been in love with Dave, a man who worked hard to put himself through college so he could escape the slums, but who can’t get a job now. Dave is falling for Kay, a young woman living in the fancy new apartment building that backs onto Drina and Dave’s block. Tommy is the leader of a street gang; he’s getting into more and more trouble lately. One day, a mysterious man comes to the block. On that one fateful day, the tensions between rich and poor, wealth and poverty, and law and crime all come to a head.

The Good: The lead actors (Sylvia Sydney as Drina and Joel McCrae as Dave) were amazing. Their performances were so good that I can’t figure out why I wasn’t familiar with their names. They both deserved to have much bigger careers than they did. Humphrey Bogart did a good job as always, as did some of the teens in Tommy’s gang.

The filmmakers used several elements to contrast the realities in the lives of the rich and poor. At the beginning, they use editing to show alternating scenes as both groups get ready for the day. The costumes also show class contrast. Drina has one dress on throughout the day, and although it’s clean and pressed, it’s not fashionable. We see Kay in a couple of dresses: a fashionably simple, blindingly white day dress, and a beautiful evening gown. The gang of teenage boys wear a variety of clothes, many of which are obviously hand-me-downs, while the teen boy who lives in the apartment house wears a tailored suit. Martin wears (and brags about) his expensive clothes, while Dave wears worn shirts and trousers. Those living in the poor neighborhood use more slang than the wealthy apartment dwellers; their grammar is also not always perfect. These things all come together to subtly remind viewers of the contrasting lives.

The musical score in Dead End is perfect for the movie; there isn’t one. Sure, there’s some music over the opening credits, and again at the “The End” placard, but the only other music in the movie is the naturally occurring music throughout the day: the player piano in the bar; the kazoo that one of the boys joyfully plays; the songs people sing; the jazz records of the wealthy. This adds to the realism of the movie.

More than anything else, though, the story and screenplay made me love this movie. Dead End speaks for people who don’t have voices, people who are doing their best but who can’t make it out of poverty. It shows why people get stuck in the poverty cycle. It explores that while all people have dreams, sometimes you can’t have all of your dreams. Fighting for your dreams is important, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll get what you’re fighting for. Doing your best isn’t always good enough. The wealthy are not only privileged in their money, but also with the law. They have connections that can get them what they want. On the other hand, just because they are wealthy doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve the protections of the law. All of this was packed into one movie that takes place in one day. That was extraordinarily well done.

The Bad: While Tommy’s gang has some good actors in their midst, some of them are not so great. Also, some of them have such thick New York accents that it’s hard for this person from “out West” to tell what they are saying sometimes.

There were a few parts that felt a little bit slow, but everything is important at some point, so don’t let your attention wander.

The Ugly: This is still happening. People are still living in poor, crime-ridden parts of town. They want to move to a nicer place, but they don’t have the money. Kids still get in over their heads in gangs. Some people decide that they would rather have the money that comes with a life of crime than live an honest life. Some people try to get out of the life, but society makes it hard for them. The justice system comes down harder on poverty-stricken people. I have never ever said that a movie should be remade, but I think this one should be. Not because it’s a bad movie, but because many people won’t watch a black-and-white movie to save their lives. I also think some of the parallels to today might be lost on some people. But this is partially what the humanities are for: to help people understand other people whose lives are so completely different than their own.

Oscars Won: None.

Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actress in a supporting role (Clair Trevor); best cinematography; best art direction.

Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln_2012_Teaser_PosterDirected by Steven Spielberg

This is yet another post that I had already written, but lost when I lost my flashdrive. On the bright side, that means I get to celebrate President’s Day by posting about Lincoln, which is a happy coincidence. It’s a great movie about a great man. I feel like I’m gushing, and I’m sorry, but it really is an amazing movie.

So what’s the story? In the last days of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln wheels and deals and does everything he can in order to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which will abolish slavery in the United States forever. He has a deadline, however; if the South rejoins the Union before the amendment passes, they will defeat the amendment and keep slavery legal.

The Good: Daniel Day-Lewis does it again. The man is a chameleon. I could pass him on the street and not have a clue who he is because he always becomes his character. I felt like I was watching real footage of Abraham Lincoln. Before I started watching these Oscar-nominated movies, I thought Daniel Day-Lewis was overrated. I will never think that again. I cannot believe how amazing he is in this part.

I am rarely struck by makeup and hairstyling, but there are so many actors in Lincoln that I am familiar with – and I didn’t recognize any of them except for Tommy Lee Jones. Even Sally Field is practically unrecognizable. Everyone looks period-correct, and it is impressive. The costuming adds to this, of course. You can see the different classes and stations in society through the clothes, and I love it.

Speaking of actors, the supporting cast is fantastic. Sally Field makes a wonderful Mary Todd Lincoln. She shows all the complexities of the woman, including her awareness of how her illness made Lincoln’s life more difficult. Tommy Lee Jones always plays crusty men well, but he is also tender in his portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens. I don’t usually like James Spader, because he always makes me feel slimy, but since his character is slimy, he works so perfectly. I didn’t feel that anyone did a poor job. This is another perfectly-cast movie.

The production design and the sets were another aspect that made the movie historically believable. The rooms were low-ceilinged and dim, even during the day. Everything is slightly dingy, as if covered by the ash of the fires. There is mud and dirt and grime and that’s how life was then.

John William’s score is surprisingly subtle for him. It’s beautiful and stirring and simple and just right for a movie about a brave, simple man.

The Bad: There is nothing bad about this movie. Nothing bothered me about it at all, except perhaps Tommy Lee Jones’ wig, but Thaddeus Stevens had a bad wig in real life, so there wasn’t much choice there.

The Ugly: There are some short ugly war scenes and reminders of the cost of keeping the war going so that the amendment could pass, but that’s realism, not bad filmmaking.

Oscars Won: Best performance by an actor in a leading role (Daniel Day-Lewis); best achievement in production design.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best motion picture of the year; best performance by an actor in a supporting role (Tommy Lee Jones); best performance by an actress in a supporting role (Sally Field); best achievement in directing; best writing, adapted screenplay; best achievement in cinematography; best achievement in film editing; best achievement in costume design; best achievement in music written for motion pictures, original score; best achievement in sound mixing.

Gandhi (1982)

gandhi-movie-poster-1982-1020195902Directed by Richard Attenborough

I always worry when I’m watching a movie about a culture that isn’t my own, especially when it’s made by someone also outside that culture. I worry that I will “learn” something inaccurate or get the wrong idea about that culture. I had seen Gandhi before, but I was probably fourteen or fifteen and impressionable, so I was worried about how Indians view the movie and whether I could watch it comfortably as an American. But the day I picked it up from the library, an Indian coworker of mine said, “Oh, you are going to watch that movie? It is such an excellent movie. So well done.” Later that night, a British friend of mine whose parents are from India and Pakistan asked me what I was doing. I told him I was watching Gandhi. His response? “I love that movie.” So while there might be historical inaccuracies or only part of the story told, I at least know that Indians do not find this movie offensive, which does make me glad.

So what’s the story? Mohandas Gandhi, a young Indian lawyer educated in London, experiences racial prejudice in South Africa and decides that it is unacceptable for anyone to be treated that way. He begins a protest of the way Indians in South Africa are treated. His activism doesn’t stop there, however. He goes back to India and becomes the leader of the long struggle against British rule.

The Good: Ben Kingsley makes an excellent Gandhi, both young and old. He takes us on the same journey that Gandhi made, from rash young man to wise old leader, full of patience and kindness. It is an excellent performance.

I’m not going to name all of the people who did a good job of acting, because in a three-hour movie with lots of small roles filled by famous or soon-to-be-famous people (including Daniel Day-Lewis!), there is lots of good acting. I will mention Rohini Hattangadi, though. She played Ba, Gandhi’s wife, going from a young woman unsure if her husband is doing the right thing or if he has gone crazy to a woman who believes fully in what he does and supports him completely. She was impressive.

I loved the cinematography. There are times when it shows the grandeur of India, the huge scale of that country, and other times when it is intimate, showing how one man was able to make such a difference in such a large, diverse country. If I hadn’t already wanted to visit India someday, the cinematography of this movie would have made me want to go.

The makeup people did an excellent job of making Gandhi and Ba look older as time passed. I might have thought that the old and young were played by different people, especially as Ben Kingsley looks less like himself and more like Gandhi as he “aged”.

The Bad: Those same makeup people who did such a good job on Gandhi did a less-than-stellar job on Gandhi’s associates Nehru, Jinnah, and Patel. They didn’t age at all until the very end, even though they had been working for independence for thirty years. If this was done on purpose to show how much more quickly people age when they are living a lifestyle of poverty, than I suppose it was okay. But even if you are wealthy, you age over time, not all at once.

What happened to Gandhi’s sons? They are shown at the beginning of the movie in South Africa, but then we never see them again. There was nothing about the sons to make them a huge plot point, but I really did have to wonder if they all died, since they don’t seem to be anywhere around Gandhi and his wife for the rest of his life. Leaving them out altogether would have been one thing, but to show them once and then never again is bad storytelling.

The Ugly: I’m not disputing that Gandhi was a great man. He truly was. It takes an amazing kind of person to struggle for independence without fighting and to inspire an entire nation to do the same. His story is an incredible one. But except for one scene where he is angry at his wife, he is shown as having no weaknesses. He is made out to be a saint. I’m not trying to insult anyone or tear Gandhi down, but no one is that perfect, which made me feel like the movie was only semi-factual. I may be wrong; I know very little about the Mahatma. He may have been perfect. But because I was feeling that throughout the movie, I couldn’t immerse myself completely in the experience, so I’m going to stand firm in my belief that it was a weakness for this movie.

Oscars Won: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Ben Kingsley); best director; best writing, screenplay written directly for the screen; best cinematography; best art direction-set decoration; best costume design; best film editing.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best sound; best music, original score; best makeup.

Sounder (1972)

sounderDirected by Martin Ritt

I think my third grade teacher hated children. What is my evidence for this? She made us read not only The Red Pony by John Steinbeck, but also Sounder by William H. Armstrong. While both are good books (SPOILER ALERT), the beloved animal dies at the end of both books. It does not make for happy reading for eight and nine year old children. The only thing that could have made the year worse was if we had also read Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. (We read Summer of the Monkeys instead.) Because I remembered how depressing and sad that year was, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to watching Sounder. But the screenwriter was smart, and the movie ends much more happily than the book does.

So what’s the story? During the Depression, sharecroppers David Lee and his father Nathan spend their nights hunting with their dog, Sounder, hoping to get any kind of meat to put on the table. One day, in desperation, Nathan steals a ham from his work. He is arrested and sent to a work camp. The town sheriff won’t tell David Lee and his mother and younger siblings where Nathan has been sent, so David Lee and Sounder go off in search of Nathan.

The Good: There are some nice performances in this movie. Kevin Hooks did a great job of carrying the movie as David Lee, which is a hard job for a teenager. Cicely Tyson plays Rebecca, Nathan’s wife, who is determined to keep the farming going without her husband. She does a beautiful job as the tough, yet loving woman. Paul Winfield is Nathan, a man trying so hard to provide for his family in an impossible time. The major standout for me, though, was Janet MacLachlan, who plays Camille, a teacher who cares. She shone in every scene she was in.

I liked the plot. I like seeing movies about people who love each other and who try to help each other through bad times. Sounder managed to tell the story without being cheesy, which is a hard thing to do.

The Bad: Even though all the performances were lovely, and even though I liked the story of the family, I felt like the movie rambled some. There were some unnecessary scenes. Or maybe they were necessary, but they just didn’t feel like they tied in to the rest of the movie. It dragged a bit, and that made it hard for me to connect with the movie, even though I felt for the people and their plight.

The Ugly: This is a G-rated movie, and there’s not anything horribly offensive in it, but it’s sad. Black sharecroppers in the South during the Depression did not have an easy time of it. This is a so-called “family movie,” but I would suggest not letting small children watch it on their own. I think it’s a movie that parents should talk about with their children so that children can understand what the family was going through.

Oscars Won: None.

Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Paul Winfield); best actress in a leading role (Cicely Tyson); best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium.

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

In_the_Heat_of_the_Night_(film)Directed by Norman Jewison

I have a hard time sitting still and doing nothing when I watch movies. I get kind of antsy unless I have another project to occupy my time, so I’ll paint my nails or play a game on my phone or crochet a hat while the movie plays in the background. But doing this project has forced me to change all that. If I want to appreciate good acting or interesting camera work or immerse myself in another time through excellent production design, I have to give the movie my full attention. The first time I watched In the Heat of the Night, I was messing around on my computer. I thought it was a good movie, an interesting movie, but not that great. Then I watched it again on my big TV instead of my little computer screen, and I didn’t do anything but watch the movie. I was blown away. It was a totally different experience, and I understood the (well-deserved) acclaim.

So what’s the story? Late one summer’s night in Sparta, Mississippi, a police officer finds the murdered body of a prominent man lying in the street. The police start searching for the murderer, and they soon find and arrest the perfect suspect: Virgil Tibbs, a black man who is sitting in the train station. However, Virgil says he’s not a transient or a criminal, but a police officer from Philadelphia; he was just waiting for his train home. Sheriff Gillespie, the head of police in Sparta, calls Philadelphia to verify this, and the police chief in Philadelphia tells Gillespie that Tibbs is the best homicide detective in Philadelphia and that Tibbs should help on the case. None of the (white) police officers in Sparta want to accept help from black man, but the widow of the murdered man insists that Tibbs remain on the case. Tibbs and Gillespie now have to overcome their prejudices to work together to solve the murder.

The Good: I always seem to start with the acting, but I think that’s because bad acting ruins a  movie so quickly. There was some good acting here. Rod Steiger won an Oscar for his portrayal of Gillespie. I wasn’t completely convinced that he deserved it over Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner until the scene where the four thugs have cornered Tibbs in the warehouse. At that point, something clicked for me, and I realized what a truly stellar job he was doing. Sydney Poitier is excellent as he always is as Virgil Tibbs. Lee Grant plays the widow; she isn’t in the movie much, but she commands every scene she’s in. Her heartbreak when she’s told of her husband’s death is so painful that it’s difficult to watch.

The story here is excellent. It’s based on a novel that I haven’t read, so I’m not sure what’s been changed and what was original, but it makes a great movie. I love how well-developed all the characters are. It would have been so easy to make Tibbs perfect, but he has his flaws, too, which are shown when he fixates so strongly on a suspect (who is admittedly a terrible person) that he loses all perspective on the case. The story and screenplay are so well done. And this movie gave us a classic line: “They call me Mr. Tibbs!”

The cinematography was interesting. I loved the part where Tibbs is examining the body. The camera cuts to his hands to show his skill and confidence as he explains what he will need to do a proper examination. The camera focuses hands in another scene, too. When Tibbs and Gillespie are going to go visit the wealthy cotton planter, they drive past a field of cotton being picked by black workers. Here, the camera’s focus serves to contrast Tibbs’s job and skills with those of the workers. If Tibbs had lived here, it seems to say, this is what he might be doing. At other times, the cinematography feels almost musical. As the cameraman zooms in on a fleeing suspect, for instance, it accentuates the tension almost like a crescendo in a piece of music. It adds a lot to the movie.

The Bad: The only thing that made this movie feel dated was the music. It just screamed the 1960s to me. It might have been groundbreaking at the time, but it feels very old-fashioned now.

The Ugly: The ugliest thing in this movie is the attitudes of the people, from the moment Tibbs is arrested because he’s an unknown black man to the climax where the thugs show up at Mama Caleba’s. But it’s this ugliness that allows the beauty of the eventual mutual acceptance and respect of Tibbs and Gillespie shine through.

Oscars Won: Best picture; best sound; best actor in a leading role (Rod Steiger); best film editing; best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best director; best effects, sound effects.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

guess-who's-coming-to-dinner-posterDirected by Stanley Kramer

This is one of the two movies that made me want to start this blog. I had never seen it before last summer. It was one that I had always wanted to see; I had even checked out the DVD from the library a couple of times. I just somehow never got around to watching it. But late one night, I was packing to go on a trip and was looking for something to play in the background while I packed. This movie happened to be streaming on Netflix at the time (although it’s not right now), so I turned it on. My packing didn’t get done until the next morning. I couldn’t tear myself away from this movie. Even though this is a quiet movie about one day in the life of one family, the tension is so great as we wait to find out the parents’ opinions that I couldn’t stop watching.

So what’s the story? Joanna Drayton comes home unexpectedly from Hawaii with a surprise: her new fiancé, Dr. John Prentice, who happens to be black. She is excited for her parents to meet him, and because they are liberals from San Francisco, she is confident that they won’t be upset at the prospect of a black son-in-law. But Joanna doesn’t know something: John has told her parents that if they don’t one hundred percent approve of the marriage, he will respect their opinion and not marry their daughter. Since John is flying to New York and then Geneva soon after, Matt and Christina Drayton only have a few hours to come to terms with this shift in their world.

The Good: There are so many good things about this movie that it’s hard to know where to start. We can start with the acting, I guess. It was a pretty small cast, and everyone was spot on. Sydney Poitier and Katharine Houghton (Katharine Hepburn’s niece) are the engaged couple. Real-life lovers Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn are her parents; Roy Glenn and Beah Richards are his. Isabel Sanford plays Tillie, the Draytons’ maid, who disapproves strongly of the relationship. Cecil Kellaway is the Draytons’ family friend Monsignor Ryan, who strongly supports the couple and quotes the Beatles. Everyone is very believable as people who are blindsided by an unexpected situation.

The music really worked for me, too. Background music was used sparingly throughout the movie, which made it feel more real. After all, who really has their own theme song?

The cinematography was fairly straightforward, but because of this, the one time that anything was different really stood out. When Tillie is berating John for thinking about marrying above himself, the camera is at an angle, reflecting her anger and his bewilderment. It was a small thing, but it made an impact.

The Bad: I don’t like the scene where Matt and Christina go for ice cream. It just didn’t seem to fit in the movie somehow.

Joanna’s attitude annoyed me throughout the whole movie. While she obviously realizes that John is black, she doesn’t seem to think about what that means on a daily basis. She seems to have no idea of the ugliness that is racism. She apparently thinks that their love will be enough to protect them from prejudice. I can understand that she’s a young girl in love, but I feel like she has no understanding of what is waiting for her and John in their life together.

Also, no one raised any objection to the fact that Joanna is 23 and John is 37 and that they are getting married after having known each other only ten days. John’s race is a huge deal, but so is that age difference. I would be seriously worried if my daughter brought home some guy fourteen years older than her that she had known for ten days and said it was true love, but the only thing anyone worried about was the race issue.

The Ugly: There isn’t really any ugly in this movie. It’s a well-done intimate look at what happens to people when they are called upon to live up to the ideals that they’ve preached all their lives.

Oscar Wins: Best actress in a leading role (Katharine Hepburn); best writing, story and screenplay – written directly for the screen.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Spencer Tracy, posthumously); best actor in a supporting role (Cecil Kellaway); best actress in a supporting role (Beah Richards); best director; best art direction – set direction; best film editing; best music, scoring of music, adaptation, or treatment.