The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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A Landmark, Controversial Film Starring Bernie Mac

I have long thought that casting James Van der Beek as the lead in the movie Rules of Attraction was a giant missed opportunity. The lead character is supposed to be this sardonic, aloof, drugged-out playboy lusted after by almost everyone who sees him. The creators of the movie clearly cast Van der Beek in the role to subvert the loser-ish image he’d cultivated as Dawson in the television show “Dawson’s Creek.” (Dawson was on an image-remaking kick at the moment, having just come off the hit football movie Varsity Blues.) I never believed him for a second as the protagonist of RoA.

Everyone who’s seen Cruel Intentions, Igby Goes Down, or Gosford Park knows that Ryan Phillippe exists on this earth for the sole purpose of playing that role. He’s been decent to mediocre in everything else, but I just know he would have taken that role in that movie to some unimaginable height, making it much, much more than the fun, hot trifle of a film it ended up being.

Now Hollywood’s gone and delivered Giant Missed Opportunity #2.

In June 1967, the Supreme Court handed down a hugely controversial unanimous opinion in Loving v. Virginia, forcing all the states to allow interracial marriage (at the time, 16 states banned it). That December, Hollywood came out with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

With an all-star cast (Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn) and a hotshot director (Stanley Kramer), GWCtD told the story of a wealthy black doctor visiting the also-wealthy family of his white fianc

March 27, 2005 / Uncategorized


Glad someone else was irritated by this! I saw the trailer and just thought, “so a black guy marrying a white woman is Oscar winning drama, while a white guy marrying a black woman is farcical comedy that is destined to receive zero stars; isn’t that kind of offensive somehow?” But maybe I’m overreacting; maybe it’s partly the changing times. Anyway, your point on the relevance to more recent politics is definitely more interesting.

Have you seen The Player? Now sometimes when I see trailers like this I like to imagine the morons who pitched it…

There are plenty of contemporary smart, edgy films about or featuring interracial relationships: it’s just that Spike Lee’s made almost all of them. (Also, have you noticed that Halle Berry’s movies often involve interracial relationships? She’s the Sidney Poitier of our time — the black woman to whom white folks just can’t say no.)

_Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner_ always felt a little overstated, exactly because Sidney Poitier’s character was so overqualified for Katherine Hepburn’s niece. Ooh, what a big man it takes to accept an internationally famous surgeon as a son-in-law! Which is not to say that I dislike the movie. It’s important if only for the last scene, which has nothing to do with interracial love and everything to do with Hepburn and Tracy. But I digress.

Matt’s more telling point is that it’s high time for a drama, a comedy, any kind of a film, in which gay marriage (and not just gay relationships, a la _La cage aux folles_) plays an important role. But this is the problem. It’s no longer brave in Hollywood to play a gay character, and the peculiar Hollywood version of bravery is all that they recognize anymore. You win Oscars in Hollywood for taking risks with your own image, looking worse than you usually do: i.e., playing a retarded person, gaining weight, playing a psychopath. Or you could fuck Billy Bob Thornton. Seems awfully brave to me.

(Halle Berry is half-white and half-black, so I think pretty much all of her relationships are “interracial” by some measure.)

GWCtD definitely isn’t a pure text. Divorced of context, it’s pretty unaffecting. But in context, it’s a remarkably effective piece of advocacy. It might have been cinematically more satisfying if Kramer had thrown in a class disparity between the black doctor and the white parents, but it would have made the movie at least partly about class. And texts proliferate about family members reacting to marriage across class, from Pamela in the mid-18th Century to every Jane Austen novel ever.

GWCtD is stronger, I think, for making race the sole variable. It was created to bring about a social effect, and it did that much better than many more nuanced pictures. Not that it’s without complexity. The movie enters territory in the discussion about race where we still fear to tread. E.g. the black-on-black racism evinced by the white family’s black maid, who assails Poitier’s character for being too uppity. E.g. also the reverse racism practiced by the doctor’s father.

As much as I’d like a movie to tackle the subject of same-sex marriage period, I still think this particular remake was an unmatchable opportunity. Especially because in many cases, it’s the same black leaders who fought for interracial marriage (who still fondly rewatch their copies of GWCtD) who are now leading the fight against same-sex marriage.

It’s no longer brave in Hollywood to play a gay character.

I’m not sure I would say that, especially after the only major work in 2004 with a straight actor playing gay involved three hours of Colin Farrell agreeing to give his character’s male lover an uber-chaste peck on the lips only if he gets to have plenty of kinky straight jungle sex with Rosario Dawson in all the surrounding scenes. And especially after Hilary Swank won the Oscar for a transgendered role.

To this day, in certain Hollywood conversations, if someone utters the word “gay,” thirteen people receive libel letters from Tom Cruise’s lawyer. That fact would have to change before I’d credit Hollywood with being cavalier about sexuality.

Actually, I’d even be interested in a straight, serious remake that’s simply been updated by 38 years. I mean, we still have miscegenation issues in this country. But I agree, the moment is being missed.

What’s remarkable about Halle Berry — flipping the question for a moment — is that she seems to have very consistently chosen films where the problems and dynamics of interracial relationships are foregrounded (even if not always in an entirely unproblematic way): Jungle Fever, Queen, The Rich Man’s Wife, The Wedding, Bulworth, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, Monster’s Ball — if you add it up, in about 3/4 of her films, she’s romantically involved with a white man. From interviews she’s given on the subject, I think this has something to do with her relationship with her mom, but it’s worth noting that the most visible and bankable black actress in Hollywood is so out front on this issue. In some sense, she’s able to make film after film about interracial relationships, while also appearing in more mainstream films (The Flintstones, The Last Boy Scout, Executive Decision, Die Another Day, Swordfish, Catwoman, or X-Men 2) which also feature her in romantic or sexual ties with men of other races (a blue German, in the case of X2) but where race doesn’t really seem to be a problem, or at least an explicit one.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying it’s not brave to *be* gay in Hollywood. It’s just not terribly brave to *act* gay, unless you suffer for it. Hilary Swank didn’t win the Oscar because her character had sex with women; she won it because her character was (as you point out) a transgendered woman passing as a man who (more to the point) was beaten, raped, and killed for it. Tom Hanks didn’t win the Oscar for playing a gay character in Philadelphia: he won it for playing a gay man with AIDS, for losing weight and looking terrible. Ditto for Charlize Theron, only this time for gaining weight, looking ugly, and acting crazy. At least when it comes to the Oscars, it’s more about your physical image than your sexual image, and as long as you aren’t really ugly, crazy, or gay, people will continue to love you.

Finally — I would be more than happy if race were the sole variable in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner — which would imply that the Joey character, played by Katherine Hepburn’s niece Katherine Houghton, would be both written as and convincingly acted by someone as talented, intelligent, and accomplished as Sidney Poitier’s Dr. John Prentice. Or if instead of Sidney Poitier, they wrote John as a well-educated but mixed-up, naive and slightly dull kid. As it stands, Joey’s race (plus maybe her attractiveness) appears to be her sole qualification. This makes their relationship not just implausible but suspect.

Also, the black-on-black racism is one-dimensional, really just one note. Both John’s parents and the maid chastise him for “thinking he’s better than he is.” Again, this is both so ridiculous as an objection for marriage as to be easily pushed aside, especially for a contemporary viewer, but it’s repeated so often that it’s made to seem like the only reason why John’s parents would be uncomfortable with his marriage. It stays on the surface and goes nowhere.

Had John’s parents told him what my girlfriend’s grandparents told her — that white people couldn’t be trusted and that when my friends or family objected to our relationship, I would cast her aside — now that’s the beginning of a real movie. As it is, I’d rather watch Spencer Tracy try to order ice cream.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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