March 27, 2005
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 fiancée to ask their blessing on the marriage. The father, despite considering himself a left-coast liberal, finds he can’t bring himself to give his consent to the union. The doctor’s father also refuses to bless the marriage, and … umm … hilarity ensues.
Although today the premise seems dated, the controversy non-existent, GWCtD was galvanizing to the 1967 audience. As race riots were breaking out in over a hundred cities across the country, the film was nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Fast-forward to 2005. In the wake of a hugely controversial summer 2003 Supreme Court ruling (Lawrence v. Texas), courts across America have started to declare bans on gay and lesbian marriage unconstitutional. Three days after the ruling, Katharine Hepburn (who won the Best Actress Oscar for her role in GWCtD) dies. In the next year’s Presidential election, the same-sex marriage issue becomes a giant cultural touchstone, credited by some for restoring George W. Bush to the White House.
So Hollywood decides to remake Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
With Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac. With the exact same plot as Meet the Parents. Utterly stripped of controversy.
Forgive me for ranting. But WTF were they thinking? They took a film with a cast of legends that, hamfisted or no, actually changed minds, drew protests, and forced people to confront their own prejudices for the first time, and they replaced it with a piece of popcorn.
Forty years from now, I’ll be the only person who remembers “Guess Who,” ‘cause I’ll still be bitter about it. Which makes me even more bitter. Argh.