Guess Who's Coming
Progress at the cineplex
If anyone doubts that American race relations have progressed in the last 38 years, compare the first Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, released with a great oomph of liberal piety in 1967, to Guess Who, the remake that debuted this past weekend. The original is a sanctimonious bore of a movie, with white parents Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy coming to terms with the fact that their daughter wants to marry the noblest of the Noble Negroes that Sidney Poitier made a career of playing. The new version reverses the setup—this time the parents are black and the fiancee is white—but the more substantial reversal is that it's a fun farce, a movie that thinks nothing of treating interracial romance as the stuff of situation comedy.
Good for Guess Who. It's high time Hollywood stopped remaking classics that can't be improved (Bedazzled, The Manchurian Candidate, the forthcoming Ikiru) and started amending movies that stank the first time around. I grant you that Ashton Kutcher as the white fiancee has neither the dignity nor the talent of Sidney Poitier. On the other hand, I'll take Bernie Mac over Spencer Tracy any day.
I'm hardly alone in disliking the first Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Even when it was released, both left and right damned it for its unrealistic, idealized approach to its topic. When Roger Ebert profiled director Stanley Kramer in 1968, he opened his article with the tale of a young woman who approached Kramer during the interview to declare, "What a fink-out. What a phony plot. Not only would the girl marry Sidney Poitier, but anyone would marry Sidney Poitier. So what did you prove?" It was and is the most common criticism of the film, and after the lady fan was gone Kramer tried to rebut it:
"People attack the plot on the grounds that it's too perfect," Kramer said. "You know. Poitier is rich and famous and practically ready to win the Nobel Prize. And Tracy and Hepburn are progressive, enlightened, liberal parents with lots of cash. And Katherine Houghton is an ideal young woman.
"Hell, we deliberately made the situation perfect, and for only one reason. If you take away all the other motives for not getting married, then you leave only one question. Will Tracy forbid the marriage because Poitier's a Negro? That is the only issue, and we deliberately removed all other obstacles to focus on it."
It's a striking statement, because it reveals just how clueless Kramer was about his own film. Watching the movie today, what's amazing is how many plausible reasons the parents could have given their children not to marry that have nothing to do with race. The two have only just met. Almost all the time they've spent together was in the unreal setting of a Hawaiian vacation. Poitier is much older than his bride-to-be. He's also much more mature—despite Kramer's contention that Houghton plays "an ideal young woman," she's actually a rather annoying airhead, and it's hard to imagine what she and her man might have in common.
In the new Guess Who, by contrast, the happy couple has been together half a year. They're both smart professionals, and they're roughly the same age. The plot does cough up some relationship troubles that aren't race-related, but they're all sitcom contrivances. Guess Who is hardly an honest, unflinching look at intermarriage, but it's much more honest and realistic than Kramer's movie, and it achieves this without worrying that it's taking any risks or challenging its audience's expectations. That marks a sort of progress.
* * *
Inside Deep Throat reveals a different sort of progress. It is the latest picture from the documentarians Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, whose best-known movie is probably The Eyes of Tammy Faye. For this effort, though, their most relevant credit is producing HBO's mondo-porn series Shock Video.
Their new film is a documentary about a skin flick, 1972's Deep Throat. That movie made a celebrity out of Linda Lovelace, who gave the film its title by doing a sword-swallowing act with the male organ; it produced a famous obscenity case, in which the owner of that organ faced five years in jail for allowing himself to be photographed with his staff in someone's mouth; it gave a name to the most famous anonymous informant in Washington history; and it left a mark on many people's lives, most famously that of Lovelace, who went from porn star to anti-porn crusader and then back to pornography again. But the most notable thing about it is that it was immensely popular.
Not popular the way an "adult" website or video can be popular. Popular the way Jaws was popular. Fueled by a write-up in The New York Times and by the publicity that followed the government's crackdown, Deep Throat became a mainstream hit, earning a reported $600 million. (The figure is probably inflated, but the take was undoubtedly high.) Celebrities flocked to it. In Profoundly Disturbing: Shocking Movies That Changed History!, Joe Bob Briggs writes that Ed McMahon "was such a fan of the movie that he showed up with six friends and a case of beer, then stood outside the theater afterward enthusing with the public. Frank Sinatra was one of the early audience members, along with Vice President Spiro Agnew, Warren Beatty, Truman Capote, Shirley MacLaine, Nora Ephron, Bob Woodward, and Sammy Davis Jr., who grew so enamored of Lovelace that within the year he and his wife would be having group sex with Lovelace and her husband." (Guess who's coming for dinner!)
Three decades later, anyone who lacks a good spam filter knows about fetishes that would shock even a beery Ed McMahon, TV comics crack jokes about their online porn habits, and the industry takes in billions every year. When a video-store chain in Provo, Utah, faced obscenity charges in 1999, it was acquitted after its attorney demonstrated that the county's conservative residents were actually consuming an above-average amount of America's televised pornography. But the Deep Throat phenomenon still seems deeply strange. In the wake of that movie's success, serious people honestly argued that Hollywood and hardcore might merge, producing X-rated entertainments for couples out on the town. The idea wasn't just that mainstream Americans might proudly partake of porn, but that porn itself would become a part of the mainstream, with Marilyn Chambers occupying the iconic spot once held by Marilyn Monroe.
Instead, smut slipped in through the side door, a phenomenon not of broadcasting but of narrowcasting. In one of the weaker segments of an otherwise intelligent documentary, Inside Deep Throat repeats the old canard that the rise of home video transformed porn from a nascent art form to a base business. Norman Mailer even declares on camera that the modern blue-movie industry only cares about money, not art—as though the mobsters who financed and distributed Deep Throat were only in it so Harry Reems could practice his craft. At any rate, art hasn't suffered for the change. Genuinely talented filmmakers can now shoot the sorts of scenes that once only appeared in skin flicks, whether or not they call the results "pornography."
The more important effect of home video—and, even more so, of the Internet—has been to create a wide and wild array of market segments, a diversity so dizzying it defies the very idea of a mainstream. A couple decades ago, feminists could argue plausibly that porn was partly responsible for the unrealistic body images they blame for bulimia and anorexia. Today, every conceivable body type has an online community of masturbators devoted to it. In the years since Deep Throat, pornography has found a way to join the mainstream while mostly staying out of public. That represents a social transformation no less striking than the one separating the two Guess Whos. (Google the word "interracial," by the way, and you'll find yourself knee-deep in porn sites.)
Deep Throat and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner don't have much in common as movies, but perhaps they could. The next Guess Who might skip the racial angle altogether, and instead relate what happens when Junior brings home a successful writer or doctor or banker who loves him very much—and whom Dad recognizes from the kinky website she runs on the side. In film as in life, hijinks ensue.