Sunday, December 20, 2009
Good Will Toward Men
A forty-two year old movie got a viewing last night. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, starring Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier and Katharine Hepburn (1967).
This is a story prime for the stage - not big on action, location or effects, but speaking volumes on relationships, conflict and resolution. It really caught our attention at this festive season when music and messages speak loudly about love for one's fellow man.
Young Joanne ("Joey") has returned from a holiday in Hawaii to her parents in San Francisco. She has wonderful news about meeting a man who has captured her heart. John is a widower, fourteen years her senior, an accomplished physician, teacher and foreign relief organizer, handsome, sensitive, determined and wonderful fun.This news is dropped on her parents, one a newspaper owner, the other an art gallery owner-operator. Joey is their only child.
There is one thing however which might cause some temporary awkwardness. John is black! Joey is not.
It appears that there is only this one day to get things sorted out. John is flying to Switzerland on "world health" work, and hopefully in a couple of weeks his love would follow him for the wedding and a new life. The parents are stunned. Their long-serving housemaid Tilly is furious at a situation which she believes is doomed for heartbreak. At one point Tilly gets the visitor alone and assures him that she can see plainly his scheme for social advancement by "marrying above his place".
Enter the Catholic Monsignor Mike, a dear friend of the family and golf buddy, concerned about today's hasty cancellation of eighteen holes. This character is delightful in his swift recognition of the beautiful love in the young couple, and in his comment on how his "liberal newspaperman" pal is now confronted big time with his published stand on tolerance and fair-mindedness.
John is in the study telephoning his parents and trying to break in gently the news that "he has found a girl". Nothing is said about flesh tones. Joey bursts in and insists that they be invited to make the trip to join them for dinner. Sounds wonderful.
The rest of the film is about this social occasion and a taxing journey into conflict resolution. Scenes of Spencer and Katharine prepping for the occasion in the bathroom and bedroom, and arguing, are a wonderful taste of their old magic. All parents are taken aback by the rush of it all. Everyone is considerate. It becomes apparent that the women have recognized the power of true love, but the men see only the complications of the real world of bigotry, safe distance and tragic strangeness for any grandchildren. Father Mike has gotten himself invited as well, and he proves an effective catalyst, expressing how "things need to change and will be changing". It is no longer a time to attempt to parent and steer the young couple. Rather, to step back and to trust their decision and the good things planted in both of them through the years.
All comes to focus in a summary speech by Spencer (as if to some jury). The "pigmentation problem" should not stop the young couple.
Remember the sixties? Race riots in Detroit. Violent campus demonstrations. Back of the bus. Tight-fisted Governor George Wallace in the south. Martin Luther King. Early signs of Black Power and raised gloved fist. And this "pie-in-the-sky" movie.
At Christmas we sing "peace on earth, good will toward men". How would we behave in any such "in your face" challenge? If the burning point has shifted from black-white, might it now be considered in brown-white or yellow-white?
Ask that new couple in the White House.