The dinner guests who prompted this week’s musings were Claire Danes, star of the TV series Homeland, and real-life Secretary of Homeland Security, Mr. Jeh Johnson. The New York Times chose the restaurant and sat down with them to record their conversation, which I read about in last Sunday’s Styles section. At one point Secretary Johnson asks Claire if she’d ever seen the movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967) She was embarrassed she hadn’t, but no worries, Claire. (Who among us can’t forgive the brilliant CIA agent Carrie Mathison her flaws?) Besides, Claire wasn’t born until twelve years after the film was made.
So this is the plot, as Secretary Johnson tells it. “Sidney Poitier goes to this white family in San Francisco, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. He wants to marry their daughter, whom he met in Hawaii. This is 1967, when interracial marriage is still illegal in many states. The daughter wants their blessing. . . and Spencer Tracy says: ‘Have you thought about the children? They’ll be mixed race. That will be hard for them.’ And Sidney Poitier responds: ‘Your daughter thinks that one of them is going to grow up to be president of the United States, and he’s going to have a colorful cabinet.’ And that’s just what happened: At that moment, living then, was a biracial 6-year-old born in Hawaii, who would grow up to be president. And he has a colorful cabinet.”
Wow. Forget politics for a second. Whether or not you voted for President Obama shouldn’t matter here. This insight, courtesy of the African-American head of Homeland Security, matters. Art matters. I’m older than Claire Danes and loved the movie enough to see it twice, years apart, and each time my take-away was something different. Did I remember that particular line of dialogue spoken by the Poitier character (Dr. John Prentice, Jr.)? I’m embarrassed to admit no. But Secretary Johnson remembered it. And a few other people, no doubt. Hepburn, Tracy and Poitier were magnificent. The movie was a surprise hit, even in southern states, which were among the last to hold onto laws forbidding interracial marriage and where, it was assumed, white filmgoers wouldn’t turn out in numbers to see a black lead. (The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled against those type of laws in 1967, just a few months before the movie was released.) Hepburn won an Oscar as did the Original Screenplay Writer (William Rose). Even more noteworthy: Spencer Tracy was in failing health when filming began and died 17 days after shooting ended. Hepburn and director Stanley Kramer felt so strongly about the film that they’d agreed to put their salaries in escrow in case Tracy died before finishing his scenes and the studio was forced to replace him with another actor. Yes, the U.S. needs to nurture Math and Science students, but The Arts (film, literature, music, dance, painting, sculpture, etc.) have their importance, too. Isn’t it unfair–not to mention short-sighted–to think of our Art Muses as second-class students?