"The Graduate" & "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner": How 1967 Marked A Dramatic Shift in Hollywood
The year 1967 can be regarded as one of the most pivotal years in cinema history. It was a transitional year where the conventional and unconventional came crashing together for the first time on such a large scale. Using David Newman and Robert Benton’s article “The New Sentimentality” (1964), we can categorize the conventional and unconventional into two distinct categories: Old Sentimentality (conventional) and New Sentimentality (unconventional). These two categories were not just found in film, they were also found in nearly every aspect of American culture. Each version of sentimentality garnered financial and critical success in 1967.
No two movies were more opposed that year in style, viewpoint, and audience than Mike Nichols’ The Graduate and Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Also, no two actors better represented their respective sentimentality better than Dustin Hoffman and Sidney Poitier. In this essay, I’ll explain why and how 1967 was such a cinematic turning point that shifted the paradigm of power away from Hollywood conventionalism and towards a new era of
auteur cinema. I’ll also look at how both Poitier and Hoffman were shaped by their generation and how their respective careers were forever changed in 1967.
To show the difference between Old and New sentimentality, we must define what
exactly they are. In simplistic terms, Old Sentimentality represents conventionalism and past values. The values this movement revered were about the good old days of ruggedness, strong moral character, and banding together. These ideas were born out of the nation’s unity and recovery from World War II and were prevalent throughout the next few decades. Figures such as
Dwight Eisenhower, John Wayne, and Henry Fonda embodied this type of thinking, and films such as The Ox-Bow Incident, High Noon, and The Best Years of Our Lives were most popular. New Sentimentality began making a presence around the start of the 1960s. It was less about thinking as a group and more about thinking and acting for oneself. New Sentimentality pushed the idea of being self-indulgent, getting carried away, looking inward, and being authentic. John F. Kennedy, Audrey Hepburn, and Elvis Presley were the purveyors of this thinking, which could be found in films such as Bonnie and Clyde (screenplay by Newman and Benton) and Easy Rider.
In 1967, producer and director Stanley Kramer released Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. It was an all-star vehicle for him filled with the biggest stars of the past few decades in Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Sidney Poitier was cast as the figure who’s coming to dinner, John Prentice.
The plot is fairly straightforward as Prentice and his new fiancé, Christina, intend to get married. John is a respected medical doctor who has accomplished everything under the sun. Their engagement is under a deadline as he must fly to Europe that night. Christina’s parents, played by Tracy and Hepburn, are taken aback at the reality of their daughter marrying a black man, even though they raised her with a liberal mindset.
Stanley Kramer was a director known for incorporating social commentary into his films. He previously had great success with The Defiant Ones and Judgement at Nuremberg. Even though his social messaging would make one think that he was a part of the younger outspoken generation, Kramer geared his films toward the older generation of moviegoers, the ones that would better respond to conventionalism and star power.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is part of an era in Hollywood where films about race were becoming more popular but weren’t purely benevolent in the way they handled the topic. Instead of utilizing themes like life under Jim Crow, black activism, or black community culture, a lot of films before the Hollywood New Age illustrated that racism was wrong through a white character's conversion from racial prejudice to tolerance. The prototypical movie of this thinking,
In the Heat of the Night (also starring Sidney Poitier), won Best Picture that year. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the racism obstacle is solved by the white parents' eventual acceptance of John marrying their daughter.
In his book Genre and Hollywood, author Steve Neale (1988) breaks this style down even further by explaining that “dramatic conflict [in racism films] was to be structured around two opposing poles clearly representing good and evil, with a readily identifiable hero and villain”. This idea of opposing forces is seen in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner as the prejudiced maid and the nosy Tillie act as the villains for the heroic Draytons to vanquish.
Black characters rarely saw themselves as the heroes of their own story. They were either relegated to being the villain or to serve the heroic white characters. This role came to be known as the “noble negro”, a role that Sidney Poitier would play throughout the majority of his career. In her YouTube video Why The Help?, Isabel Custodio (2020) describes this role as having “its own predictably recurrent tropes. These characters had impossibly noble traits seemingly honed to mollify white audiences. They were slow to anger, had no sexual impulses, and often
sacrificed themselves for white co-stars.”
Black audiences at the time often found Poitier's characters disingenuous. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, they thought it was ludicrous that Poitier played a world-renowned doctor who acts more holy than Jesus. Why give the parents a pat on the back for accepting a virtually perfect man?
Kramer, on the other hand, believed that was the point. By making Prentice so perfect, only his skin color could be the barrier to marriage. Kramer’s viewpoint worked for his audience and the Oscars, as the film was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning for Best Actress (Katharine Hepburn) and Best Original Screenplay.
1967 marked the peak of Poitier’s career. His successes in previous films had typecast him as the “noble negro”, a role the younger generation didn’t accept. Now that his career is over, it is ironic to say that Poitier’s appeal was to the generation of people that had been holding him back all those years, and not to the people who were looking to create change within the nation and Hollywood system.
As Poitier’s career was about to fall, the career of Dustin Hoffman was about to take off like a rocket. 1967 saw the release of The Graduate, directed by Mike Nichols, who was making his follow up to the critically acclaimed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. That film put Nichols on the map with its groundbreaking vulgarity and sexual innuendos, with the latter carrying forward into his next film.
The Graduate centers around Benjamin Braddock, who has just graduated college and doesn’t know what to do with his life. He finds himself in an affair with Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father’s business partner. This sexually charged relationship goes on for quite some time until Benjamin catches feelings for Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine.
A beacon of New Sentimentality, The Graduate spoke to a generation through its
unmatched authenticity. Dustin Hoffman had no screen presence before being cast. He had no major previous roles and did not possess the classic movie star looks such as the blonde hair of
Robert Redford and Paul Newman, or the towering charisma of Warren Beatty. Hoffman was of Jewish descent, which could be easily discerned from his looks, making him even more of an outsider to his contemporaries. Nichols saw something in Hoffman, an opportunity to use his “flaws'' to tell a story to a younger audience growing tired of Hollywood perfectionism. Film critic Roger Ebert (1967) described Hoffman’s performance as “painfully awkward and ethical that we are forced to admit we would act pretty much as he does, even in his most extreme moments."
Hoffman’s awkward and anxious performance is filled with the traits of New
Sentimentality. The idea of people having inward problems, sleeping around with others, and being wounded were ideas becoming more and more part of the national psyche, especially to young adults. Newman and Benton stressed that New Sentimentality had to do with you and you alone. “Personal interest is the abiding motivation and... your primary objective is to make your life fit your style.” The idea of personal interest and selfishness comes to its apex at the end when both Elaine and Ben run off together, though they have no idea what they are going to do now that they’re gone.
Unlike Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Nichols (and screenwriters Buck Henry and
Calder Willingham) don’t craft the story around the message. It’s the inverse, as the message comes from the story. Ebert noticed this subversive social messaging in his review, saying, “[the film] is inspired by the free spirit which the young British and French New Wave directors have brought into their movies. It is funny, not because of sight gags and punch lines and other tired rubbish, but because it has a point of view. That is to say, it is against something.” With The Graduate, the audience is the one deciding the message for themselves, instead of it being
intentionally swayed towards one side like Kramer did (even if he had good intentions).
The Graduate’s methods proved highly successful, becoming the highest-grossing film of 1967 (beating out second-place Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) and garnering seven Academy Award nominations, winning for Nichol’s direction. The film also inspired a generation of filmmakers to craft stories for a new generation of moviegoers. Films such as American Graffiti, Harold and Maude, and the filmography of Woody Allen took a more liberal policy towards sex and personal relationships.
Dustin Hoffman’s career exploded following 1967. He continued with down and dirty
roles in films such as Midnight Cowboy, Straw Dogs, and Lenny. His imperfections won him a passionate following of fans that saw themselves through him. He reached his peak in 1979 with his Oscar-winning role in Kramer vs. Kramer and stayed at the top of his game for nearly a quarter-century with acclaim in later roles in Death of a Salesman, Rain Man, and Tootsie.
1967 was the transition point of two eras in American cinema. It was the beginning of the end for Hollywood conventionalism and the beginning of the rise of auteur-driven filmmaking. Looking through the lens of Old and New Sentimentality, one can see why and how this specific period marked that shift and how it enforced lasting consequences on how filmmakers see their audience and how audiences see themselves on the screen.