Last week’s events commemorating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s historic “I have a Dream” speech brought back a wave of memories for Karen Sharpe Kramer. The widow of esteemed social issues filmmaker Stanley Kramer and chief keeper of his brilliant legacy is in the midst of another commemoration – her late husband’s centennial, which is being celebrated in film festivals and other events across the country, leading up to Sept. 29, which would have been Kramer’s 100th birthday.
The MLK date, however, couldn’t help but bring to mind personal recollections – not only of Kramer’s joining the Civil Rights marchers, but of the extreme lengths he went to in order to get his Civil Rights-themed movies made.
For instance, in 1948 when he started making his “Home of the Brave” about an African American soldier in the Army, she recalls, “He made it in secret. He knew if anyone knew he was starring an African American actor it would never be allowed. The actor was James Edwards, and he was very good in the film. Stanley made him hide on the floorboards of his car going to and from the soundstage. He swore the cast to secrecy and made up a false title to hide what he was doing. When it came out it was the most picketed film in history.”
The controversy did nothing to dampen Kramer’s resolve. To the contrary, Kramer, who grew up with his single mom in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, and who had a years-long correspondence with Eleanor Roosevelt as a young man that helped shape his vision, was just getting started. He went on to make “Pressure Point” with Sidney Poitier and “The Defiant Ones” with Poitier and Tony Curtis. “In 1960, when ‘The Defiant Ones’ was made, the poster had Tony Curtis’ hand and Sidney Poitier’s hand handcuffed together – an African American hand and a white hand. In those days, that was a very controversial billboard,” says Sharpe.
But no film of Kramer’s caused a bigger commotion than the 1967 dramedy “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” – with Poitier and Katharine Houghton as the young couple and Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as her liberal parents, taken aback upon meeting her African American fiance. Sharpe was newly married to Kramer when the movie began making headlines and generating death threats for the director and his cast.
“Interracial marriage was still against the law in 16 states. When he was getting ready to make the film, Columbia pictures kept saying ‘Stanley, can you send us a screenplay?’” remembers the actress, who was wed to Kramer for 35 years and is the mother of his two youngest children. (He also had two from a prior marriage.) “But he was at the height of his career at that time, so they weren’t demanding as much. He knew if they read it they would never allow him to make it because you can’t put money into a film you can’t show in 16 states. Sidney Poitier said, ‘Stanley, do you think the country is ready for this kind of film?’ and he said ‘No, but we’re going to make it anyway.’” In fact, it wasn’t until the film was a wrap, and until Tracy had died, that anti-miscegenation laws were struck down by the Supreme Court.
As for what films Kramer would make if he were alive today, she says, “I think he would have addressed gay rights issues a long time ago. I don’t think he would have waited ‘til now. He would have started that 20 years ago. You know there is so much subject matter…” She stops, then goes on, “I’ve been around this world a long time, and I’ve never seen it in quite the bad shape it’s in today. But I say, ‘Look at these issues.’ It’s a very rich time for a filmmaker; there is so much to cover.”
Inspiring young filmmakers through Kramer’s works is among her most cherished activities, which explains the Stanley Kramer Fellowship Award in Directing through UCLA and the Producers Guild’s Stanley Kramer Award. UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theater is the hub of the current Kramer Centennial activities with a retrospective of 15 of his movies underway. The newly-restored Kramer version of “Death of a Salesman” starring Frederic March was completed “just in time to open the whole centennial,” she notes.
His 35 films garnered 85 Academy Award nominations, including 16 wins, and nine personal nominations for Kramer himself as a producer and/or director. They range from the haunting post-nuclear-holocaust tale “On The Beach” to the creationism-vs.-evolution drama “Inherit the Wind,” to the post-WWII “Judgment at Nuremberg” – to his uproarious comedy of greed, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad” world. The latter, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, retains a substantial level of international popularity to this day.
For the most part, says Sharpe, issue films in 2013 are getting made for cable. “They’re so hard to get financed,” she notes. But there are still plenty of filmmakers she admires. “My favorite now is Lee Daniels. I was a great fan after ‘Precious,’ of course, and now he has his brilliant ‘The Butler’ which I am very, very excited about.”
No doubt Daniels would enjoy that.
More information about the Kramer Centennial may be found at the celebration website.