HFPA in Conversation: Stanley Kramer's Legacy is Alive

by Kirpi Uimonen Ballesteros August 8, 2018
Poruders Kat Kramer and Karen Sharpe

Kat Kramer (left) and Karen Sharpe

jerod harris/getty images

Director-producer Stanley Kramer’s legacy lives on through his widow Karen Sharpe and daughter Kat Kramer. They walked down memory lane and share stories from old Hollywood with HFPA journalist Silvia Bizio. “Stanley wasn’t the Hollywood guy, he was really a family man who didn’t like the limelight.  He liked the work and was trying to bring social justice to his films which he did do”, Sharpe said.

His movies include Death of a Salesman - restored with a grant from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association - The Defiant Ones, Pressure Point, Inherit the Wind, High Noon, On the Beach, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Judgement at Nuremberg, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

“When we knew that we were going to make Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, we didn’t show it to Columbia Pictures.", Sharpe recalls.  "We knew that if they read the screenplay they would say no, and who could blame them?  Because interracial marriage in 16 states was against the law.  We kept tap dancing and saying it’s a love story.  It stars Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.  The minute they read it, they canceled it and we had to come home.”

Sharpe remembers how shocked they were because it had never happened to them before. “They said Spencer Tracy couldn’t be insured and that is partly true.  But that is not why they canceled the film, they used him.  I remember Stanley pacing up and down the floor of the living room for about two days.  Finally, he said Karen, I’ve got an idea, we are going to go see Aunt Kate.  I said fine, I didn’t know what he was going to say.  We get to see Kate Hepburn and he said look, Kate, I know they are using Spencer’s health as an excuse from why they are not going to make this film, but I am going to put up my salary as collateral to insure Spence.  Will you do the same?  And then we went to Sidney Poitier.”

When the film was insured, legally they had to go forward. It became the most controversial movie Kramer ever did. “It was opened with hardly any fanfare in Westwood at the Village Theater.  But the minute the doors opened, there were lines around the block and 15 blocks long and the people just never stopped coming.”

The director got hate phone calls and threatening comments.“People would come up in restaurants where we were dining and say are you Stanley Kramer who made that film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner ? Yes, sir, I am. I didn’t like it.  He said well sir, you are certainly entitled to your opinion. You don’t understand, I really didn’t like it and you better watch your back, Kramer.”

Sharpe believes her late husband got his social justice values from his childhood. “Stanley was born and raised in Hell’s Kitchen New York. That time it was probably one of the most dangerous places to live in our country.  Those days you could either become a prizefighter, a priest, or you went to prison.  Stanley’s father left his mother the first year of his life.  He was raised by a single parent, a mother, which was a stigma in 1913.  When he was about 13 years old he read an article in The New York Times, where Eleanor Roosevelt had resigned from the organization called The Daughters of the American Revolution, because they refused to let an opera star, Marian Anderson, sing the National Anthem.  Why?  Because she was African-American.  And Eleanor Roosevelt took exception to that and she resigned from her membership and she invited Marian Anderson to sing at the White House.  That impressed a young Stanley Kramer and he wrote her a letter and told her how proud he was of her.  She wrote him back, and that began a long relationship and she became his mentor at a very young age.  I think she informed a lot of his opinions and his ideals.”

Listen to the podcast to hear why John Wayne was an important person in Karen’s career; what Jerry Lewis asked from her; why her jaw dropped when Vivien Leigh walked b her; why Ship of Fools is to her;  what happened on her first date with Stanley on a Monday evening at the Tail o’ the Cock restaurant in the Valley; how she felt winning a Golden Globe at the Cocoanut Grove of the Ambassador Hotel.

Listen to the conversation here or, for immediate access to all of our podcasts, subscribe to HFPA in Conversation on iTunes.