Matchup of the Day: The Shape of Water VS Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
The Shape of Water tells the tale of a Plain Jane mute woman, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) who falls in love with an intelligent, magical fish-man. Articles on the film have compared it to E.T., Splash, Free Willy, King Kong and Frankenstein. Another one to add would be Swamp Thing, which also features an intelligent creature with the power to heal and regenerate. The difference being that the Swamp Thing is a former scientist who mutated into a big, green monster. In Shape, the creature was pulled out of the Amazon where it was worshiped by a local tribe. How it developed its healing abilities is not explained. Also, the fish-man is a tad uncivilized, which is demonstrated by its dining on a household cat.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, too, is about a romance, but in this case between a black doctor, John (Sidney Poitier) and a young white woman, Joey (Katharine Houghton). Released in 1967, after Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech and before his assassination, the issue of racial justice was contentious. Interracial marriage was still illegal in sixteen states (the Loving v. Virginia ruling against such laws also came in 1967). In the film, Joey brings John home to meet her liberal parents (Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy). They raised Joey to be color-blind. She sees no issue with John’s being black, but her parents are somewhat shocked. The reality of the situation must be reconciled with their progressive beliefs.
Elisa meets the fish-man (listed as “Amphibian Man” on IMDb) at a secret government facility where she works as a janitor. The creature has already been mistreated by the government agent, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who captured it, and so it is initially leery of Elisa. She develops a bond with the fish-man by feeding it eggs and teaching it sign language. Before long, the pair are engaged in a full-blown love affair. Elisa helps the creature escape and keeps it in her bathtub. They engage in intercourse. An article from The Ringer asks the reader to “try to think of a more sexually unusual film with this much critical acclaim.” Personally, I have seen an erotic art film called La bête, in which a woman is ravished by a big, hairy beast. The critic quoted on the DVD case called it “The most genuinely erotic film you’ll ever see. A work of artistic quality without question.” Does that count? Thankfully, Shape is not as outrageously graphic as La bête, but it does require the viewer to imagine how icky such a coupling could be. Or just to ignore the icky implications altogether.
By comparison, Guess seems quaint. Shape takes place five years before Guess, and its setting is even less racially tolerant. Racism is addressed in Shape, though it takes up less narrative space than the fish-man romance. There’s also a gay man in the film (Richard Jenkins) who is every bit as lonely as Elisa. He attempts to reach out to someone and is rejected. The only person who finds real love is Elisa, and it’s with a fantasy being.
Both movies were nominated for numerous Academy Awards, and both were accused by critics of being heavy-handed in their messaging. There’s a scene in Guess when Joey’s father does a background check on John. His list of accomplishments are staggering for anyone, regardless of race. They are, in fact, too good to be true according to some reviewers (and Joey’s father). This decision was clearly made to make the interracial coupling as digestible as possible for white audiences at the time. In Shape, the fish-man is contrasted with Strickland, who is described as the real “monster” right at the beginning of the film. He is even shown having sex with his wife in a loveless manner, as opposed to the gentle affections of the fish-man. This serves to make the bestiality more palatable for human audiences.
At the end of Guess, the parents of both Joey and John come to an understanding regarding their children’s love for each other. They know that the future might be rough for them as an interracial couple, and this is the one thing left open for the audience to think about. There is no guarantee that John and Joey will have a fairy tale life together. Shape is all fantasy. Luckily, the audience is spared seeing what the human fish children look like.
(NOTE: Bestiality is at least a misdemeanor in all but four states.)
The Shape of Water
- Global ranking: 855
- Wins 63% of matchups
- 8 users have it at #1
- 41 users have it in their top 20
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
- Global ranking: 794
- Wins 54% of matchups
- 3 users have it at #1
- 23 users have it in their top 20