Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner features a masterclass in acting from Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, and Katharine Hepburn.
When the film first came out in late 1967, it couldn’t have been more controversial for the era. After all, so few films depicted an interracial marriage in a positive manner. A Black person and a white person couldn’t be married to each other in 17 states during the time of filming. It wasn’t until after production in which the racist laws were finally struck down. I’ll have more on this in a moment. In watching the film again for only the second time in my life, you realize how important it is. Not only because Kramer directs a trio of masterclass performances and then some but because it’s a lesson in overcoming bigotry. But even then, there are always going to be people that aren’t happy.
Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy) and Christina Drayton (Katharine Hepburn) are as liberal as it gets for their age in 1967. But when their daughter, Joanna (Katharine Houghton), brings home a Black man, Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), you could hear a needle drop. Speaking of Dr. Prentice, he is about as perfect as it gets! While both eventually come around to the news, it’s not so easy for Matt. And again, this is 1967. It takes Monsignor Mike Ryan (Cecil Kellaway) to make an attempt in getting Matt to come around. At the end of the day, what’s most important is how John and Joanna feel about each other. But little by little, chaos continues to ensue. John invites his parents to dinner but fails to let them in on the news. The looks on their face when they arrive at the airport!
Everything leads up to Tracy’s climactic monologue. Parents and children both reveal their feelings out in the open. However, it’s not until Matt’s speech in which Joanna learns that John made their engagement conditional. John would withdraw if Joanna’s parents disapproved. Matt realizes that even though the future may be troublesome due to racism, he sees the love between the two. He knows what it’s like to be in a true romance.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner marked the ninth and final on-screen pairing between screen legends Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Tracy’s death came 17 days after he filmed his final scene. Two days after Spencer Tracy died came saw anti-miscegenation laws get struck down by the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia. Until then, interracial marriage was illegal in 17 states–mostly Southern states.
Tracy’s performance earned him the ninth Oscar nomination of his career. While it was a posthumous nomination, he lost to Poitier’s In the Heat of the Night co-star, Rod Steiger. While this wasn’t a first viewing, it will never not amaze me how Tracy delivers such a phenomenal performance in the final days of his career. This is never more true during the film’s final monologue. The tears on the faces are real in more ways than one and you couldn’t blame Katharine Hepburn for not wanting to watch the completed film.
In watching the film on Friday, I couldn’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like for Sidney Poitier. Sure, he was already an Oscar winner for Lilies of the Field but to go up against Tracy and Hepburn must have been unimaginable! Watching his work here back-to-back with In the Heat of the Night only shows some of his range as an actor. Both parts couldn’t be more different!
William Rose’s script definitely goes for more laughs than drama. But given the subject matter, you really have to find a way to lighten the mood somehow. Isabel Sanford’s performance as maid Tillie Binks shows her trademark brand of humor a few years before appearing on All in the Family and The Jeffersons. Katharine Hepburn’s performance won her another Oscar but even in the smallest gesture or remark, you can see why she is one of the greatest actresses of all time! Much in the same way that Poitier felt starstruck acting opposite a pair of screen legends, it probably helped Katharine Houghton that her aunt was the great Katharine Hepburn.
Tracy and Hepburn weren’t alone in being honored by the Academy. Cecil Kellaway and Beah Richards both earned Oscar nominations for their performances as Monsignor Ryan and Mary Prentice, respectively. Stanley Kramer picked up double nominations with Best Picture and Director. The art direction, editing, and score also earned nominations. As great as Poitier is in both of his 1967 releases, he didn’t get any Oscar nominations. It isn’t easy when you’re also going up against the likes of Warren Beatty, Paul Newman, and Dustin Hoffman, not to mention Tracy and Steiger.
Not to give filmmakers any ideas but this is the kind of film that you can remake today but have it be about sexual orientation or gender identity in the modern era. I mean, you could have parents as liberal as the Draytons, teach their children all the right things, and still be shocked upon learning they are LGBTQ. It just shows how powerful the themes are today. You can change it from race to whatever and families will still have to overcome whatever problems they have.
DIRECTOR: Stanley Kramer
SCREENWRITER: William Rose
CAST: Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn, with Cecil Kellaway, Beah Richards, Isabel Sanford, Roy E. Glenn Sr., Virginia Christine, Barbara Randolph, John Hudkins, Alexandra Hay, D’Urville Martin, Skip Martin, and introducing Katharine Houghton
Columbia Pictures released Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in theaters on December 12, 1967.
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