I’ve seen Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner several times and it always reasserts my love for the actors and story involved. The direction of Stanley Kramer, the acting of Spencer Tracy (in his final role), Katherine Hepburn, and Sidney Poitier, and the story about a simple interracial marriage that acts as a metaphor for the changes of the Civil Rights Movement, all combine to make a comedy infused with drama and a drama that’s not afraid to laugh.
Matt and Christina Drayton (Tracy and Hepburn) are excited to hear their young daughter Joanna (Katherine Houghton) is coming home from a trip with big news. Upon arrival, Joanna announces she’s set to get married and she’s brought home the man to meet her family. Fiancee Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier) knows the family is in for a shock because he is black and as the family comes to grips on what this means in the long-term, the fear is that Joanna and John’s relationship will be forced to end.
Looking at this film in 2012 Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner shouldn’t be as funny or heartwarming as it is considering the subject. In fact in 2012 audiences might say “Really” because it’s no longer shocking to hear of an African-American male and a white girl getting married (probably the reason why the 2005 remake failed so miserably) and yet when this came out in 1967 it was groundbreaking for its depiction of interracial romance. At the time this was one of the few films to present the romance positively, free of exploitation and in 17 states miscegenation was still outlawed at the time of release. If anything, one can watch this and see a gay couple in the roles of our young lovers and the message would still be read loud and clear.
Despite being about interracial marriage, the film expands outwardly to be about the rise of the youth generation in being able to eradicate racial barriers. There are several times throughout the film when characters may be talking about Joanna and John but are really talking about societies’ children. 1967-1968 were some of the darkest and bloodiest times in American history with the escalation of the Vietnam War, ramping up of race riots, the Black Panther party, and other events that define the sixties and that’s what the film is also exploring. When Matt goes out for ice cream, an innocent past time, he crashes in the car of a black man who precedes to scream at him. In another film this sequence could have turned violent but instead it demonstrates the lack of communication between the youth and the older generation, especially when the kids in the ice cream parking lot start to clap after Matt leaves.
Matt is our symbol of the older generation. The generation that believes that change can’t come so rapidly, that it takes time. Matt even says at one point “maybe in 50 years” the idea of an interracial couple will be accepted but that’s just not true. Not only are John and Joanna a shocking couple but what they stand for is also shocking; the idea of a defiant spirit controlled by the nation’s children. Children who refuse to see something as simple as color as something to fear, who are able to effect change. It’s something you can’t see upon a first viewing of this movie. Hell, it took me three different times to really explore the larger implications of the film but with the idea of various civil rights being threatened Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is still relevant.
The actual couple is the heart of the film, literally. Poitier plays John as so charming and sweet that any woman would fall in love him, and that was director Stanley Kramer and writer William Rose’s intent. John doesn’t believe in premarital sex and even leaves change for Matt when he makes a long distance phone call! Rose and Kramer wrote John so perfectly that the ONLY reason to dislike him would be because of his skin color (or a “pigmentation problem” as Tracy mentions). It’s easy to give praise to Hepburn and Tracy considering their legendary status but the true scene stealer is Poitier in a role that I consider his best (having only seen this though I’m sure that opinion could change). Poitier has such carriage in this role; a gentility or polish that makes you believe he’s a highly educated man and yet he’s never arrogant or snooty even when people treat him poorly. Poitier also has such subtle comedic timing, especially during a scene where he’s taking apart a sandwich. One can think he’s trying to be casual but after the maid Tillie (Isabel Sanford) has pushed a glass towards him you almost start to think he’s checking the sandwich for poison or spit! Poitier’s big moment is the speech he presents to his father, that again can be explored in terms of the generation. It’s a beautiful scene on par with Tracy’s speech at the end. Poitier’s line “You think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man” is so well-done and the way Poitier tries to hold back tears is skillful in a way that’s never been match. Watch it above, it’s worth it.
There’s also a strong subplot involved focused on how other African-Americans feel to John and Joanna. Tillie is the main instigator, feeling that John is “getting above himself.” One almost doesn’t expect this to make the final cut as it’s hard to believe, in a time of Civil Rights, that certain members of the black community were against it. Tillie herself could have been a more stereotypical villain but she’s not. She’s been a maid in the Drayton household, alluding to the idea of indentured servitude, and yet at the end Matt calls Tillie a member of the family who needs to be educated like everyone else in the house. It’s a small part of the movie but it completes the circle of showing how this one couple affects everyone!
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner also has some tragic back story in that seventeen days after filming Spencer Tracy died. It’s obvious to see the poor actor was ill, and Hepburn said she never saw it as the memories were too painful and yet it’s some of their finest work! Christina and Matt aren’t bad people. Christina says at one point they raised their daughter to think prejudice was wrong, that those who believed in it were wrong, and how they never told their daughter “but don’t fall in love with one.” Their not racists, they’re just afraid of their daughter’s spirit being crushed by the hostility of society. Again, it’s the older generation fearing the unknown for their children. With bombs being blown up it must have been easy for parents to tell their children not to get involved and yet the Drayton’s fight for their daughter. A scene I love is when Christina fires nosy gallery employee Hilary (Virginia Christine). Hilary is telling Christina about how “appalling” the whole thing is, expecting Christina to agree, and boy does Hepburn let those comedic chops fly telling Hilary to “get permanently lost.”
It’s apparent the long-standing love between Hepburn and Tracy but Tracy gives an award worthy performance in his final role. Matt is stuck in his ways and the majority of the film is his attempts to come to terms with the new order of things. He’s an old man and doesn’t understand the new world he’s seeing. According to him (hilariously I might add): “What the hell is it today? Less than 12% of the people in this city are colored people. I can’t even have a dish of Oregon Boosenberry without runnin’ into one of them!” That ice cream scene is iconic and sums up the message in a delicious dish. Matt goes to get ice cream and tells the girl he doesn’t remember the flavor, but knows it was good. He picks “Fresh Oregon Boysenberry Sherbert” which he immediately says isn’t the right ice cream. After taking a few bites he comes to love it and tells the girl it isn’t what he’s used to but it’s good anyway! Changing hearts and minds courtesy of the ice cream industry! Of course the ending speech is what everyone remembers Tracy for. It’s a long winding speech discussing everything from the role of romance, to the racism his daughter and her fiancée will witness, and eventually…the love for the woman he’s spent his life with. Regardless of what anyone says about Tracy and Hepburn’s relationship now, one thing is blindingly certain when Matt tells about his love for Christina, that this isn’t about the movie. Tracy is really discussing his love for Hepburn and it comes through with all the fire and passion you’d see in a couple just starting out. Knowing that Tracy would die so shortly makes the scene additionally poignant and sad.
There are a few issues with the film, namely Katherine Houghton as Joanna. Houghton is Katherine Hepburn’s niece and while she’s cute she tries too hard to play the manic, flighty character of Hepburn’s youth. I thought I was watching Sandra Dee in Gidget the way Houghton yells and twirls around. Sadly, this was the only film of her career and she’s a divisive point for fans of the film and her saying “Negro” is always awkward.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is funny, dramatic, and the master of awkward humor. You shouldn’t be laughing at certain scenes and yet you are because the characters see them as funny too. When the film does get dark with the families trying to find a way to break the news of their non-support to the couple, it’s never morose because the characters are trying to do it with heart. Everyone really should watch this movie, it’s funny, it’s sweet, and Sidney Poitier….call me!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.