Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner
US (1967) Dir. Stanley Kramer
Time to tick another lauded classic off the watch list, this time it is the bold, interracially themed comedy drama that also proved to be the final film of the legendary Spencer Tracy.
Joanna Drayton (Katharine Houghton) returns home unannounced from a holiday in Hawaii, with her new boyfriend in tow – the slightly older black doctor John Prentice (Sidney Poitier) – whom she met ten days earlier. Joanna’s parents, former newspaper owner Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy) and his wife, art gallery owner Christina (Katharine Hepburn), liberal thinkers instilling the merits of racial equality in their daughter, are shocked to see their daughter with a black man.
Nowadays no-one (we hope at least) would bat an eyelid at the notion of a mixed race marriage, but in the so-called “Land of the Free” it was in fact illegal in most states, with the final anti-miscegenation laws being repealed in 1967, just a few months before this film’s release.
At one point in the script, John is told that “in 17 states what you’re doing is illegal”, making this a curious victim of happenstance in reflecting the change in society’s thinking, which was the intention of the story in the first place. Stanley Kramer and writer William Rose set out to debunk the stereotypes of the black man in order to break the issue down to its base form.
By making John a skilled doctor of some repute, along with his respectful treatment of the younger Joanna – John is a 37 year-old widower who hasn’t dated in the eight years; Joanna is 23 – there is really only the colour of his skin that is the point of objection for other around them, and it is not limited to the Draytons.
The cab driver at the beginning fails to hide his disgust whilst the most surprising hostility comes from the Draytons’ loyal black housemaid Tillie (Isabel Sanford), accusing John of being an “N” word getting above himself by marrying a white girl. Perhaps the idea is Tillie’s old school mentality dictates black people can’t be successful in a white man’s world in her eyes.
As progressive as the thinking was behind the script the real issue is not the colour of John’s skin but the hypocrisy of Matt and Christina. They are not of the “I’m not racist but…” brigade but they are appalled by their own rash reactions to being asked to endorse this act of miscegenation in their own household.
Matt and Christina are only antagonists in this tale through their inability to reconcile these feelings, although Christina is the first to come around, rather quickly it has to be said. Ironically, it would be Matt’s hardened stance that would be the catalyst for her change of heart and Christina would spend the rest of the film trying to talk her husband around.
Interestingly, Christina’s turnaround is complete when one of her employees Hilary St. George (Virginia Christine) arrives at the house with the express motive of airing her disapproval towards a relationship that has nothing to do with her. Christina didn’t take kindly to this resulting in one of the most eloquent yet delightful screen firings you’ll ever see!
Elsewhere John’s parents (Roy E. Glenn and Beah Richards) fly down to meet the couple due to John’s brief stay in the area so Joanna invites them to dinner (hence the title). Mirroring the situation with the Draytons, Papa Prentice is also gobsmacked to see his son with a white girl and can’t hide his disapproval either – therefore both fathers should have plenty to talk about.
But, whilst this seems like two pigheaded fathers with prejudice issues, the truth is their concerns are not about their offspring but about how society will treat them. They worry about their grandchildren and what life they will have if they daily routine is one full of racial abuse. Meanwhile the mothers are the voices of reason, showing much more faith in their children while their husbands crack walnuts with a sledgehammer.
It may not be evident but there is a lot of humour in this film, mostly in the wry and satirical dialogue that carries some caustic witticisms within. Some scenes, such as the jiving delivery boy and the ice cream shop confrontation feel incongruous and hokey but presumably had more relevance in 1967. And we can’t overlook Monsignor Mike Ryan (Cecil Kellaway), the most hip and “right on” old man Catholic priest you’ll ever meet.
The most amazing thing about this film is that it was made at all, and not because of the subject matter. Spencer Tracy was seriously ill and could only work a limited schedule yet it doesn’t show at all. His performance is full of vigour and steely determination, suffused with the aura of man in reflective mode. His final speech is a show-stealing tour de force sagacious, from the heart address again belying his physical state, and it would be just two weeks later when he died.
In her ninth collaboration with Tracy Katherine Hepburn is on her finest spiky form as Christina, albeit with a sense of pathos as we get the feeling her tears are genuine from seeing her long time friend and screen partner suffer. Katharine Houghton is Hepburn’s niece, getting the role as Joanna due to the physical resemblance helping the on screen mother and daughter relationship.
Sydney Poitier as John carries the onus of every black man on his shoulders, his defining moment coming via an impassioned retort to his father’s indignant stance. It is a dignified and forceful performance yet he received no Oscar nominations while Hepburn (who won) and Tracy did. Surely the Academy wouldn’t discriminate would they?
A triumphant swan song for Spencer Tracy, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner was bold for its time, the scenario perhaps less relevant today but the message still has plenty of merit while showing us how far society has come in the last 50 years.