The 1967 Best Picture contenders were a remarkable group of films and clear signs of the changing times for Hollywood. Among them was director Stanley Kramer’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967), a movie about biracial marriage that seemed quite daring for its day, especially with Civil Rights issues still polarizing the country. Getting the movie made was further complicated by the declining health of star Spencer Tracy, for whom this would prove a final screen appearance. Today, the political message of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” has lost a lot of its currency, but the film remains worth watching for its performances, particularly those of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, whose final collaboration is a moving testament to their partnership both onscreen and off.
Tracy and Hepburn star as Matt and Christina Drayton, a liberal San Francisco couple whose personal politics are put to the test when their daughter, Joanna (Katharine Houghton), brings home fiancé John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), who is successful, brilliant, and black. Over the course of a single day, the parents must come to grips with their daughter’s decision, a task made more difficult by the arrival of John’s parents (Roy Glenn and Beah Richards) for a very awkward family dinner.
The film’s message doesn’t play as well today as it might have in 1967, partly because younger viewers who grew up after the Civil Rights Movement won’t see the need for all the fuss. It’s painfully obvious that John Prentice is a paragon among men, and you’d have to be a racist of the very worst sort for questioning a character like that, but the movie places so much emphasis on that aspect of the plot that it lets some very big holes lie open. No, Joey’s parents can’t in good conscience object to the marriage because John is black, but shouldn’t they be just a bit concerned that John is 14 years older than their daughter and that the couple only met ten days ago? In its rush to promote its big picture ideal, the movie overlooks the validity of these concerns, which would trouble any parent whose daughter brought home an unknown suitor, even if he sported a shiny halo and a set of wings.
The performances, however, remain powerful, thanks to the emotional intensity of Hepburn and Tracy, who knew all too well that this would be Tracy’s final film. The scenes that explore the relationship between the elder Draytons mirror the real depth of affection between these two tremendously talented actors, and Tracy’s final speech about Matt’s love for Christina will justly draw tears from the knowing viewer. The family chemistry also relies on the stars’ comfortable rapport with Katharine Houghton, who resembles Hepburn enough to be her daughter because she is actually her niece. Poitier is not at fault if his exemplary doctor is rather too perfect; he knows that he’s playing the saint in this passion play, and he does his best with the limitations of the role. At least he gets to come down off the pedestal a bit in the scenes with John’s father, where his anger and frustration with the previous generation give him something more interesting to do than put up with everyone else’s issues.
Look for Cecil Kellaway and Isobel Sanford in smaller but very effective roles as members of the Drayton family circle. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” picked up ten Oscar nominations and won two, including a Best Actress award for Hepburn. For more of Hepburn and Tracy, try “Woman of the Year” (1942), “Adam’s Rib” (1949), and “Desk Set” (1957). You’ll find Sidney Poitier in one of 1967’s other top films, “In the Heat of the Night,” which ultimately took home the Best Picture prize. Stanley Kramer also directed Poitier in “The Defiant Ones” (1958) and Tracy in “Inherit the Wind” (1960) and “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961).
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