#497) Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

#497) Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

OR “A Heavy Meal”

Directed by Stanley Kramer

Written by William Rose

Class of 2017

The Plot: San Francisco liberals Matt & Christina Drayton (Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn) are surprised when their adult daughter Joanna (Katharine Houghton) returns home unannounced. There’s an even bigger surprise when she brings home her fiancé, African-American doctor John Wade Prentice (Sidney Poitier). Despite their outspoken support of Civil Rights, Matt & Christina must now acknowledge their hypocritical discomfort with their daughter’s interracial relationship. An invitation to dinner is extended to not only John, but also his parents visiting from Los Angeles (Roy Glenn & Beah Richards) and family friend Monsignor Ryan (Cecil Kellaway). Looks like the appetizer for this meal is an extended dialogue on racial tolerance.

Why It Matters: The NFR mentions the film’s “movie milestones” as well as its “then-novel plot”, but the only superlatives go to Sidney Poitier for “his customary on-screen charisma, fire and grace.”

But Does It Really?: Like most of Stanley Kramer’s filmography, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is an Important Movie of its time. While the premise was controversial in 1967, the film has become almost quaint, and not without its own insensitive viewpoints. Regardless, “Dinner” is a time capsule of an important issue in the ’60s political landscape, as well as the final pairing of Tracy & Hepburn before Tracy’s passing. “Dinner” is worthy of NFR recognition, but if you’re looking for a more relevant representation of ’60s race relations, stick with “In the Heat of the Night“.

Everybody Gets One: After a string of New York theater productions, Katharine Houghton landed the role of Joanna Drayton thanks to her aunt: Katharine Hepburn (Houghton’s mother is Kate’s sister Marion). Although her film career never took off, Houghton still works as an actor and playwright, and often reflects on “Dinner” and her aunt in interviews.

Wow, That’s Dated: We will discuss the film’s stance on miscegenation in ’60s America as we go. Among the other dated items are references to Governor Lurleen Wallace, the Watusi, “We Can Work It Out“, and Arnold Palmer (the golfer, not the drink).

Seriously, Oscars?: Second only to “The Graduate” at the box office, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” received 10 Oscar nominations, tied with “Bonnie and Clyde” for the most nominations. “Dinner” screenwriter William Rose took home Original Screenplay, and Katharine Hepburn received her second Best Actress Oscar. Hepburn did not attend the ceremony out of respect for Louise Tracy, present in the event of a win for her late husband.

Other notes 

  • By 1967, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn had made eight films together, and had been romantically involved for over 25 years. Tracy’s health was in sharp decline, ailing from both hypertensive heart disease and type 2 diabetes. In order to make “Dinner”, Hepburn and Stanley Kramer put their salaries in escrow to cover Tracy’s insurance risk (Columbia wouldn’t insure him), and Tracy only filmed for three hours a day.
  • You’re all lucky Sidney Poitier is so damn charming. Poitier successfully balances John’s polite and respectful attitude towards Joanna’s parent, with his steadfast personal convictions. It helps that Poitier was genuinely intimidated by Tracy and Hepburn, opting to perform his closeups to two empty chairs.
  • There is a 14 year age gap between John and Joanna, and an 18 year age gap between Poitier and Houghton! This is certainly the most progressive readout on the Michael Douglas Scale. I’m sure someone will bring up this concern in the movie. Any minute now…. Wait for it…
  • While Hepburn’s Oscar win may have been the result of sympathy for Tracy’s death, she is quite good in this. It’s fun to watch the openly progressive Kate play a woman forced to confront her inherent hypocrisy, and with Kate we see Christina’s inner struggle. Who knows if Hepburn’s performance is better than Anne Bancroft’s or Faye Dunaway’s, but it is certainly worthy of a trophy.
  • The film makes an effort to address every possible argument regarding interracial marriage, but no mention is made of the violent hate crimes against African-Americans throughout the ’60s. The film’s “love conquers all” thesis is optimistic and romantic, but given all that has transpired since (especially in recents years), it seems shallow to an almost dangerous degree. Keep in mind that this movie was directed and written by white people, which would no doubt be met with outcry today.
  • I’m enjoying Cecil Kellaway’s enthusiastic performance as Monsignor O’Stereotype. Fun Fact: Kellaway’s cousin was Edmund Gwenn, aka Kris Kringle from “Miracle on 34th Street“.
  • Christina telling her racist co-worker Hillary to “get permanently lost” is a highlight, though the moment has been repeated to death in every white savior movie of the last 50 years.
  • The Mel’s Drive-In that Tracy and Hepburn visit is still open! Side note: The man whose car Matt hits in the parking lot is played by D’Urville Martin, future “Dolemite” director.
  • Shoutout to Isabel Sanford, TV’s Louise Jefferson, as the Drayton’s maid Tillie. Sanford still has to play the stereotypical sassy domestic, but Tillie is a little more dimensional. Plus she gets that great monologue where she tells off John.
  • Despite this movie being an original script, it feels like an adaptation of a stage play. Kramer tries to spice it up with dolly shots and vistas of San Francisco, but it’s ultimately two hours of good actors talking on the same set.
  • The second half of the movie parallels “12 Angry Men” as various characters make their arguments and try to convince the others to “vote” their way. Good stuff, but it doesn’t help the “filmed play” vibe.
  • Roy Glenn and Beah Richards are just a tad too young to be Sidney Poitier’s parents, but they help elevate the material and bring some extra energy to the proceedings. Richards in particular nails her one monologue.
  • Already dated by the time the film came out: Mr. Prentice mentions that interracial marriage is illegal “in 16 or 17 states”. While true during production, the Supreme Court deemed anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional in the landmark case of “Loving v. Virginia” in June 1967. Kramer opted not to cut the line, though he did delete a joke about Martin Luther King following King’s assassination in April 1968.
  • Spencer Tracy’s climactic summation is worth the wait, though it is hard to separate Matt’s final speech from Tracy’s final performance. Katharine Hepburn is genuinely tearing up in the background.

Legacy 

  • Seventeen days after filming was completed on “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, Spencer Tracy died of a heart attack in his home at the age of 67. “Dinner”, his final film, would be released six months later.
  • “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was a hit across America, including the south, which prompted studios to reconsider how they market films with BIPOC leads.
  • “Dinner” is still referenced throughout pop culture, primarily for its title. At least seven sitcoms have named an episode “Guess Who’s NOT Coming to Dinner”, but the best variation goes to the 1973 adult film “Guess Who’s Coming”.
  • Why mention the 2005 Bernie Mac/Ashton Kutcher remake “Guess Who” when I could bring up Jordan Peele’s spiritual remake “Get Out” instead?
  • And finally, Carl Fredricksen from “Up” was partially modeled after Spencer Tracy from this movie, complete with glasses.

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