Sometimes, you just had to be there.
That was my reaction as I watched the 1967 Best Picture nominee Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. While this film may have been topical and even controversial when it was first released, when watched today it seems to be rather mild and tame.
In Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Spencer Tracy plays Matt Drayton. Matt’s a San Francisco newspaper publisher, a respected member of the upper class establishment. His wife, Christina (Katharine Hepburn), owns a trendy art gallery and Matt spends his spare time playing golf with Monsignor Ryan (Cecil Kellaway). He’s the father of the free-spirited Joey (Katharine Houghton, who was Hepburn’s niece in real life). He’s also, as we’re told repeatedly by every other character in the film, a liberal who supports the civil rights movement.
As the film begins, Joey is returning from a vacation in Hawaii and she has big news. While in Hawaii, she met and fell in love with the widowed John Prentice, a highly succesful doctor who is literally on the verge of winning a Nobel Peace Prize. Though he’s 16 years older than her and they’ve only known each other for 10 days, Joey and Prentice are planning on getting married. While Joey thinks that she’s bringing Prentice to San Francisco just so her parents can meet their future son-in-law, Prentice has specifically come to ask Matt’s permission to marry Joey. As Prentice explains to Matt, he’ll call the marriage off if Matt doesn’t approve.
John Prentice, by the way, is played by Sidney Poitier and that is the source of the film’s conflict. Will Matt give his daughter permission to marry a polite, considerate, wealthy, saintly, world-renowned doctor despite the fact that he happens to be black?
Watching Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner was a bit of a culture shock to me, both because I’m the result of an interracial marriage myself (my mom was Spanish and my dad’s white) and because several of my friends are either in or have been a part of an interracial relationship or marriage. For people my age, it’s not a big deal. We take it for granted that if you find someone to be attractive, you can have a relationship with him regardless of whatever race he may happen to be.
While I was doing research on Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, I was reminded that this wasn’t always the case. When Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner was first released in 1967, interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 states. In that same year, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk offered to resign when his daughter married a black man. When Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner was first released, interracial marriage still a controversial subject and when Spencer Tracy struggled with his feelings about it, he stood in for countless Americans who, though they may have taken pride in how tolerant they were, still weren’t sure what they would do if a black man tried to join their family.
As you can probably guess, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner is far more interested in teaching a lesson than telling a story. It’s perhaps not surprising that the film was directed and produced by Stanley Kramer. Kramer was one of the most prominent filmmakers of the 1960s. He specialized in making big films that dealt with big issues, the type of films that were regularly nominated for an academy award but rarely honored with an actual win. In many ways, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner is a prototypical Kramer picture — its heart is in the right place but the film itself is so conventional and free of ambiguity that it never manages to truly challenge the status quo that it claims to be criticizing.*
In his excellent look at the 1967 nominees for best picture, Pictures At A Revolution: Five Movies And The Birth of The New Hollywood, Mark Harris provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the filming of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Harris quotes Kramer as explaining that the character of John Prentice had to be perfect because, if the character had any flaws, then bigots in the audience would have seized on those flaws as the reason why Prentice and Joey should not be allowed to marry. As Kramer explains it, the entire film was set up to make it clear that the only possible reason that Matt could have to object to Prentice would be the color of his skin.
To an extent, I can see Kramer’s point (and again, it’s hard to judge what was necessary to make a point in 1967 from the perspective of 2013) but, as I watched Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, it was hard not to feel that the main problem with the film was that Prentice was just too perfect. Certainly, he was too perfect to be in love with Joey who, as played by Houghton, simply seemed to be too naive and foolish to be a good match for a man who is on the verge of winning a Nobel Prize. Even more importantly, it’s hard to escape the fact that this accomplished, confident black man still needs to get the permission of a well-meaning white liberal before he can marry the woman he claims to love.
Ultimately, despite the film’s noble intentions, it feels more than a bit condescending. At no point is Prentice allowed to show any anger or frustration at having to prove himself. There’s even a scene where Prentice criticizes his own father for being too hung up on racism. ”Not until you and you’re whole lousy generation lay down and die will the weight of you be off our backs … You think of yourself as a colored man … I think of myself as a man!” Prentice tells him, as if his success was due to ignoring racism as opposed to defying it.
If Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner has dated badly as a look at race relations in the United States, it remains watchable because of the performances of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. This was their 9th and final film together and the love that these two accomplished actors felt for each other shines through every scene. Tracy was seriously ill while making the film (and died before it was released) but he gave one of his best and most heartfelt performances here. He was nominated for a posthumous Oscar but lost to Rod Steiger, who co-starred with Poitier in the film that beat Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner for best picture, In The Heat of the Night.
In the Heat of the Night is best-remembered for the scene in which Poitier angrily declares, “They call me …. MISTER TIBBS!” This line epitomized the righteous anger that he was not allowed to display in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. If only Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner had its own “MISTER TIBBS” moment, it might be remembered as something other than a film that seems curiously out-of-place as a nominee for best picture.
* That said, Kramer’s post-Guess films were actually pretty interesting and a bit more daring. Some day, I’ll have to get around to reviewing his 1970 campus unrest film, R.P.M.