Written by William Rose
Directed by Stanley Kramer
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner marks the last film in which Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy appear together. Tracy died shortly after this film was completed.
Released in 1967, this film comments on the societal prejudices of interracial marriage even during the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.
Joanna (Joey) Drayton is the free-spirited twenty-three year old daughter of newspaper publisher Matt and Christina Drayton. She returns early from a trip to Hawaii with her new fiancee, thirty-seven year old doctor John Prentice. The bombshell on her parents – and later his – is that she is white and he is black.
Matt and Christina have always had the most liberal of outlooks, but Joey’s plans disturb them. As the movie moves on, it becomes clear that neither have a problem with John Prentice at all – he is a very successful doctor doing noble work. Their concern lies in the problems their daughter will face as the wife of a black man.
The main point of the movie is that John is leaving for New York and onto Geneva for his work at the World Health Organization later that night. He tells Matt that he will not marry Joanna if her parents object so strongly that it threatens their relationship with her; he loves her too much for that. In one evening, Matt Drayton must try to assess the best way of handling the situation.
In many ways, Joanna Drayton lives in a dream world. From the beginning, she seems very naive thinking that there really is no problem and whatever comes along they will be able to handle. Of course, this is true of many young people in love. Here however, it is pointed out to John that there are some states where a black person and a white person being wed is still considered illegal. It wasn’t until the Supreme Court ruled in June of 1967 that states banning interracial marriages was unconstitutional that interracial couples were free to move about the country. A couple wed in the northeast who relocated to Virginia could be arrested and thrown in jail for living as man and wife – this was the case that sparked the Supreme Court ruling.
Imagine Joanna and John are in Washington DC for a conference and their hotel is in Virginia – they could have been thrown in jail. This is the reservation that both sets of parents feel in the movie.
As Matt and Christine discuss the situation, they talk about having raised Joanna not to see black or white. Have they done her a disservice by not showing her that society does see black and white? Maybe.
John seems to be a bit more grounded. He is used to prejudice, having grown up with it, and has learned to use it to his advantage. John tells Matt that he got to where he is by manipulating people into pushing him ahead to prove they are not prejudice. Is that fair? Probably not. However, at the time it was just about the only way an intelligent black student could rise above a blue-collar job.
As great as this film is, I did, however, have a few problems with it.
As the movie opens, the happy couple is coming off a plane while That’s the Story of Love plays in the background. I was quite surprised that they did not garner more stares and turned heads in the airport, as well as by the fact while in a cab there was no reaction to their kissing by the driver. Realistically, I would not have been surprised to see him pull to the curb and kick the couple out.
Also interesting to me was the Drayton’s housekeeper’s reaction to the situation. Tillie has been with the family since Joanna was a baby and is considered to be a part of the family. She is also black. Her reaction is probably the most surprising of all. Unlike the two sets of parents who seem to be concerned about the union due to external problems, Tillie goes on about “a member of my own race getting above hisself” and “civil rights is one thing, this is something else.” Her reaction is never really explained or clarified and it left me feeling as if I missed something there.
The acting here is terrific. Sidney Poitier is John Prentice. His character has been around the block more than once, and is the more practical of the couple. Of course he knows there will be problems, but his love for Joanna makes him feel more alive than he’s been since his first wife and son were killed in a train accident. He conveys the frustration at being pulled in two different directions at the same time. Although he states that he won’t marry Joanna if her parents do not approve, what he really wants is to know that they will be there for her the first time she really encounters the prejudice which will inevitably be directed at them and their children. His impassioned line to his father “You think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.” may seem a bit unrealistic in the climate of the sixties (and even in a sense today) but Poitier delivers it convincingly, showing the hope that they younger generation had at the time.
Katharine Houghton, who is Katharine Hepburn’s niece, portrays Joanna Drayton. Before I knew that fact, my first impression was that she was the perfect choice to portray Hepburn’s daughter. She has nailed the part completely, although I think Joey is terribly naive. As she looks at John, she shows complete love and adoration with not a hesitation in her eyes. Houghton does a terrific job convincing the audience she is head over heels in love.
Spencer Tracy gives a terrific performance for his final movie with Hepburn. They come off as the couple who has been in love forever. Knowing that the two were romantically involved for years makes it seem like the loving looks he throws in her direction are all the more natural for the two of them. He loves his daughter and his wife, and he also grows to like John a great deal in the short time he knows him. His evolution during this film is perfect as his emotions run the gamut and change throughout the running time. He has evolved himself by the end of the film, having to re-examine his own very liberal beliefs.
Katharine Hepburn won an Oscar for her portrayal here as Christina Drayton. She earned it. From the moment she first realizes that her future son-in-law is black, her performance is impeccable. She remembers too well what it was like to be young and in love, and seeing her daughter so happy makes her happy. She understands what the couple will be facing together, and how hard it will be on her daughter, even if Joey does not yet realize that. She also knows that it would be worse for the relationship to end, and that sometimes as a parent it is more important to just “be there for them” when things do go terribly wrong.
Beah Richards and Roy Glenn portray John’s parents and are only there for a short time. However, Beah’s performance is extraordinary. Like Hepburn, she conveys the understanding of young love with an impassioned speech to Spencer Tracy. She will give her approval, and knows her husband will accept it eventually. Glenn portrays a man who feels he’s given everything he could to his son and now he’s about to throw it all away with both hands. He sees that being married to a white woman could hurt his son’s career – this is the time when it was considered that blacks should “know their place” and it most definitely was not in the arms of a white woman. His confrontation with his son is one that could happen over a variety of issues as father attempts to tell son what to do.
Isabel Sanford is Tillie, and yes, my first reaction was to yell “Weezy!” I would have liked to have seen her part built up more and clarified, but alas, I did not direct this film.
In some ways, this film is dated. However, the prejudices do still exist and probably will for a long time yet. Though the laws may be gone, the archaic thinking still exists. In the late 80’s in the “enlightened northeast” of New York I dated someone I had been friends with from high school who happened to be African-American. I can still remember the heads turning and stares we’d get when we went to restaurants together. I was uninvited from a cousin’s wedding. Even in stores when we were out together we’d notice a different way of being treated. His friends didn’t understand and my friends used lines like the “know your place” line. It’s a terrible pressure to be under, and I give a lot of credit to people who can weather that storm. Our relationship eventually self-destructed and knowing how different our lives have turned out, it was probably for the better.
As a nation, we’ve come a long way since Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released, but we still have a long way to go.
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