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

Genre: Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 48 min.

Release Date: December 12th, 1967 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Stanley Kramer Actors: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Houghton, Cecil Kellaway, Beah Richards, Roy E. Glenn Sr., Isabell Sanford, Virginia Christine

 


 

B

illy Hill’s song “Glory of Love” presides over the opening shots (also sung by Jacqueline Fontaine as a lounge singer later in the picture), which feature a new couple, 23-year-old Joanna “Joey” (Katharine Houghton) and 37-year-old John (Sidney Poitier), arriving at their destination airport in California, merrily grabbing their luggage and hopping into a taxi. There’s nothing unusual about this twosome, though the film premiered in 1967 – which means that since Joey is white and John is black, their interracial union still catches the attention of less progressive people. Their cab driver, who doesn’t muster the courage to say anything, is one such person who gives them a judgmental glance.

The lovers stop by an art gallery in San Francisco to see if Joey’s mother, Christina Drayton (Katharine Hepburn), is in, but they leave when they’re informed that she’s out to lunch. This is not before John notices – as he’s accustomed to doing – that a curator seems hesitant to acknowledge that there’s nothing wrong with Joey, who mentions that she has returned from a wonderful vacation in Hawaii, clearly having been with the black Dr. John Wade Prentice. The uncomfortable confrontations continue once they arrive at the Drayton’s luxurious estate, where black housekeeper Mathilda “Tillie” (Isabell Sanford) disapproves greatly of John’s intention to “get above hisself” by being with a white woman. Once it’s confirmed that Joey and John have plans to wed (getting into a whirlwind 10-day romance, having fallen in love in a mere 20 minutes), the predicaments escalate, particularly when Joey’s stubborn father, Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy), arrives home.

“Yes, it’s serious.” Hepburn turns in a striking performance, kicked off by a look of sheer fright when she spies John for the first time. She may be slightly more open to the idea than Tillie, but she’s still startled by the realization that her daughter is engaged in a significant relationship with a black man. “An awful lot of people are gonna think that we’re a very shocking pair.” Tracy also delivers a spectacular turn, comparably petrified at the introduction and consternated over his own words; the Draytons insisted during Joey’s upbringing that racism was wholeheartedly wrong. And yet, now they must address – in the flesh – what was once a hypothetical, liberal scenario of simple human decency. “They don’t know what they’re doing!” Matt blurts out to his wife. Even if they’re earnestly accommodating, they’re given very little time to come to terms with their genuineness – particularly when Joey spontaneously invites John’s parents to dinner that same evening.

Houghton is also fitting (naive and optimistic but supremely inspiring), though it’s Poitier who really steals the show. He has the unenviable task of being the target of racial intolerances as well as the representative – the paradigm – for shattering such opinions. He’s intelligent, reserved, casual, witty, nervous, and incredibly believable – all in equal measure. Even supporting roles, such as generous Monsignor Mike Ryan (Cecil Kellaway) and nosey employee Hilary (Virginia Christine), are exceptional, providing distinct viewpoints and beliefs so that every angle, bigoted or not, is covered. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is unquestionably one of the great masterpieces of ensemble acting.

The story, too, remains powerful, particularly as it isn’t about forcing principles upon the audience. Instead, it wants viewers to decide for themselves. Adding to the stellar cast are sensational dialogue (written by William Rose) and staging, always willing to tackle, by verbalization and imagery, thought-provoking notes on discrimination. Smartly, the premise only grows more complex, as John’s parents harbor comparative prejudices and reservations about interracial matches. Again, both sides are on display, as if participating in an epic debate on the topic. By the end, as attitudes harden before eventually softening (not unlike the range of varying introspections seen in “12 Angry Men”), emotions stir and tears flow, concluding quite famously with a rousing speech and heavy-hitting commentary on love besting familial or societal approval.

– Mike Massie

  • 10/10