Directed by Stanley Kramer
Screenplay by William Rose
Starring Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Houghton, Isabel Sanford, Roy E. Glenn St., Beah Richards and Cecil Kellaway
In an alternate timeline, racism in America has been solved. There is no disharmony, everybody gets along, and whatever differences they do have aren’t based on bullshit things like race or gender or sexual orientation.
Three cheers for irrational hostility based on looking different being a thing of the past!
And in that timeline, America looks back on 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner as the film that kicked off the movement which culminated in complete racial harmony. Better, 2017 would be the 50th anniversary of that event and would be celebrated with parades, retrospectives and tributes to a film made by a whole bunch of white people, starring mostly white people that made us realize every black man in America is Sidney Poitier and, by god, who can possibly hate Sidney Poitier?
Oh, in that world it’s great to be a cultural commentator – think pieces would flow so thick online that the internet would literally break.
But this isn’t an alternate timeline – this is this timeline. And in this timeline racism is alive and kicking and probably uglier than ever. Or, at least more out in the open in an uglier way than ever. Or, at least in recent memory. Sure, you argue racism is over because we had a black president and that means something. And I’ll agree it does mean something – just not what you think it means. You think it means we’re post-racial. I think it means there will never come a time when we stop calling a bi-racial man black because we will never tire of the need to strip a man of a complex heritage in order to shove him into that one, little, bigoted box. It also means the ‘one drop of black blood’ thing is alive and well, no matter how hard we try to shake it off.
So, here we are, 50 years post-Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and racism hasn’t been solved. To be fair, I’d argue there has been improvement. After all, we’re no longer talking about the right to vote and serve on juries, because those rights have been earned. No, now we’re talking about institutional racism and the right to not be killed just because you’re a black man walking down the street or just driving a car. Or black woman. Or…pretty much any race that is not white.
More importantly, this conversation is happening right out in the open, with people of color not having to worry about their very lives being in danger and lynched out from under them for standing up for themselves. Which was what happened 60 years ago. So that’s an improvement.
Better than that, the repercussions for racists is turning economic, with many of them losing their jobs or having their businesses dry up and die, because most people now agree racism is bad and the one’s who are down with it, should pay for it.
Will it be solved in my lifetime? Probably not, but one can hope.
So, no, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner didn’t solve racism, or even start a movement, but it should be admired for taking a stand, which should be a lesson to us all: if you do not fight back against racial injustice, you condone it and are therefore one of the bad guys.
What’s It About?
After a 10-day courtship, a young white woman (Houghton) brings a prominent, somewhat-older doctor (Poitier) home to meet her parents (Hepburn and Tracy), seeking their approval for marriage. Over the course of one afternoon and evening, everybody involved confronts their resistance to the relationship and in the end, a speech from an old white guy makes it okay for the black man to marry the white woman.
It’s no surprise the acting is great – after all, Best Picture nominees usually are well-acted and lousily-acted films don’t generally find themselves nominated for Best Picture. Plus, with a cast like this, where could things go wrong?
Anyway, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner scored noms in all four acting categories which happens much less often than you would think—
- Hepburn would win Best Actress, her third overall and second in a row
- Tracy would lose Best Actor for his posthumous nomination to Rod Steiger for In The Heat of the Night
- Cecil Kellaway, who played the Monsignor here, would lose Best Supporting Actor to George Kennedy for Cool Hand Luke
- Beah Richards, as Poitier’s mother, would lose Best Supporting Actress to Estelle Parson’s shrill turn as Blanch Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde
Though not nominated, Sidney Poitier is just as good as these four, imbuing his character with the same charm, dignity and strength he brought to most roles. In some ways, his performance is actually better than everybody else’s, given he has one of the two most underwritten roles in the film to work with.
Look – in the movie Poitier plays this world-renowned physician and lecturer, and every time somebody called him ‘Doctor’ they might as well be called ‘Saint’, because that’s pretty much what he was. By contrast, the woman he’s supposed to love (Houghton) is a nothing. She has no interests, education, or personality. She is merely a blank page for the audience to project themselves into. Unfortunately, being a blank page leaves us with nothing to explain why an accomplished, 37 year-old doctor would be interested in this 23 year-old woman. On one level it doesn’t matter why he loves her, because this isn’t that kind of movie. On the other hand, the parents all seem to place a big value on how much he loves her, in which case how he can actually love her is very relevant. That Poitier has to sell that love, and mostly does, is a testament to his skill as a performer.
That all said, there is a way to read this film in a much more daring light than intended. Specifically, that because Houghton is such a nothing, Poitier’s interest in her is less and interest in her as a person, and more as being a piece of young flesh. As a fuck object. A trophy. A white trophy. In that way it didn’t matter what she was, or cared about, or was like, only that she was young and available. And reading it this way, and seeing her parents still give their blessing to the union, makes it all-the-more radical. After all, it’s one thing to consent to your daughter marrying this sainted man, it’s quite another to let your daughter marry a man when she’ll never be more than his fuck object.
Poitier being great, but unnominated, aside, the real star of the show is Katharine Hepburn. To be fair, she’s not everybody’s favorite actress and she can often times be a bit mannered and too determined to stay in her lane, so to speak, but her talents are well-used here. Particularly the way she acts with her face and her eyes – her ability to convey her inner life, and thoughts, with little more than a look, is wonderful. It truly is the difference between a good actress and a great actress.
It’s almost a shame Tracy had to die so soon after filming this movie because it robbed him of enjoying the plaudits. It’s also a shame he didn’t win the Oscar for the role, because he’s so damned good in it. Yes, he was practically dying during filming, and was certainly a shell of himself physically, but from the performance, and his voice, you’d never know it. He’s great at the dialog, is easily charming, plays the befuddlement perfectly, holds the screen like a master, and makes us buy into the self-introspection he goes through over the course of the film as he confronts his own values and judgment.
Perhaps the best thing about the movie is how it approaches the subject: interracial marriage. Where another film might’ve been crass about it, or tiptoed too casually, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner just dives right in, but does so with measured-sensitivity. Yes, the film makes the ultimate cheat in having the black man be somebody only the most-virulent racist could hate, or object to, but you can understand why it had to be that way. But by refusing to shy away from the hard conversations, it proves fairly ground-breaking.
Moreover, I liked that the film explored each of the fathers – Poitier’s and Houghton’s –misgivings about this marriage and how while their misgivings were similar, they were also incredibly different. Nor did it avoid either man’s unconscious or conscious prejudices. Better was that Poitier’s father was most-against the marriage, for completely lived in and believable reasons. In another movie that man might’ve congratulated his son for landing a white woman, but this father knows first-hand this marriage will prove more a danger to his son than anything else and isn’t about to let him just fall headfirst into that.
The script for this movie is an original, the story written directly for the screen by William Rose. That said, the visuals, staging and that it was filmed on limited sets and on a soundstage, against a backdrop, make the film feel as if it is a not-very-successful translation of a stage-play to the silver screen. After all, it’s confined to limited sets and there is little to connect the film physically to the real world – hardly any location shots at all, even second unit. It never feels opened up. Certainly, confining it to sets may have been meant to emphasize the claustrophobia of the situation, but if it was, it really doesn’t help the story at all.
Beyond that, the film looks bland. The lighting is flat and there’s hardly a bit of expression in it at all. If the studio setting was meant to emphasize the claustrophobia of the situation – which I doubt it was – better would have been to light this thing like a Citizen Kane. Use the light and shadows as your friend, not simply as a way to get a visual image on the film running through the camera.
But let’s be fair, when Stanley Kramer directs a film, you don’t expect it to be full of sterling visuals. No, you expect efficient orchestration of the action and that’s what he gives you. He leaves no lulls, elicits strong performances and moves on.
Aside from the uninspired direction is the performance by Katharine Houghton as the young woman Poitier’s to marry. In another film she might prove serviceable – preferably one not meant to be important – but here she is hopelessly out of her depth. Playing Hepburn/Tracy’s daughter she comes across as almost a caricature of a bubble-headed California girl, only without wit or charm. In short, she just seems false, which is really the dividing line between somebody who can act, and somebody who can’t: Good actors make you forget you’re seeing a performance, because there is life in them for the role. And even when you know it’s a performance, they seem to live in the moment. Houghton, though, always looks like she’s playing the role and is so aggressively lousy in the face of the real talent around her you wonder how she was even in this movie in the first place. Then you find out she was Hepburn’s niece and it all makes sense.
Something To Think On
As forward-thinking as the movie is with respect to race relations, it’s regressive as hell in its gender politics. After all, when Houghton is talking to the Monsignor about Poitier being an important man, Houghton says (a loose quote):
“Of course he’s an important man, and when I marry him, I’ll be important, too.”
The line made me cringe for two reasons:
- It makes Houghton seem like a star-fucker and that’s all she’s in it for.
- In the most literal meaning of that , Houghton is stripped of her own identity and agency. As if the only way she’ll achieve something is by latching onto someone else’s identity. That she will never be more than an addendum to him.
Something The “Make America Great Crowd” Should Think On
In the scene between Poitier and his father, in which the elder man forbids his son from marrying the white woman, for what are pretty legitimate reasons, Poitier tells his father off, dropping this great, timeless line (a loose quote):
“Your generation thinks the way it was for you is the way it’s got to be for everybody. Until your generation lays down and dies, that dead weight won’t ever be off our backs.”
That line says to me exactly what the MAGA crowd needs to realize – the past is prologue and nostalgia for it is destructive. Either live in the present and adapt to the oncoming future, or get out of the way before it runs you down.
Better Than Best?
Poitier had a big year in 1967. Not only did he get to kiss and marry the white woman – with her father’s permission – in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, he also got to slap a white racist, without consequence, in In The Heat Of The Night. The consequence being he wasn’t lynched. Better, both films wound up nominated for Best Picture.
What’s not so good is Poitier didn’t see himself nominated for either Picture and instead watched his one white co-star (Rod Steiger) win the Oscar over his other white co-star (Tracy). So, I guess the kissing and slapping had to be their own reward.
Anyway, 1967 was a banner year for films in general. Aside from In The Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the 1967 Best Picture race featured The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. In total, those four films are among the all-time greats – more or less. The only oddball in the race? Doctor Dolittle.
Is Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner better than In The Heat of the Night? No, but that doesn’t mean it’s not rewatchable. Nevertheless, the real Best Picture of 1967 was the aforementioned, The Graduate, which I could watch a thousand times in a row and probably never get tired of.
Also in the film, as the Hepburn/Poitier maid, is Isabel Sanford, better known to us all as Louise ‘Weezy’ Jeffereson from The Jeffersons, a show which also featured an interracial marriage. A bit of trivia on Sanford? She was the first, and maybe only, black woman to win an Emmy as Best Actress in a Comedy Editor Robert C. Jones was nominated for an Oscar for this film. In all, he’d be nominated for three Oscars as editor, winning none. However, he would win as a co-screenwriter on Coming Home, getting credit there for having helped cobble the various pre-shooting scripts into a coherent story.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 We’re talking the royal ‘you’, not actually you.
 Again, the royal ‘you’.
 To be fair, this is not much progress, because honestly, America should be better than this by now. But at least there is movement in the right direction.
 In total, it’s happened 15 times in Oscar history. Curiously, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner was not the only 1967 to put competitors in all acting categories – Bonnie and Clyde also pulled it off: Warren Beatty for Best Actor, Faye Dunaway for Best Actress, both Gene Hackman and Michael J. Pollard for Best Supporting Actor, and Estelle Parsons for Best Supporting Actress. In addition, The Graduate competed in three acting categories – Dustin Hoffman for Best Actor, Anne Bancroft for Best Actress, and Katharine Ross for Best Supporting Actress. In all, those three films accounted for 60% of the acting noms that year.
 I guess I just revealed what happens to me in my own personal hell – we try out the theory of watching The Graduate 1000 times in a row.