Here’s another Stanley Kramer film that I got to see a second time yesterday. Unlike my review of Judgement at Nuremberg, I’ll keep this one far more brief.
Kramer’s 1967 film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, is a drama centered on an older, liberal couple, Matt and Christina Drayton (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn), who try to come to terms with the fact that their bubbly and determined daughter, Joey, (Katharine Houghton) plans on marrying an upstanding, black doctor: Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier). Things become increasingly complicated when Joey invites Prentice’s parents (Roy Glenn and Beah Richards) over to join them for dinner as well, despite the fact that Dr. Prentice did not plan on telling them he was planning on marrying a white girl until later. Throw in the prejudiced and skeptical black maid (Isabel Sanford) and a kind catholic priest (Monsignor Ryan) who works his hardest to encourage the hesitant Matt to grant his daughter and Dr. Prentice his blessing – and you’ve got Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
In summation, the entirety of this film centers on two couples struggle to accept their children’s choice for marriage: the Draytons and the Prentices. This is especially ironic since, as Monsignor Ryan makes clear, the Draytons always stood up for equal rights and taught their daughter to see the world not through the prism of color.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a sweet, comfy (did I really just say that) film that tackles the issue of inter-racial couples well. People have said that it may seem a bit out-dated to modern eyes, though it was clearly very-much modern social commentary when it did come out so it is difficult to hold it against the film.
Tracy and Hepburn truly have great chemistry as the conflicting Draytons. You understand that they are not really racist so much as just concerned for their daughter’s safety given the times and the world in which they occupy. Poitier is very good as well, playing the kind doctor who understands the risks involved with dating a white girl, and goes out of his way to ensure the Draytons that he will only marry their daughter if they have no reservations about it.
The only performance I actually had issue with was Houghton, who was painful in how bubbly she was. It came across as downright cartoony and aggravating at points, which is a feeling that was only exacerbated by some of the lines she reads.
For instance, in response to Tracy revealing that Poitier told him he’d only marry if he and Hepburn had no reservations, Houghton says: “You didn’t! What a funny thing to do” in such a way that it does not seem as though she is mad at him at all, or concerned. There is sweet, there is early Hollywood sweet, and then there’s a mile-long gap, and then there is Houghton’s Joey. I suppose some of the blame there must also be placed on the screenwriter, William Rose (who also wrote It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World… bless that man), who actually went on to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
The script is not a bad one and most certainly has moments of brilliance (I like the ice cream bit though it may have been a bit heavy-handed, Tracy and Hepburn’s characters as a whole, etc), but much like the character of Joey herself it could get a bit sappy and cliched at times.
As for the Screenplay winning the Oscar, I’d need to see the other nominees before making a final judgement, however I would not be entirely surprised to discover that the decision to give this film a writing award was due to it being an ‘important’ movie – much like people voting these days cast their ballot for animation based on what their kids liked best…. yes, I’m still bitter about last year.
The film also flirts with becoming overtly sentimental and corny at points. The happy couple is almost too happy, too perfect, that it comes across as something out of a fairy-tale. Normally a movie would be able to get away with this, but in the case of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner it comes across as laughable.
Here the filmmakers are trying to tackle the issue of race and interracial couples in a dignified, respectable, realistic manner yet the core of the film is a couple that decided to get married after knowing each other for only ten days (yes, I know the movie brings up how this is an issue too, but even so it seems out of place), and who never seem to get mad at each other. Of course they’re a new couple so maybe the latter point makes sense, but as a whole the film seems conflicted between presenting a very real problem in a very real, tangible way while making the relationship that is the centerpiece of the film as Disney-fied and unrealistic as possible.
But who knows, maybe I’m wrong and that’s how relationships were back in the 60’s (what do I know, I belong to a generation who places appetite-driven sex over committed love). In that case, perhaps this review was a bit harsh on the film, but until I hear otherwise I’ll just say it is a self-conflicting film that is still enjoyable to watch, and has moments of brilliance in tackling a very serious subject matter at the time of its release.
3 out of 5
Tracy and Hepburn also elevate this movie, which would probably otherwise be closer to a 2.5 out of 5 if it weren’t for the fact that these two stars brought their “A” game.
Also, as Ben Mankiewicz mentioned after the film was shown on TCM, Tracy was in ill-health and this was his final film role. He would die shortly after filming Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner finished. In that way, it is sort of impossible to not respect this film a bit more for giving Tracy a nice role that allowed his career to end on a high note – and a posthumous Oscar nomination.
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” imdb