Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Synopsis: Crusading newspaper publisher Matt Drayton’s (Spencer Tracy) liberal principles are put to the test when his daughter, Joey (Katharine Houghton), announces her engagement to John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), an internationally renowned African-American physician. While Matt’s wife, Christina (Katharine Hepburn), readily accepts Joey’s decision, Matt intends to withhold his consent, forgetting that when it comes to matters of the heart, true love is colorblind. Nominated for ten 1967 Academy Awards® and winner of Best Actress (Katharine Hepburn) and Original Screenplay.

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Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner 8.5

eyelights: its subject matter. its dialogues. its performances. it mixture of drama and light comedy.
eyesores: its heavy-handed touches.

“The only thing that matters is what they feel, and how much they feel, for each other. And if it’s half of what we felt, that’s everything.”

One of the things that irks me the most is when Caucasians ask non-Caucasians where they’re from – you know, as though they’re not from this country. Perhaps the core intention is to show interest in their subject but, to me, it suggests naiveté if not outright ignorance.

Um… why couldn’t non-Caucasians be born here?

Though North American countries are relatively new and immigration levels have only grown dramatically over the last fifty years, they haven’t been populated exclusively by Caucasians. The assumption that being non-Caucasian means being from elsewhere is stupid.

I don’t even want to speculate on the many reasons why people would come to that conclusion, but it can surely range from a lack of education to xenophobia. Either way, it’s stunning that, in countries where races have mixed openly for decades, such views still exist.

So I can’t even imagine what it must have been like fifty years ago when interracial marriage was still illegal in many parts of the United States. Illegal. Can you imagine that? WTF. Of course, someday, people will no doubt say the same about same-sex marriage…

But, in 1967, when Stanley Kramer’s ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ was produced, interracial marriage was, in fact, illegal in many States; it was only towards the end of production that the laws were overturned. By the time it was released in 1968, the change was fresh.

The picture, which was written by William Rose, makes strong arguments in favour of interracial marriage. It finds an older black man and a younger white woman visiting her parents to get their blessing – but the parents were given no forewarning about the situation.

It would be an evening of serious soul-searching for all involved.

What makes ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ so terrific is that it confronts progressives with their own personal assumptions: Mr. and Mrs. Drayton are hardly racists; in fact, they’ve raised their daughter to overlook racial differences. But lofty ideals are one thing…

…acceptance and integration is another.

Still, they wrestle with their beliefs and challenge themselves over the course of the evening, scrutinizing every aspect of the situation with the intention of doing right by the young couple. It’s an intellectual and emotional exercise that bears rich fruit for all.

Including the audience.

The picture is written much like a play, with most of the action being set in the Draytons’ spacious family home, overlooking San Francisco. It’s dialogue-heavy and, though it can lack subtlety at times, it certainly does its best to advocate in favour of free marriage.

The discussions move back and forth between the various characters, from pairs to larger groups, as they explore their various views. The ones between Mr. and Mrs. Drayton are touching because of the pair’s dynamic, whereas the ones with John are the most powerful.

John is frank, direct and reasonable, but he’s also a bit defiant. He constantly ups the ante (ex: by refusing to marry Joanna unless he gets everyone’s support); he understands what challenges they’ll be facing together, and he wants to ensure that they’ll start strong.

What’s interesting is that many of the counter-arguments come from Tillie, the Draytons’ African-American maid, who has her own prejudices, feeling that John’s over-reaching, that he doesn’t know his place. She has a few choice words for him and for Joanna.

But Joanna is so madly in Love with John that all objections mean little to her. And John is so classy, elegant, proper, well-meaning and clever that’s it’s difficult to find fault with him. He’s essentially the perfect groom. His only noticeable “flaw” is not being Caucasian.

His and her parents have trouble with the potential union largely because they’re worried about the young couple’s fate, of the prejudices and hardships they and their children will likely face. Understandably: this sometimes is a cause for concern even to this day.

So imagine back in 1967.

One thing that may be surprising (at least it was to me), is that the family’s friend, Monsignor Mike Ryan, has absolutely no objections to the union. Given that, in this day and age, religion and bigotry seem to intermingle, it was refreshing to see this perspective.

To me, this seems like the “Christian” way: love, not hate.

(Call me naïve, if you must.)

The cast is truly amazing.

Sidney Poitier injects grace, making John as pristine as he needs to be. Katharine Houghton is lovely as Joanna and perfectly believable as an idealist. Katharine Hepburn brings strength and warmth to Mrs. Drayton and Spencer Tracy is gruff and sharp as Mr. Drayton.

The supporting players are also quite good, but it’s the dynamic between these four players that hold the picture aloft. Unsurprisingly, most were nominated for awards for their performances: Poitier, Hepburn and Tracy were already Academy Award winners.

The picture itself would end up being nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning two of them (including Best Writing (Original Screenplay)), and was a massive hit at the box office – even in Southern States, where it was initially thought that it held no chance.

It’s powerful stuff.

‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ remains potent to this day; it’s articulate and convincing about its views on race and relationships. Sure, it paints in broad strokes, but that’s a product of its time: it just couldn’t be nuanced in 1967; it had to be bold and clear.

It had to be black and white.

Date of viewing: September 19, 2017

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