Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
(SPOILERS) The Best Picture Oscar nominee of 1967 dealing with racial tensions and starring Sidney Poitier that didn’t win, but had enough impact on the cultural lexicon that its title has taken on meaning beyond the film itself (and indeed, informed the recent Get Out). Most conversations regarding Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? are compelled to address that it hasn’t aged all that well, which in many respects it hasn’t, but it’s debatable that it appeared especially boundary pushing at the time; compared to fellow nominees Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, it seems like the product of a different era.
The same era that gave us The Defiant Ones, even. Which would be no coincidence, as both were directed by Stanley Kramer, renowned for his message films (even It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, beneath all that variably comic bloat, is about unfettered greed). That “old” style, the scrupulously palatable and audience-friendly approach, might be why Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? reputedly went down well even in Southern states. Still, it’s also notable that this was Kramer’s last big hit; the “New Hollywood” era ushering itself in didn’t need to lead its audience by the nose; one might even suggest Kramer’s was the antithesis of its approach. But in this crossover year, The Graduate, made by a director two decades younger, was the zeitgeist-capturing picture and the biggest hit of 1967. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? was squarely – in character especially so – for those having difficulty with that zeitgeist and came third. The Jungle Book, in between, was arguably disinterested in either yet now seems hipper than both.
Besides capping a banner year for Poitier (following In the Heat of the Night and To Sir, With Love), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? is also celebrated as Spencer Tracy’s final role (he died two weeks after completing work) and for beginning something of a career renaissance for his wife and co-star Katherine Hepburn. She won the Best Actress Oscar, “the first person to win because her co-star died” as one reporter cynically read it; Hepburn sent the Academy a message of thanks that “It is gratifying to find someone else voted for me apart from myself”. Certainly, her watery-eyed performance is awash with sincerity, but you’d hardly compare to it to (say) Anne Bancroft’s nomination for Mrs Robinson.
Tracy and Hepburn’s Matt and Christina Drayton personify a brand of benign intolerance, liberals through and through but still shocked by the racial line their daughter (Katharine Houghton’s Joanna) is crossing in becoming engaged to a black man (Poitier’s John Prentice), an esteemed doctor with the World Health Organisation. Once the shock has worn off, Christina is defined by her sentimental attachment to the couple’s bond of true love (which Beah Richards, as John’s mother, naturally shares). Matt, in contrast, gets to vocalise fear for their safety and welfare as a reasoned objection to their being together, an attitude with which Mr Prentice (Roy E Glenn, Sr) concurs. It’s a shrewd move on Kramer’s part to have both families offering objections to the relationship, taking the glare off the spot beam unflatteringly illuminating Matt, but it adds to the smothering sensation of being so damn nice, well-mannered and inoffensive in tackling racism that is Kramer’s conceit and confection. The Los Angeles Times commented that “The nagging uneasiness is that the [racial] problem has not really been confronted or solved, but only patronized”.
Kramer was entirely unrepentant in making John unimpeachable – a stick commonly used to beat the film with, and one that leaves Poitier, despite being the focus of the film, with very little to gnaw on – but leaving that aside, a glaring consequence of focussing so singularly on his race is that nothing is made of the legitimate reasons for objecting to the union; that they’ve only just met each other, and even more that John is fourteen years older (the one that would ring alarm bells today; slightly off tangent but on the subject of age differences, Richards was only seven years older than Poitier and Glenn Sr thirteen). Mr Prentice is vocally approving with regard to the latter, on the grounds that men age better than women (about the most shocking moment in the movie actually comes at a later point, when John casually says “Shut up, man” to his dad).
And since Matt’s objection is characterised as a caveat of concern rather than deep prejudice, the barrier he’s ultimately required to overcome is a very cosmetic one. And, once he has done so, he’s imbued with the white man’s authority to deliver the moral lesson, instructing that there are “one hundred million people right here in this country who will be shocked and offended and appalled and the two of you will just have to ride that out, maybe every day for the rest of your lives”. The picture ends with Matt demonstrably on the side of right, promising to bring the reluctant Mr Prentice round to his point of view, which rather underlines the criticism Houghton made of the film that “It was a movie for white people” (as most Oscar-nominated fare addressing race has been). Oh, and Isabel Sanford’s maid Tilly isn’t on side either.
Mention of Houghton raises perhaps the picture’s most damning failing of in terms of characterisation. Again, this is, as Houghton reports it, an intentional one on Kramer’s part, but you can only make excuses so many times before it just ends up looking like bad, undernourished writing. Joanna is no more than a cypher, sweet and inclusive and unspoiled, “some vague symbol of “youth and loveliness and so on””. When Houghton objected, Kramer’s position was that she “didn’t understand the American public”, that it would be too threatening to have Joanna politicised. Whether or not Kramer was right to take such a cautious approach (from a commercial point of view), it undoubtedly leaves an empty, yawning space where Joanna’s personality should be. It doesn’t help that there’s zero chemistry between Poitier and Houghton, no inkling of why they’re attracted to each other. Add to the mix the traditional accompanying values involved – doubtless also mediated by Kramer – of the patriarch making the decisions – not just Matt and Mr Prentice, but also John in defining the terms of whether the marriage will go ahead – and you have a film looking nervously backwards as it moves tentatively forwards, the rest of the American New Wave poised to leave it in the dust.
In some respects, such qualities make Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? all the more interesting as a document of its era, but you can’t help wish it could have broken a sweat. The picture is laced with mostly feeble – but gentle – comedy quirkiness that persistently feels like the fumbling of an out-of-touch old guy on script duties (the ice cream excursion, the endearingly enraged maid) and toe-curling ideas of cool (although, at least Cecil Kellaway’s comedy Catholic clergyman, who is very inclusive, relaxed and tolerant and so entirely at variance with one’s expectation of a Monsignor, mentioning The Beatles is supposed to be out of touch). It’s your parents’ – if your parents were bringing you up in the '60s – idea of a progressive movie. But as Scott Holleran points out, it’s also a film where John optimistically defines himself simply as a man, in contrast to his father: “But you think of yourself as a coloured man”. Contrast this idealism in turn to an era where identity politics favour fragmentation.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? received ten Oscar nominations – along with Bonnie and Clyde, the most of any film that year – including a posthumous nod for Tracy. It won two, for Hepburn and William Rose’s original screenplay. It probably didn’t merit either, but let’s not forget this was a year when Doctor Dolittle managed to secure itself nine nominations. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? is not unlikeable, but it’s very slender, and Kramer’s kid gloves don’t lend it the most flattering of retrospective lustres.
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