I had a chance to attend a screening of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner today, and I was very pleased that I did. I had never seen the film before, but I found it a fascinating look at the time.
Clearly, race relations remain at the heart of many of the problems we face as a society and it is vital that we face them head on and face them with honesty and respectfulness. This film should be a cornerstone of that respect.
I truly enjoyed the movie. A young white girl named Joey (Katharine Houghton) returned to her parents, Matt (Spencer Tracy) and Christina (Katharine Hepburn) Drayton, with her brand new fiance, Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier). They had fallen in love on a trip to Hawaii and the whirlwind romance led them back to Joey’s parents’ door. The issue? John was black.
The Draytons were a liberal couple, raising Joey to believe color of skin was not important in the value of a human, and Joey was sure that they would have no trouble with her marrying a black man. John was not as certain.
One of my favorite parts of this film was how human it was. It did not make the Draytons racists. On the contrary, they were reasonable, friendly and truly believed in the equality of the races. You could see how much respect they had had for John and all the wonderful things he had accomplished as a doctor worldwide. And yet, the thoughts of the dangers and troubles that their daughter would face in a mixed race marriage caused even these progressive thinking people to take pause. I liked how they approached this plot point.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner would become the final appearance on screen for Spencer Tracy as Matt Drayton. Tracy passed away not too long after the finish of the filing of the movie. His performance is so great, as he embodied the struggle of his beliefs against his fears. His longtime scene mate, Katharine Hepburn was beautiful throughout the entire film, with her tears just slightly hanging within her eyes. You could tell how much of a connection these two actors had after years of working together.
Sidney Poitier also turned in a wonderful performance as Dr. Prentice. You could see on his face how uncertain he felt when broaching the subject with Joey’s parents and how he felt when trying to avoid telling his own parents. His strength of character really played through the film, making the struggle all the more challenging for Matt.
There were several other fun performances from secondary characters. Isabel Sandford (from the Jeffersons fame) played housekeeper Tillie with all the sassy you would expect. Cecil Kellaway received an Oscar nomination for his role as family friend and priest, Monsignor Ryan, who provided a neutral voice among the emotions. Virginia Christine played the closet racist Hillary St. George. Her firing by Christina was a highlight of the story.
At its time, this movie was very controversial, with the topic of interracial marriage being a hot one. A few months after the movie finished shooting, the United States Supreme Court ruled the laws against interracial marriage as unconstitutional, making a line of dialogue about John and Joey being criminals in some states out of date.
Tracy and Hepburn together one final time made this film all the more powerful. It was a real enjoyable film that I am glad to have had a chance to see.