CLASSIC REEL: 'Guess Who's Coming To Dinner'



Cast: Sir Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn,  Katherine Houghton, Cecil Kellaway and Isabel Sanford

Year of release: 1967

Directed by: Stanley Kramer

Plot: A liberal couple is forced to ponder just how liberal they are when their daughter brings home her fiance, an African-American man.

While this film tackled racism- and not just one side-, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner was also groundbreaking because of its bold tackling of interracial marriage and presenting it in a positive light; an issue considered illegal back then. Some real-life interracial couples, happy to say,  were able to overcome society's disapproval, yet it is very sad and painful that society cannot allow two people in love to be happy; all because of the colour of their skin. People really need to learn to show more love and an open heart or simply mind their own f*****g business.

The free-thinking and spirited 23-year-old Joanna 'Joey'  Drayton was played by Katherine Houghton, the real-life niece and namesake of Katherine Hepburn, who played her mother, Christina. Hepburn's longtime colleague and real-life partner, Spencer Tracy,  played Jo's father Matt, and Sir Sidney Poitier played the handsome 37-year-old Dr John Prentice. Stanley Kramer, who produced and directed this, was known for tackling real-life issues most studios avoided.

John is an assistant director with the WHO in Switzerland and a widower (having lost his wife and son 8 years prior in an accident) and he and Joey's courtship is actually a whirlwind one, as they've only known each other for 10 days after meeting in Hawaii.  But that is the least of both families' worries when they find out about their engagement and waste no time showing their disapproval, which also included the Houghtons'  African-American housekeeper Tillie (Future Emmy winner Isabel Sanford, renowned for  playing Louise 'Weezie' Jefferson in  All in the Family  and the spinoff The Jeffersons) the first person in the household to be introduced to John.  Finding John pretentious, she made this hurtful remark to Joey, 'If you want my opinion, I don't care to see to a member of my own race getting above himself,' much to Joey's dismay, as she didn't expect Tillie of all people to make such an objection.

'You know I've always loved you and you are just as black as he is. How could it possibly be alright for me to love you and wrong for me to love him?' was her reply.

Yeah... answer that,  Tillie. Dr King and others fought for civil rights, but how can there be unity if there is still a divide where people should 'know their place'?

Though she is polite,  Joey's mother Christina is obviously shocked by her prospective son-in-law when they are introduced by Joey. Joey is clearly a bold liberal who does not care what people think, but she has a rather naive, light-hearted stance about the matter.  John, on the other hand, is not as naive as Joey- he knows very well what they were in for in the face of a bigoted society- even though he puts a calm yet  firm front as he faces Christina and then Matt, who was initially slow to grasp the reason for John's visit to his house.



 But then again, Joey was raised by self-proclaimed liberals who taught her about racial equality; hence she saw John as a man, not a black man and felt that the only objection her parents would have about her marriage was that it was too soon.
Once they are alone in his study, Matt asked Christina: 'Did it ever occur to you this might happen?' At Christina's reply of 'no', Matt said, 'It never occurred to me either.'
Adding to their dilemma is John (sans Joey) informing them that while he loves Joey, he won't marry her if they objected to the marriage, not wishing to ruin their relationship with their daughter.
Christina reminded Matt  of what they taught Joey about equality, adding they never said to her, 'don't ever fall in love with a coloured man.'
Hence, with their present attitude, won't they look like hypocrites? And how would they face Joey if they objected to the marriage?

While Christina soon realises Joey's happiness was the important thing and impressed with John's accomplishments,   Matt still had reservations but at least made a good effort to get to know John better, seeing just how mature John was different from from the more optimistic Joey, both men frankly having a conversation about the matter. The family's old friend Monsignor Ryan (Cecil Kellaway), however, when he's introduced to John and is pleased that Joey has 'a handsome fellow', not at all shocked about their engagement.  'Any two people who love each other that much deserve the best luck in the world,' he said,  questioning Matt's liberalism when Matt still felt the marriage would not work because of their racial differences.
Hilary,  Christina's employee at the art gallery, wasted no time objecting to Joey's 'appalling decision' and Christina- Katherine Hepburn's performance in full form- wasted no time firing her ass for her racist attitude towards John.
'It's not that I don't want to know you, Hilary, although I don't, it's just that I'm afraid we're not really the sort of people that you can afford to be associated with,' leaving the silly woman speechless.
Matt's disapproval increases during an altercation with a young African-American who insults him; unfairly blaming John for allowing Joey to fall in love with him and unable to pretend he is happy about the situation. Yet, he faced losing Joey's love if he tells them they cannot marry.


Poiter's acting skills, impeccable as always- showed its teeth during his character's confrontation with his disapproving father, who arrives at the house with Mrs Prentice. His rant is low, cold and angry; eloquently uttered word for word- one of the reasons why Poiter earned himself the status of a leading man back in the day where most African American actors played criminals, slaves and servants.  Like Joey, he saw no colour difference between them and made it clear to Daddy where he stood in the matter,  emotionally telling his sweet-faced mother how being with Joey made him feel alive again after his tragic loss years back.


Veteran actor Spencer Tracy stole the show as a father forced to question his liberalism; impressed with a well-mannered man yet having reservations because of his race. Yet, he does not appear to be racist. Interracial marriage was not exactly a common thing at the time and those couples who embarked on it were considered criminals- as such marriage was illegal in 17 states in the U.S during the film's setting. If Matt's attitude is analysed more deeply, it's the objection of a very concerned father who is worried about the problems his daughter will face marrying a man of a different race. Or that, because of their difference in race, they were incompatible and may end up unhappy with each other. After a talk with Mrs Prentice, Matt presented his opinion and decision in one of the most memorable film speeches of all time.

Guess Who Is Coming To Dinner was not shy to address the main subjects of interracial marriage and racial divide and how what two people felt about each other was the most important thing. While modern viewers would cringe at the use of the words 'coloured man', 'nigger'-ironically it was Tillie who called John that- and 'negro', it is a heartfelt drama with a great cast, its social message further emphasised by its theme song,  The Glory of Love by Frank DeVol.



Trivia:

Guess Who Is Coming To Dinner was the ninth and final pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn.

During Tracy's memorable speech, Hepburn's eyes were filled with tears as she watched him. They were real tears because Tracy's health was very poor by then,  and had little time left. And sadly,  Spencer Tracy passed away 17 days after filming ended.


That same year, (6 months before the film's release) Richard and Mildred Loving won their case when the Supreme court of Virginia declared their marriage legal and abolished previous state laws that banned interracial marriage.




-Sir Sidney Poitier's real-life marriage is an interracial one, his second wife is retired actress Joanna Shimkus Poitier, who he married in 1976.







 -This was Isabel Sanford's and Katherine Houghton's film debut.

 -Katherine Hepburn won the Oscar for Best Actress and a BAFTA for Best Actress in a Leading Role and the film won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, Spencer Tracy posthumously winning the BAFTA for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

- Sir Sidney Poitier was previously in another one of  Stanley Kramer's films, The Defiant Ones, starring him and Tony Curtis.

 - A loose remake, Guess Who, came out in 2005; starring Ashton Kutcher (Simon) and  Zoe Salanda (Theresa), with the late Bernie Mac as Theresa's disapproving father.

-In The Jeffersons, starring Isabel Sanford (Tillie) and Sherman Hemsley, their characters are next-door neighbours to an interracial couple, Thomas (Frank Cover) and Helen (Roxie Roker, mother of Lenny Kravitz).

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