February 18, 2015

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)
Grade: 52/100

Director: Stanley Kramer
Stars: Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn

What it's about. Spencer Tracy, publisher of a liberal newspaper, and Katharine Hepburn, owner of a successful art gallery, are a wealthy married couple in San Francisco. Their grown daughter, Katharine Houghton, returns home from a vacation in Hawaii with a surprise fiancé: accomplished black doctor Sidney Poitier.

The couple face opposition from all sides. There are snarky racists such as Hepburn's assistant Hilary (Virginia Christine), open hostility from overprotective family maid Tillie (Isabel Sanford, the future Mrs. Jefferson), and stoic defiance from their respective fathers. Tracy and Poitier's dad Roy Glenn believe in racial equality but don't want to see their children obliged to counter prejudice on a daily basis.

How others will see it. Spencer Tracy, who had been in declining health for several years, died before the film was released. This generated considerable good will for his final movie, and its liberal theme of racial tolerance was finally ready for consensus acceptance.

Favored by star power, a popular theme, a happy romantic ending, a deceased lead, and positive reviews, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was the third-biggest box office success of the year, trailing only a comedy, The Graduate, and the Disney cartoon The Jungle Book. Ten Oscar nominations further helped matters, including nods in all four combinations of acting categories (leading and supporting actor and actress).

It was little surprise that Tracy and Hepburn were nominated in the last of their many classics made together. Hepburn's win was a surprise, though, since her previous Oscar was a third of a century before. Cecil Kellaway's nomination as the affable and plain-spoken priest was unexpected, and so was Beah Richards' nomination, especially given her small role. It shows how much race was on the minds of Academy members, in a year when the Best Film winner was Poitier's In the Heat of the Night.

Time has not quite made of the themes of the movie passé. Many white parents today would hardly relish the prospect of having black grandchildren. At imdb, the movie has a fairly high 25K user votes. Its lofty 7.8 user rating is consistent across all demographics, although a slight spread opens up over age 45, where the grades from men (7.7) trail those from women (8.2 out of 10).

How I felt about it. Perhaps the film should have been titled, Guess Who's Boring All Dinner. We must endure a vast amount of dialogue, all of which leads to the inevitable and obvious conclusion: that the wealthy white hottie should marry the cool black doctor before he gets away. Even if the actor playing the doctor is eighteen years older than the actress playing the hottie, thus old enough to be her father.

The age difference is between Houghton and Spencer is dramatic. The craggy veteran actor, a few weeks from death, was 45 years older than Houghton, more than enough for him to be her grandfather.

The solution, then, is to cast an actress older than Houghton. Someone about 35 years old. This would allow the three A-list actors (Hepburn, Tracy, and Poitier) to remain credible in their relationships with her. It would also make the fortnight romance with Poitier seem less frivolous. Yet another advantage would be the replacement of Houghton with a better and more experienced actress.

Producer and director Stanley Kramer selected Houghton, apparently, because she was Hepburn's niece. Hepburn was vital for the project as Tracy's caretaker, and she allowed her salary placed into an escrow account with payment only if Tracy could complete the production. It was Houghton's only feature film prior to Garden of Death (1974), a bad low budget Indie horror movie.

It is inevitable, all along, that Tracy will agree to the marriage. His resistance exists solely to build drama for his big final reel speech, similar to his star turn and resolution in Judgment at Nuremberg. The senior Mr. Prentice never comes around, and neither does Isabel Sanford, but they shut their traps because that is what the script compels them to do.

It is curious that Tillie's incredible rudeness toward Poitier is tolerated by the Draytons, when Hilary is sacked merely for her far less provocative behavior. Since Hilary is unlikely to see the happy couple again, the purpose of Hepburn firing her (albeit with a half year's severance) is to make yet another point about how awful racism is.

Cecil Kellaway's priest is a charming but facile character, intended to sanction the interracial marriage instead of investigating it. If Poitier is a celebrated doctor, so be it. It is as if the potential incompatibility between a couple that have just met, live in different cultures, and are substantially separated in age, should be brushed aside simply to endorse the concept of miscegenation.

The real problem the film has, though, is that it only pretends to confront racism. Racism has a legacy. Impoverished black children lack the opportunities given to the spoiled children of wealthy white families. Such black children don't grow up to become Sidney Poitier, who after all was raised in the Bahamas. Even Barack Obama had a white mother and was brought up by his middle class white grandmother.

How would Hepburn react if young Houghton announced her intention to marry a black factory worker whom she had just met? That is the question that this film won't address.