Today, I have a daunting task before me: to discuss one of the greatest movies of all time, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Not only did this movie deal with a very tricky topic for the time it was made (interracial marriage), but it’s packed with some of the best performances the movies have ever seen by several of Hollywood’s most legendary stars. A movie like this could keep a film historian up nights as he or she analyzed it much more thoroughly and readably than I, a mere movie buff, ever could. But for what it’s worth, here lie my humble thoughts and ramblings about this classic, beautiful film.
First, as always, a quick summary for those of you who have yet to see this movie. I say “yet” because by the end of this entry, you had all better be on your way to the nearest video store (if you can still find a video store) to rent it. In “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn play Matt and Christina Drayton, a Californian couple with liberal views on racial equality. However, their beliefs are challenged when their daughter, Joey (played by Hepburn’s niece, Katherine Houghton), shocks them by bringing home her fiancé: John Prentice, an African American doctor (played by the wonderful Sidney Poitier). The movie takes place over the course of a single day as Matt and Christina wrestle with their convictions and weigh their daughter’s happiness against the hardships they know she will encounter as the wife of a black man in 1967. A kind-hearted priest, a suspicious African American housekeeper, and John’s parents join the cast and the debate as the day wears on. The ultimate question, of course, is whether or not Matt and Christina will give the union their blessing at the end of the day.
So much for the plot. Now that we’re all on the same page, I’d like to move on to the struggles of the individual characters. The first person to find out about Joey and John’s engagement is Joey’s mother, Christina. I have to take a brief moment here to gush about Katherine Hepburn and how spectacular she is in the role of Christina. It is by far one of her best performances (and one of her 4 Oscar winning performances). Her first reaction upon learning of her daughter’s intention to marry is barely contained shock. She tries bravely to smile through it as the young couple recount how they met and fell in love, and by the time they are done, she seems to have a handle on her emotions once again. In fact, she is the first to come around to the idea of her daughter’s marriage. She starts by being happy for Joey’s happiness (although still clearly a bit worried) and by the time the movie is halfway through, she is openly supporting the marriage and challenging the lingering doubts of those around her. Katherine Hepburn brings Christina to life with so much love, devotion, and sensibility (and of course, some of the trademark Hepburn fire) that by the end of the film, I would have sworn I actually knew her. I even saw my own mother’s worried face in some of her expressions.
The Drayton family employed an African American housekeeper/cook named Tillie. Tillie’s reaction to the news of the engagement was severe. There didn’t appear to be any internal struggle in her at all. Quite the contrary, she shouted her disapproval directly to John and begged Joey to think about what she was doing. When her concerns were dismissed, she satisfied herself with giving the couple (as well as John’s parents) disapproving looks and halfhearted grunts. At one point, she muttered to herself, “Civil rights is one thing. This here’s something else.” Her reaction surprised me a little. I don’t suppose I was expecting her to be happy about the whole thing, but her outright antagonism towards John and the engagement wasn’t something I was prepared for. Her main objection, as she said, was that she hated to see a member of her own race getting above himself. It was obvious she distrusted him, but equally obvious that her distrust arose out of a desire to protect Joey. Her motives were pure and born out of love for the family she served. And while it’s hard to condone her words and actions, that ultimately made her a likeable character.
Although they aren’t introduced until towards the end of the movie, John’s parents prove to be another obstacle in Joey and John’s road to happiness. In the evening, they fly up from Los Angeles to have dinner with the Drayton family. Upon disembarking the plane and seeing that their future daughter-in-law is white, their shock is evident. Mr. Prentice’s mouth hangs slightly open and Mrs. Prentice seems momentarily unable to speak. This makes for an awkward car ride to the Drayton house, especially when Mr. Prentice remarks that it would take him at least 8 hours to list all of his objections to the marriage. However, while he objects more vehemently and more obviously than either of Joey’s parents, it is also clear that his objections are not based on the fact that he is prejudiced against white people. Rather, he is concerned for their safety and happiness as a mixed race couple in the 1960’s. He fears for his future grandchildren and the troubles they will face. His motives, like Tillie’s, are rooted in love but when he opens his mouth to speak, anger, not love, is what comes out.
Mrs. Prentice ultimately reacts differently than her husband. At first, she is very quiet and says almost nothing, although she wears a pained look while listening to her husband express his disapproval. Later, while speaking with Christina, she admits that she is in favor of the marriage and it breaks her heart to know that her husband may try to come between the young lovers. She is worried, yes, perhaps just as much as he is. But she also sees how much they love each other and believes that their love can help them through their hardships.
John himself struggles with knowing that he will be making life difficult for the woman he loves, however unintentionally. Minutes after Joey announces that they plan to get married with or without her parents’ approval, John secretly takes Matt and Christina aside to assure them that he will do nothing unless they approve wholeheartedly. He knows life will be hard for Joey once they are married and if she has to suffer a falling out with her parents, it will ultimately be too much for her. He loves her and wants to marry her, but he struggles with the fear that she will be ostracized and unhappy. However, over the course of the day as he continues to wrestle with his decision, he begins to stand up for himself and his engagement more and more.
Finally, the award for the biggest internal struggle goes to Matt, Joey’s father. Upon first meeting John, Matt treats him no differently than he would treat any guest in his house. He smiles, shakes his hand warmly, and seems very interested in who he is and what he does. However, once Joey tells him about their engagement, his mood changes dramatically. Like his wife, he remains civil and smiles through their conversation for his daughter’s sake. But later, alone with Christina, his doubts and fears come pouring out. His disapproval also has nothing to do with who John is as a person, in fact, he admits aloud that John is a wonderful man. He even respects him. However, he is so wrapped up in thinking about his daughter’s future as the wife of a black man that he cannot be happy for her and he cannot give his approval without reservation as John requires. He paces around the house, fights with Christina, and weighs his desire to protect Joey against his reputation as a Civil Rights advocate. As the day goes on, he gets more and more flustered and agitated. He knows he can’t give his approval, no matter how much Christina and the priest (an old family friend) try to convince him otherwise. He knows his refusal to consent will break his daughter’s heart, but what can he do? It’s his duty as her father to protect her. How can he help but have reservations when he knows what lies ahead? His journey from shock to confusion to anger and refusal and finally to his ultimate decision is fascinating and heartbreaking to watch.
The only two people who have no struggle or hesitation whatsoever are Joey and the priest, Monsignor Ryan. John says lovingly of Joey that not only does she not care about the difference of their skin; she doesn’t seem to know there even is a difference. Throughout the whole movie, she is happy, bubbly, and excited: a bride planning her wedding to the man she loves. Similarly, Monsignor Ryan is nothing less than thrilled for them from the beginning. Upon hearing the news, he is the only one who is not shocked and he exhibits no hesitation when congratulating the two lovers. In fact, he is amazed to discover that Matt Drayton opposes the union. At one point, he says to a teary-eyed Christina, that some of the strongest marriages he knows are mixed race marriages. He goes on to say that he believes it has something to do with the extra effort and consideration it takes to deal with the prejudices such couples must face.
Before I start wrapping this up, I wanted to share one scene stealer in particular. I plan to do this in every entry. Although this movie was full of wonderful speeches and fantastic acting, my favorite scene stealer was an easy pick (that is, since I’m making it a rule not to give away endings, otherwise that would have been my pick). It’s a scene in which Christina’s busybody friend and employee, Hilary, comes by the house to gawk at Joey and John. In one of her finest moments, Katherine Hepburn tells her off in the most epic way possible and tells her to get permanently lost:
Now at this point, I would usually take a moment to discuss my thoughts on why this movie had the impact that it did when it came out. However, that answer is fairly obvious here. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” came out in 1967 in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. In many parts of the country, especially in the South, racism was still prevalent. In fact, at the time of the making of this movie, interracial marriage was still illegal in many states (although by the time the movie was actually released, this had changed a bit thanks to Loving v. Virginia). This movie dealt with a heavy, relevant topic and I’m sure it fueled dinner table discussions for months after its release. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was a risk, but it paid off – even in the South. This movie ended up winning 2 Academy Awards: Best Actress for Katherine Hepburn, and Best Writing.
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was also popular because it was Spencer Tracy’s last film. He died just 17 days after filming was completed and never got to see the finished product. In fact, during the making of the movie, his health was so poor that they were constantly working off of two scripts: one with Tracy and one without. Katherine Hepburn, his longtime love, would take him home when she deemed him too exhausted to continue filming for the day. This was the last of the Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy films, and everyone on set knew it. In the ending scene when Spencer Tracy delivers his speech on how true love endures through the years, Katherine Hepburn can be seen crying unscripted tears in the background. His death made “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” even more poignant than it already would have been.
Finally, as always, it’s time for me to offer my most humble opinion as to why this movie has stood the test of time. In this case, I believe it’s because no matter how far we’ve come in terms of racial equality, we can’t forget where we’ve been. This is still a struggle for many people; granted much less so than it was 50 years ago. Racism still exists today and interracial marriage still raises eyebrows. But it’s more than that. It seems that whenever we manage to move on from one form of bigotry, we just replace it with another. It will always be important to remind ourselves to see people as people. To see them as the individuals they are, without the labels and the bigotry. For that reason, and for many others, this movie continues to be relevant. I absolutely agree that it deserves a place on the AFI’s Top 100 list. No question whatsoever. And I can recommend it wholeheartedly. In fact, I would say that this is definitely a movie everyone should see. Now, go take care of that!