Appellate Judge Tom Becker rarely has to guess who is coming to dinner, but he often has to grapple with the question: What's wrapped in tin foil in the back of the freezer?
"He thinks the fact that he's a Negro and I'm not creates a serious
Stanley Kramer was known for his socially conscious films, often unflatteringly referred to as "message movies." As a producer and director (Kramer didn't always direct the films he produced), he was responsible for The Defiant Ones (which dealt with racism), On the Beach (nuclear war), and Judgment at Nuremberg (the Holocaust), among others. Kramer's films are generally regarded as well-acted but ponderous, with characters relaying the themes through long speeches.
In 1967, Kramer offered his take on race relations and interracial marriage with Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. He cast long-time friends Spencer Tracy (who'd worked with Kramer on three other films), Katharine Hepburn, and Sidney Poitier, who'd received acclaim and an Oscar nomination for The Defiant Ones.
Employing a lighter-than-usual touch (Dinner is, at its heart, a romantic comedy), Kramer found critical and commercial success. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was one of the top grossing films of its year, and it received 10 Academy Award nominations, with Hepburn and writer William Rose winning Oscars.
Now, Sony gives us a great 40th anniversary release of this classic.
Facts of the Case
Newspaper publisher Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy, Inherit the Wind) and his wife, art gallery owner Christina (Katharine Hepburn, The Lion in Winter), wear their liberal credentials on their well-appointed sleeves.
Nonetheless, they are stunned when their daughter, Joanna (Katharine Houghton), arrives home from a trip to Hawaii with a man in tow: Dr. John Wade Prentice (Sidney Poitier, Lilies of the Field). Dr. Prentice is no ordinary doctor. An expert in his field, he is about to fly to Geneva to make a presentation to the World Health Organization, then to Africa, where he is bringing modern medicine to the villages.
He's also tall, good-looking, sensitive, articulate…and black.
Joanna wants to marry him, and she's here to get her parents' approval.
Unbeknownst to her, John speaks to them and informs them he will not marry their daughter without their approval.
Christina is ready to bestow her blessing, but Matt's not too sure. He knows that America in 1967 isn't ready to embrace interracial couples, that there will be huge obstacles for John and Joanna and the children they plan to have.
But Matt doesn't have a lot of time to think it over. John's plane is leaving that night, and Joanna is planning to go with him.
Can the Draytons walk the tolerance walk after talking the tolerance talk for most of their lives?
1967 was a time of transition in the country and in Hollywood. It was the year of The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde and In Cold Blood and that year's Best Picture Oscar winner, In the Heat of the Night. It was the year that producers discovered that big musicals were not guaranteed money makers, as Doctor Doolittle and Camelot drew critical derision and few audiences. At the 1968 Academy Awards ceremony, black and white and color films vied for the same awards in the technical categories, and Edith Head did not receive a nomination for the first time since the costume category was created. ("Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of New Hollywood," by Mark Harris, is a book on the beginnings of "New Hollywood," framed by the Oscar nominees for 1967. It is being released on Feb. 14.)
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was "Old Hollywood" with a New Hollywood sensibility. It starred cinema royalty Tracy and Hepburn alongside 1967's number one box office draw, Sidney Poitier. It took a hot-button issue and spun it like a sitcom. Given the controversy caused by the use of profanity in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? just one year earlier, it's a little startling to note the number of times the characters in Dinner say "damn," "hell," "bitch," "son of a bitch," and "bastard." Somewhat more startling, though I suppose not for its time, is hearing blacks offhandedly referred to as "Negroes" and "colored"—the "n-word" gets thrown out once, but in a "comedic" speech by the Draytons' black maid, Tillie (Isabel Sanford, The Jeffersons), who doesn't appreciate "a member of my own race getting above himself."
Interestingly, the black characters—notably, Tillie and John's father (Roy Glenn, The Great White Hope)—seem to have more trouble with the relationship than the white characters (though one of Christina's friends expresses disapproval and is summarily dispatched). That these characters express genuine concerns based on their personal histories is one of the few areas in which Guess Who's Coming to Dinner doesn't feel artificial.
The rest of it is awfully obvious. If we didn't get that the Draytons are a politically liberal couple from their occupations and conversations, there's a large, framed photo of FDR on Matt's desk in his study. A long, uncomfortable sequence in which Matt and Christina go out for ice cream, with Matt ordering some heinous-looking boysenberry concoction, drives home the point that "the times they are a-changin'."
If there's any doubt that Matt Drayton is going to approve of this relationship, consider that the Poitier character is almost messianic, a combination Dag Hammarskjöld, Albert Schweitzer, Tom Dooley, Mother Theresa, and Gandhi. If there's anything unsuitable in the match, it's that the lovely Joanna seems not to bring much to the table other than an ability to be chipper and look good at the inevitable Nobel Prize ceremony.
Spencer Tracy was, arguably, one of the finest film actors of all time, a subtle, serious, natural actor who immersed himself in his characters. Because his performances were less idiosyncratic and personality-defined than contemporaries such as Cary Grant, James Stewart, and Humphrey Bogart, Tracy seems not to be remembered with the same kind of affection as those actors.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner does not present Tracy at the top of his game. He was ill during the production; famously, Kramer and Hepburn put up their salaries as collateral when the studio couldn't insure him. He was in his mid-60s when he made Dinner and playing the father of a 23-year-old, but he looks ancient here. In the early part of the film, he's asked to play a befuddled, doddering character; in the final third, Tracy takes command, and his final speech—almost irresponsibly long from writing standpoint—is deeply moving, a summation not only of the film, but of his relationship with Hepburn, and a fine valediction for his career. It's a lesson in what a great actor can do with material that is, frankly, a bit mediocre. Knowing that Tracy died less than three weeks after production wrapped adds a profound poignancy to all this.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner works because of its actors; while Houghton doesn't make much of an impression, the rest of the cast is outstanding. It's safe and amusing and comforting in that it reminds us how far we've come socially in the last few decades. It's not nearly as adventurous as most of the other "big" films released in 1967. Comparing Dinner with The Graduate gives us a kind of yin and yang of 1967 filmmaking sensibilities:
• The Graduate views the world as whole from the angst-ridden point-of-view of young people; Dinner takes a single, well-defined social issue and examines it through the eyes of "the establishment," the older (albeit enlightened) couple played by Tracy and Hepburn.
• The Graduate's soundtrack featured popular artists Simon and Garfunkle; Dinner gives us a traditional Hollywood score (by DeVol), down to a choral rendition of the theme, the doctor's office-worthy 1936 song, "The Glory of Love."
• The Graduate employed memorable, creative cinematography; Dinner has a rather bland look and employs some horrendous rear-projection footage whenever the characters are driving.
• The Graduate uses short bits of dialogue, images, and often wordless reactions to tell its story; Dinner makes its points through long speeches.
• The Graduate ends on a downbeat, ambiguous note; Dinner gives us a tidy, family-friendly wrap up.
Like so many classic films, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was given an earlier, indifferent release and is now being revisited. Props to Sony for once again giving us a "special" Special Edition.
I don't know how much work was done on the image, but it's reasonably clear and clean, if a bit flat. Since most of the film takes place indoors, the cinematography is not really a selling point. There were no specks or major distractions to be seen on the transfer. The audio is actually a three-channel mix, and the voices come through nice and strong in this dialogue-heavy film, never competing with the incidental music.
Where this package really shines is in the extras. Disc One houses the movie and some brief introductions from Steven Spielberg, Quincy Jones, Tom Brokaw, and Kramer's widow, Karen. The bulk of the extras are on Disc Two. First off is a featurette on the making of the film, "A Love Story of Today," which includes insights from Katharine Houghton, Norman Jewison, Lou Gossett Jr., and others involved with the production or commenting on its impact, as well as excerpts from interviews with Kramer. This piece does an excellent job of putting Guess Who's Coming to Dinner into historical context—while it seems remarkable now that this film was considered so controversial, Houghton claims she and Kramer received hate mail and death threats.
"A Special Kind of Love" focuses on Tracy and Hepburn, and how everyone involved in the film was affected by Tracy's determination to finish the film despite his illness. "Stanley Kramer: A Man's Search for Truth" is a tribute to the director, with input from a number of people who knew and worked with him or were influenced by him, including Dick van Dyke, Beau Bridges, Garry Marshall, Dennis Hopper, and Taylor Hackford.
Rounding out the set, we get archival footage of Kramer receiving the Irving Thalberg award at the 1962 Academy Awards ceremony; Al Gore receiving the Stanley Kramer Award from the Producers Guild in 2007; a stills gallery from the film; and previews for the Frank Capra Collection and God Grew Tired of Us.
It would be remiss not mention the participation of Karen Kramer, who executive produced the documentaries. A former actress (The Disorderly Orderly), the one-time Karen Sharpe has gone on to become keeper of the flame for her late husband's work, keeping his legacy alive for new generations of film viewers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The things that make Guess Who's Coming to Dinner seem so quaint and sappy in the 21st century are the very things that made it compelling viewing 40 years ago. While its oversimplified, prettied-up view of race relations and the easy path to brotherhood may have been too treacly for the sophisticated "big city" crowd even at the time, those same elements made it accessible for audiences who went to movies to be entertained first. It was edgy in a suburban way, a "movie-movie" with a message, and its high-gloss hokiness subversive in that it brought in people who might have shied away from a more hard-hitting take on the subject, such as the little seen 1964 indie, One Potato, Two Potato.
1967 was a great year for Sidney Poitier. He made three classic films: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and To Sir, With Love, though he failed to win an Oscar nomination for any of them (that was a very competitive year for actors: Tracy, Rod Steiger, Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, and Paul Newman, for Cool Hand Luke, were in the running). Sadly, '67 proved to be an end, of sorts, for Poitier. His elegant portrayals of a sophisticated black everyman fell out of favor as the '70s dawned and the popular, era-defining blaxploitation films took hold. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was his last appearance in a big-screen "prestige" film.
Stanley Kramer directed another half-dozen features, none especially memorable, before retiring in the late '70s. He died in 2001 at age 87.
After Tracy's death, Katharine Hepburn continued to make movies for many years, winning two more Oscars. Hepburn died in 2003 at age 96.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner may have lost much of its relevance, but it's well made and entertaining, and offers the chance to see three acting giants at work.
Not guilty. Sony has taken a pop-culture milestone and given us an edition that puts it in context without losing the fun.
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Scales of Justice
• Introductions by Steven Spielberg, Tom Brokaw, Quincy Jones, and Karen Kramer
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