Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) dir. Stanley Kramer
Starring: Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, Katherine Houghton
The most acclaimed film of the new Sony Pictures’ Stanley Kramer Collection is the celebrated “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” - the story of an interracial couple who come home to announce their relationship to their parents. The film was nominated for multiple Oscars and winning two for Hepburn and writer William Rose. It was my first time watching the film and I was surprised by the deft writing and nuanced performances of the leads. I had pre-conceptions of the film as a heavy-handed statement of race relations, but the film avoids the blunt characterizations I expected.
Sidney Poitier shines as the charming doctor John Wade Prentice who approaches the meeting of their respective families with careful trepidation. The most important moments of the film are the opening 20 mins where he meets Joey’s mother Christina and father Matt for the first time. Every look, gesture and line is carefully thought out so as not to offend. But it's impossible to avoid Christina's initial shock of seeing her daughter's new boyfriend. Hepburn, who plays Christina, doesn't give us conflict for conflict's sake,. She is not confrontational, instead reserved and polite, which fits her character. Poitier plays the scene like an intelligent 37 year old mature adult would. Houghton, as the much younger Joey, plays the scene as a 23 year old girl in puppy love. The dynamic of these three characters in this scene is a marvel of intelligent acting. The over-the-top objections from Tillie, the black female caretaker, is unfortunately the weak spot in the dynamic.
The first half of the film is a four-hander as Matt (Spencer Tracy) and Christina wrestle with not only the shock of her daughter's new relationship, but the fact they want their approval for marriage. It's all too much to take for Matt, who is welcoming of John, but soon changes his mind when he realizes the difficulties Joey and her prospective children will have in the still heavily-racist society.
The third act brings in Dr. Prentice's parents in from Los Angeles for a dinner party. Unfortunately the additional characters don't change the dynamic and the film continues to sail along the same path as the first half. The film builds to a lengthy speech from Tracy who expounds on the situation and his personal ethics. It's like the closing arguments of trial (and Kramer's other classics with Tracy "Inherit the Wind" or "Judgment at Nuremburg"), but nothing is revealed that we didn't see coming the entire film.
"Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" is an important film which hasn't dated much since 1967. The issues are still relevent today - for any kind of discrimination. I think we can all relate to the characters and circumstances of the film. And at the very least, it features three of the great actors of our time - specifically Sidney Poitier who is in top form. Enjoy.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment will be releasing a Stanley Kramer Collection - a fine box set of Kramer classics, which includes, "The Wild One", "Ship of Fools" and others. This is the first of a series of Kramer reviews. Enjoy.