GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER, once you take away its assorted contexts, is simply a dated, mildly interesting comedy-drama, notable chiefly for its three iconic stars and mostly distinguished by a climactic speech, beautifully delivered by Spencer Tracy.
“Old- yes. Burned-out- certainly, but I can tell you the memories are still there- clear, intact, indestructible, and they’ll be there if I live to be 110. Where John made his mistake I think was in attaching so much importance to what her mother and I might think… because in the final analysis it doesn’t matter a damn what we think. The only thing that matters is what they feel, and how much they feel, for each other. And if it’s half of what we felt- that’s everything.”
A worldwide take of $70,000,000 made it the 3rd biggest hit of the year, the biggest ever for a happy Columbia Studios, initially sweating bullets that their $4,000,000 investment would sink if the ailing, uninsurable Tracy could not finish the project. Nearly every review dutifully lists and chews over the same blathering that accompanied its 1967 release, basically regurgitating that it was a hit that should not have been, grudgingly acknowledging the charisma of its leads while sneering at the director and script, in effect dismissing the receptive audience as saps.
The 67-year-old Tracy did pass away, just two weeks after concluding his scenes, six months before the movie was released. That the man considered Old Hollywood’s finest actor went out with a heartfelt soliloquy of love to his equally legendary co-star and paramour Katherine Hepburn, and that co-star Sidney Poitier was on a career-high roll (To Sir With Love and In The Heat Of The Night both smashes that summer), showed it didn’t matter that “serious critics” (another way of saying “self-promoting windbags”) had scoffed that the film was safe, preachy and Establishment, a timid toe-in-water during the year of Bonnie And Clyde and The Graduate.*
Actually, screenwriter William Rose had been shopping the idea since 1958, an interracial love-story farce, first set in South Africa (gee, wonder why it wasn’t done there?), before eventually getting producer-director Stanley Kramer’s light bulb switched on. They’d had a giant success together with It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Kramer loved ‘Spence’ from their collaboration on ‘Mad’, Judgment At Nuremberg and Inherit The Wind (Tracy Oscar-nominated for the latter two). He’d long championed Poitier, who caught a huge break at age 31 from the director in 1958s The Defiant Ones, capturing the first Best Actor Oscar nomination for an African-American, and later starred in the Kramer-produced Pressure Point, a harsh 1962 drama also dealing with racism. Nine years after Poitier and Tony Curtis were chained together as convicts, maybe it was time to break chains and have Poitier, now 40, help unshackle another set of restraints. Hepburn came aboard for her ninth teaming with Tracy and the deal was cinched.
Sensibly updating and shifting the story from Cape Town to San Francisco, Rose & Kramer finessed the script so that Poitier’s ‘John Prentice’, wanting to marry Tracy & Hepburn’s daughter, was such a noble, charming and inoffensive character, loaded with deeds and plaudits, that only his race would be an issue. That would then spotlight the idiotic miscegenation divide that still made interracial marriage criminal in 17 of the 50 United States (until the very summer the film went before the cameras). Musing “What a sorry sight to see a front-line liberal come face to face with all his principles right in his own house”, Kramer also saw the story as being a comment about age differences and class perceptions. In 1967 America, race relations were something usually seen as explosive or exploitative, occasionally comical, not as anything reached by a compromise as translucent as love. Nodding politely at a bus stop was one thing. “Waking up in the same bed! What will the O’Connell’s think? We have to live here, you know!”
“You don’t even know what I am, Dad, you don’t know who I am. You don’t know how I feel, what I think. And if I tried to explain it the rest of your life you will never understand. You are 30 years older than I am. You and your whole lousy generation believes the way it was for you is the way it’s got to be. And not until your whole generation has lain down and died will the dead weight of you be off our backs! You understand, you’ve got to get off my back! Dad… Dad, you’re my father. I’m your son. I love you. I always have and I always will. But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.”
While the direction is stodgy and the tone formulaic and deck-stacked, the acting, as expected with that cast, is faultless. The 108 minutes move along competently, certainly not clunky enough to deserve the whiplash it got from the Kael crowd, ego-bent to demolish Kramer and other respected industry bigwigs.
Poitier: “Kramer made people look at the issue for the first time. . . He treated the theme with humor, but so delicately, so humanly, so lovingly that he made everyone look at the question for the very first time in film history!”
Granted, but it was also nowhere close to award quality. When the Oscars arrived, the Academy went nuts, bestowing ten nominations: Best Picture, Actor (Tracy), Actress (Hepburn), Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Cecil Kellaway), Art Direction, Film Editing and Music Score. Hepburn and the Script took home the trophies.**
With Katherine Houghton (Hepburn’s niece), Beah Richards, Roy Glenn, Isabel Sanford and Virginia Christine.
* While ’67 unleashed Bonnie And Clyde, The Graduate, Cool Hand Luke, In Cold Blood and The Dirty Dozen, those tart splashes of fresh juice had to contend with stale buckets of straw like Doctor Doolittle, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Camelot, Clambake, Eight On The Lamb and The Way West. “Fighting-in-the-street-boy…”
** It was hardly worthy of any of those nominations, let alone the two wins. Hepburn, 57, was solid as always, and her rapport with Tracy shines affection, but the role was in the main bland: she was out-gunned by fellow nominees—newcomer Faye Dunaway, who burned through the screen in Bonnie And Clyde, and Anne Bancroft, cynically scorching sheets in The Graduate. The other Hepburn, Audrey, was also on the list, for Wait Until Dark, when she should have been up for Two For The Road, which lost the Script trophy to this film. Tracy’s monologue at the end is heartfelt and touching, but his posthumous inclusion with the other nominees that year was done out of sympathy and respect more than justification. Kramer’s roster bid for direction shut out the un-nominated Robert Aldrich’s superior handling of The Dirty Dozen.