Coming home to break the big news of an engagement is stressful enough, but in Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, an emerging social issue was tossed in: interracial marriage. John (Sidney Poitier) and Joey (Katharine Houghton) hope that the fact that she is white and he is black won’t be a big deal. As they make their way from the airport, we see that it’s John who is more worried about how Joey’s parents will react to their racial differences. Joey, young, naive and bubbly, thinks her parents will be fine with it. After all, they have raised her to be this liberal and accepting.
It turns out, that this idea was better accepted in theory than in practice. Joey’s mother Christina (Katharine Hepburn) is so excited for her daughter, until she actually gets a look at John. The shot of her face dropping from happiness to shock is priceless. When Joey’s father, Matt (Spencer Tracy) comes home, it takes him a moment to realize just what the situation is. This is his daughter and only child, crushing her love won’t be easy, but when John tells Matt, in confidence from Joey, that he will not marry Joey without his approval, the decision carries even more weight.
As if things were not crazy enough, Joey tells John to invite his own parents over for dinner. They don’t know that Joey is white and her parents weren’t expecting more guests. For Tillie (Isabell Sanford), the family’s maid, who also happens to be black and doesn’t approve of John and Joey’s relationship, this is just more work and more racial tensions. It’s obvious from the start that John doesn’t know how to talk to Tillie, but she’s not afraid to share her low opinion of him.
The best chemistry here, perhaps the best in film history, is between Tracy and Hepburn. As the aging liberal parents coming face to face with their ideals, they are both gob smacked and confused. While Christina is slowly being swept up in her daughter’s happiness of new-found love, Matt is looking at the cold facts of their society. The pressure is on him to decide whether or not to approve of their marriage and he knows the huge obstacles the two will face for the rest of their lives. What brings him to his final decision is remembering how it was to first fall in love with Christina. A Tracy/Hepburn film never disappoints, and their final performance together, finished just months beforeTracy’s death is one of the most weighty and poignant of their careers.
Today interracial marriages are much more accepted than they were in 1967. In recent years, the story has been flipped where the man was white and meeting the girl’s black family. Unfortunately, 2005’s Guess Who just latched itself to tasteless stereotypes, making Ashton Kutcher a white-boy fish out of water. Unless you’re into mediocrity, skip that and stay with the original classic. But I wonder it it’s only a matter of time before this film is revamped for a homosexual couple. It could be a great modern interpretation, or just another shameless remake with offensive gay jokes. I think time will tell.
“I don’t think I’m going to faint, but I’ll sit down anyway.”
I have always wondered if the liberal Hollywood establishment realized how absolutely out of touch they were with the release of this film. While I agree with you about the chemistry between Hepburn and Tracy, the rest of the film was silly (except for the great performance by Beah Richards). What I’m sure they expected to make a profound statement at the time, was, in fact, ridiculed and mocked by the twenty-something movie-going age group I knew as typical limousine-liberal feel-good BS and was abandoned in droves for the much more profound and important THE GRADUATE.
I always thought the real issue here was the fact that the couple was getting married after knowing each other for only such a short time (I think it was a week?).
Well that doesn’t help the couple in convincing their parents, but race is supposed to be the real issue.
I’ve read that the Tracy/Hepburn pairing was not planned. They really wanted Tracy for the film, but he didn’t want to do it because of his health. So, they (I forget who exactly) went to Hepburn to get her help in winning him over. She thought it would be good for him to take the part, so she said (more or less), “Spencer, you should do it, it will be great, and I will play your wife.”
He said yes, and so she got the part of the wife, which had not been offered to her. She just made that happen herself, knowing that was the thing that would get Tracy to say yes.