Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: Oscar Nominated Dramedy Starring Tracy, Hepburn and Poitier

In the late 1960s, all of a sudden, black was not only beautiful, but also good business at the box-office.

In 1967, the Academy showered both Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night with multiple nominations and Oscars. Both pictures aimed at younger film audiences, and both were stronger in ideas than in artistic execution, which is the reason why neither, particularly Guess, holds up well.

Unlike Mime Nichols’ winningly exuberant comedy “The Graduate,” which was also nominated in 1967, “Guess Who’s Coming” was flawed, but it was billed as Hollywood’s first film about interracial marriage (so much for progress!).

William Rose Oscar-winning screenplay tells the story of a liberal couple (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn), he a publisher and she an art gallery owner, whose value system is challenged when their only daughter (Katharine Houghton) announces one day her intention to marry a famous black surgeon (Sidney Poitier).

Set in San Francisco, the film begins as a drawing-room comedy, but then deteriorates into a heavy-handed and verbose message film, with speeches and counter-speeches. It was a timely, if compromised, film about race and racism and the generation gap, and the built-in liberal stance of the parents, resulting in the all-American believe of his young love can conquer it all.

Although the couples future problems are acknowledged, its more about the meaning of love, as expressed by the two mothers. The objection to the pettiness of the race issue pre-guaranteed a happy resolution. The extraordinary character of the black man represents the quintessentially respectable, unthreatening black man

Christina and Matt Drayton are liberal, socially prominent parents: She operates an avant-garde art gallery; he is a publisher. Spencer Tracy as a fighting newspaper publisher (a photo of Franklin Roosevelt is placed firmly on his desk). Playing an aging liberal was the perfect last role for Tracy, who died at the end of production. Had Tracy lived, he probably would have been awarded the Oscar, which is seldom awarded posthumously, a fact of business reality stemming from an unwritten proposition that a dead man can be of no future assistance at the box office

Playing a loving wife and mother for the first time on screen, Hepburn’s Christina accuses Tracy’s Matt of no longer remembering what it is like to be in love: If what they (Houghton and Poitier) feel for each other is even half what we felt, then that is everything. In the film, Hepburn sums up the liberal attitude in a confrontation with her close friend and business partner (Virginia Christine) whom she discovers to be a bigot, and finally tells her to pack her belongings at the gallery and get out

Their liberal persuasions are put to the test, though Poitier is an ideal choice: An internationally respected specialist in his field (medicine), impeccably mannered, handsome, well-dressed, and a descendant of a respectable California family. What more could a mother want for her child The resolution is so readily apparent that our racist attitudes arent really challenged. Of course, our daughters could marry nice black doctors like Poitier.

Here and there we get suspicious looks from a taxi cab driver, when the young couple returns from a Hawaiian vacation, and it’s hard not to notice that they are never seen in an erotic position, not even overt kiss on the lips.

According to historian Donald Boggle: “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a “pure 1949 claptrap done up in 1940s high-gloss MGM style. “By concentrating on nice decent people entangled in personal heartaches, director Kramer diverted the audience from any real issue.” Even in 1967, at the junction of a decade’s idealism and anarchy called, people knew “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was mush. The only way to deal with such “real” material (taboo) was to cocoon it in unreality. The picture doesn’t even deserve points for its shameless naivetee, since it was all too calculated.