HOLLYWOOD—With the Academy Awards inching closer, I always find myself taking a moment to experience cinematic gems that are far beyond my years. I’ve come to appreciate more and more each day, just how powerful, riveting and important films of 1960s truly were. In some odd way, I almost feel as if many of the flicks that were released in the 60s were game changers in not just the cinematic universe, but society. So many of those films tackled subject matter that was considered taboo or swept under the rug in everyday life during a tumultuous time frame in American history.
So imagine the coincidence that I finally took a moment to watch the film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” starring screen icons Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier. Yes, it was a movie I heard about in the past, but I always looked at it as comedy, but that really is not the case at all. Hepburn and Tracy star as Matt and Christina Drayton, two wealthy liberals who are confronted with their own inner issues about race. When their daughter Joanna (Kathrine Houghton), comes home and informs her parents that she is engaged to John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), who happens to be Black, leaves the parents speechless.
Now, understand America this is a film that was released during a time frame in American history where interracial relationships were frowned upon, and worst in many states it was illegal. This was transpiring when the vital Supreme Court case involving Loving v. Virginia ruled that it was legal for couples of different races to marry. It was a touchy subject, but seeing Hollywood tackle such a tale, especially in a year where Poitier recently starred in the racially motivated drama “In the Heat of the Night” showed tremendous guts. Yes, 1967 was a huge year when it comes to race relations for the country in the cinematic universe.
So the great element to “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is comedy is sprinkled into the mix to ensure the subject matter isn’t too heavy for audiences. There are these legendary and iconic moments in my opinion where Tracy and Hepburn are sensational at conveying their uncertainty with their daughter’s situation. They are not happy that she is engaged at such a young age, and on top of that they are not happy that she is engaged to a Black man.
Joanna’s parents are concerned with the perception that their friends will have with the news, and even worried more about how the public will react to the situation. It’s a harsh truth, but an important one: America is not accepting of things that go against the norm and even in 2018 we still see interracial marriage and relationships, while more welcome today, they are still frowned upon by many. One of the most riveting things about this flick which is helmed by Stanley Kramer, with a script by William Rose is not shying away from the awkwardness and conversations the parents have with their children. Matt is headstrong about his opinion, while Christina warms up to the idea the more she talks to her daughter and the more she gets to know John.
I thought the polarizing aspect was seeing the reaction from John’s parents Mary (Beah Richards) and John (Roy E. Glenn) about his son marrying a white woman. The mothers of both children are concerned about their kid’s wellbeing, but open to the marriage because they can see the love between the couple. Richards gives a convincing performance when she has that conversation with Hepburn’s character, and then soon after has a heart-to-heart with Tracy’s character that just fascinated me with the raw emotion the character emits. The same sentiment is echoed for Hepburn who is sensational in the role. The way this woman can tug at your heart with just her facial expressions is a testament to fine acting, and fully explains why she is the ONLY ACTOR with a total of 4 Academy Awards.
That simmering final scene of the flick where Tracy delivers that roaring speech about acceptance and coming to grips with John and Joanna’s relationship, should have heralded him the Academy Award. Yes, he had tough competition that year; Rod Steiger’s performance for “In the Heat of the Night” is much showier compared to Tracy’s. Tracy’s ability to deliver a composed, multi-layered and sophistication to the character as the film progressed just fascinated me to the core. It’s a slow burn, but one that is so riveting to watch if you ask me. I’m still appalled that Poitier was overlooked not only for his performance “In the Heat of the Night,” but also for his performance in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Man, that scene with Poitier and Glenn, where he confronts his father about his fears left me with chills. I could watch that scene over and over and over again and not get tired from it. That is a testament to some fine and sensational acting.
I honestly think “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” should be a film that is showcased more in film courses because it presents an important lesson to aspiring filmmakers: there is a way to tackle very tough subject matters, without the content being in your face, but at the same time not sugarcoating the issue at hand. We see the good, the bad and the somewhat ugly. Yes, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is nothing compared to the recent film “Loving” which chronicled the blatant racism a real-life interracial couple experienced in America at a time where it was illegal, but it finds a way to present a slice of a story, while fictional, it still has an impact on most Americans. If you want to see a film with stellar acting from some of the greatest to ever grace the screen look no further than “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” There was a reason it was nominated for Best Picture, and I know understand why.