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Film Review: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967; Directed by Stanley Kramer)

This film’s revolutionary social issue impact has faded, and the once-shocking nature of its powerful central idea had slid into mainstream acceptance (though not nearly as much as people might think). Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner can fall to pat sermonizing when it’s not paying close enough attention, and it isn’t nearly as progressive on the issue of class as it is on race. Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton also seem at least a little unbelievable as an interracial couple dining together with the latter’s wealthy white parents for the first time, and not due to racial difference, either. Rather, Poitier is painted as a secular saint while Houghton, pretty and vivacious and well-bred as she is, is frivolous and a bit annoying. A nicely cleaned-up African-American doctor is not nearly as difficult for white audiences to come around to as an individual closer to the much more common street-level experience of Black America. That the film’s baby-steps approach to fostering tolerance of interracial couples was so controversial reveals more about 1960s American social norms than it does about the film itself.

The element that prevents Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner from becoming a mere liberal-Hollywood period curio is the strength of the writing (when it isn’t hopelessly ham-handed, which is sometimes is) and the unwavering commitment of the performances, especially those by industry vets and legends Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn (in their seventh onscreen collaboration) as the progressive but still doubting parents who must be won over by their daughter and her African-American lover.

Tracy was acting in his final film (he died 17 days after the end of filming) and perhaps he knew it. The final jewel in his acting crown, it’s an impeccable one. The film could conceivably be criticized for making Christina’s parents persuadable, reasonable progressives, but this is hardly the easy way out. Tracy’s august newspaper publisher is the personification of rooted liberal social concern, having spent his career campaigning in his paper’s pages for precisely the social advances that make it possible for his daughter to be with anyone she wants, and yet is ultimately the stubbornest hold-out when it comes to personal acceptance of this new order. Tracy is rumpled and conflicted for complex reasons that he only barely lets us in on, but emerges finally as valiant and true. It’s as open and human a performance as I’ve ever seen; truly wonderful.

The incomparable Hepburn, meanwhile, though as always not given nearly enough material to sink her teeth into, manages to be touching as well. That said, her real highlight is the cold bitch of a scene in which she summarily fires an employee and friend who disapproves of Poitier’s character purely on the basis of race. In a movie that is otherwise almost uniformly fuzzy, Hepburn briefly flashes some teeth, and it’s an absolutely rousing moment in the midst of a gentle argument for a more tolerant society, one family dinner at a time.

Categories: Film, Reviews

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