Wednesday, August 10, 2011

1967 - Guess Who's Coming To Dinner

The 39 Steps has opened and is as much fun as it is exhausting. My lovely wife Kat came to visit on the weekend to see the show and take in Naples' sights, which consist mainly of quaint places to eat. With a couple of days off before we head into our final week of shows - yes, it's a very short run - some of the cast and crew took to the local vineyards for some wine tasting yesterday. Let me just say that I'm glad we didn't have a show yesterday...

While Kat was here, we watched the first of the nominees from 1967's Best Picture race...

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner
Stanley Kramer
William Rose
Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn, Katharine Houghton, Cecil Kellaway, Beah Richards, Roy E. Glenn
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
2 wins, for Best Actress (Hepburn) and Best Original Screenplay

With an undoubtedly topical subject matter for 1967, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner takes place in the home of the Draytons, Matt (Tracy) and Christina (Hepburn), over the course of one principle-testing evening. Their sweet young daughter, Joey (Houghton), is excited to be bringing home the man she fell in love with while on a recent trip to Hawaii. The only thing is: he's black.

While Joey is oblivious to any potential problems, her new fiancé, John (Poitier), is a little more circumspect, aware that his new in-laws may be shocked by the interracial affair. He respectfully explains to Matt and Christina that, unless they wholeheartedly approve of his marrying their daughter, he will walk away, adding that he will need an answer before he flies to Europe after dinner. Christina is for the idea, but, despite his mostly liberal attitude, Matt has a few reservations. As if the time pressures weren't enough, Matt is also forced into the role of host when Joey spontaneously and naively invites John's parents (Richards & Glenn) over, despite John's desire to break the news to them himself.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is a very endearing film with very endearing characters. While I'm sure interracial marriage is still taboo in many areas, the issue is certainly not as shocking as it was over 40 years ago. Back then, I imagine the film may not have seemed so endearing, or at least, the endearing tone would have been offset somewhat by the story's tackling of the tough social issues of the day. Modern audiences, however, may even describe the film as quaint. Having said all that, it is still abundantly clear how serious the issue is to the characters within the film and the whole subject is dealt with delicately and earnestly.

Featuring such an abundance of dialogue, one would be forgiven for assuming the picture is an adaptation of a stage play. Not to mention that the action takes place predominantly in one location over the course of one evening. However, William Rose wrote the script directly for the screen, winning the Academy's Best Original Screenplay award in the process. His script is at times farcical, at times sentimental, but never too much of either. And while there is obviously a sincere message, Rose cleverly manages to maintain a lighthearted attitude, mostly through the creation of such lovable characters.

Indeed, the characters' lovableness must also be attributed to a cast who deliver some delightful performances, particularly by frequent co-stars Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn (pictured). As the doddering old father, Tracy is affable, even when he's harsh. This marked his final screen performance and he was deservedly Oscar-nominated for it. Hepburn picked up her second Best Actress Oscar for her sweet and moving portrayal of the respectful mother and voice of reason. Surprisingly left off the nomination list was Sidney Poitier (who also wasn't cited for his other significant role in the same year from In the Heat of the Night - perhaps these two performances split the vote). Nonetheless, he is charming and engaging as the impossibly honest fiancé. As the happy-go-lucky daughter, Katharine Houghton is a little cheesy, but I suppose her character is intended to be naive and cheerful. Nominated in the supporting categories were Cecil Kellaway, delivering an entertaining portrayal of the Draytons' clergyman friend and Beah Richards, turning in a strong and touching performance as John's mother.

Support Matt vs. the Academy and buy:
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner on DVD
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner on Instant Video

1 comment:

  1. First, a bit of trivia; this was the ninth and final film that Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn co-starred in. It was also the only time that their one-two billing was split. Sidney Poitier was billed between them. This was Poitier's premier year, with In the Heat of the Night and To Sir with Love also released in 1967. If he were nominated, my pick would be for In the Heat of the Night. His character in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was just too good to be true. He was so accomplished, it made me wonder what he actually saw in Joey. She was cute and cultured, but a bit of a bubblehead. I read that Poitier's character was purposely made so distinguished that any reluctance on the parents, part to give their blessing to the marriage must be based solely on skin color.

    I agree that this topic, quite controversial at the time, was handled with a light touch and entertainingly presented. I liked that there were quite a few scenes where different couples were paired off, giving each of the cast a chance to develop their characters and display their acting chops. Speaking of acting, Katherine Hepburn had some very strong scenes, like the one where she fires her gallery manager. You have to think though that those glassy eyes as she watched Tracy give his big speech at the end, was something beyond acting. It's as if she knew she was watching him give his final scene. Tracy, for his part, carried it off impeccably.

    Did you notice Mel's Drive-In? Lucas would use it as the focal point six year's later in American Graffiti. One other observation. It seems that nearly every contemporary film in the last half of the sixties had to have a scene where the latest dance craze is shown. Usually it's in a club or a party. This film didn't have those sets, but they managed to throw in an impromptu frug (or was it the watusi?) between the delivery boy and Dorothy the housekeeper.