Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner may be stagey at times and fairly implausible, but this semi-classic drama, which happens to star two cinematic titans in their finest — and in one case final –hours, is absolutely essential viewing. Forty years old now, the issues it dared to raise at a time when they were extremely controversial still echo across the decades. It’s dated a bit, but to watch it today is to measure how far we’ve come.
In 1967′s San Francisco, after the Civil Rights Act has been signed but before Martin Luther King has been assassinated, young Joanna Drayton (Katharine Houghton) arrives back at her parents’ upscale home after being away from a while. Her parents, the prominent liberal newspaper owner Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy) and his elegant wife Christina (Katharine Hepburn) are delighted to see her but are suddenly taken aback when she reveals that she’s had a new boyfriend for 10 days, he’s 14 years older, she’s in love, she’s going to marry him, and she needs their blessing tonight. Oh, and he’s ‘colored.’ As Joanna blithely explains, ‘It never occurred to me that I would fall in love with a Negro, but I have, and nothing’s going to change that.’
As for the man in question, Dr. John Wade Prentice (Sidney Poitier) is Mr. Perfect (which he probably had to be or the movie never would have gotten made). A prominent and eloquent research doctor, he’s off to Geneva in a few hours but wants to meet the parents to explain himself and get their approval before he leaves. It becomes even more urgent when Joanna decides to leave with him that very night and after John pulls Matt aside and tells him that he won’t go through with the marriage if Matt disapproves.
While Christina sees the romance in her daughter’s eyes, Matt is floored and furious and totally unwilling to be rushed or bullied into a quick decision. And that’s nothing compared to Tillie (Isabel Sanford), the Drayton’s long-time maid and cook, who despises Prentice on sight and tells him so with comments such as ‘I don’t care to see a member of my own race getting above himself,’ and ‘Civil rights is one thing. This here is somethin’ else.’ Mocking him by calling him Martin Luther King and reminding him that in the end he’s just some ‘nigger,’ she’s a shocking yet realistic voice, proving that the concept of interracial marriage wasn’t necessarily embraced by either blacks or whites. (In fact, at the time of the movie’s filming, such marriages had only recently been legalized in all 50 states.)
Most of the movie consists of Tracy resisting the marriage, wrestling with his liberal conscience, and debating with everyone who crosses his path, including his wife, his Catholic priest friend, and eventually even Prentice’s parents, who fly in quickly for a summit meeting. The fact that all this happens within about five hours strains credulity (as does the fact that Joanna has chanced upon the most accomplished black man in America), but the movie holds together because as it races through several touching discussions (Prentice tells his father, ‘You think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.’), all the talk leads to Tracy’s final heartrending monologue in which he remembers what it felt like to fall in love with Christina and that love eventually conquers all. Anyone who knows about the decades-long love affair between Tracy and Hepburn can’t watch this without welling up (as Hepburn does, beautifully), especially when they find out that Tracy died just two weeks after nailing that take. It’s a scene that will probably end up in the AFI’s thousand-year retrospective of great movie moments, and it makes Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner matter.
The 40th-anniversary DVD includes several featurettes, including a tribute to director Stanley Kramer. (It is also available as part of a Stanley Kramer box set.)