Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a film about a time and a place. The time was the 1960s. The place was America. The story? Simple, really: Guy meets girl. They fall in love. Girl brings guy home to ask for her parents blessing in marriage. Booooooring. So what’s the catch? Well, it’s the 1960s, and we’re in America, which is in the midst of a civil rights movement seeking equal treatment of races. In Guess, the girl (Katharine Houghton plays Joey Drayton) is white, and the guy is black (Sidney Poitier is John Prentice). That’s the catch.
So it’s not just a simple movie about falling in love. Rather, Guess explores American racial attitudes during this ‘growing-up’ phase of American history. Joey’s father, Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy) is the publisher of a liberal newspaper in San Francisco, and lives an upscale life with his wife, Christina (Katharine Hepburn). I try not to learn too much about these movies before I watch them, usually limiting myself to the quick plot summary on imdb. In this case, I learned after watching the movie of the lifelong romance between Tracy and Hepburn, and of Tracy’s death shortly after finishing this movie. I thought both of their roles were played very well, and this late-acquired knowledge leads me (and others) to believe that some of the best acting in Guess was not acting at all – but of genuine love that Tracy and Hepburn shared. No matter – I’m here to watch a film, and if it takes you a lifelong romance to push that scene over the edge, then so be it.
I’ll keep the plot summary short, as it needn’t be long – the entire movie takes place over the course of the day, the vast majority at the Drayton house (in what was depicted as maybe the best home site in San Francisco, with sweeping views over the city and the bay). Joey meets John while on vacation in Hawaii. John is an accomplished doctor of medicine, and was lecturing at the time. They meet, fall deeply in love, and decide to fly back to San Francisco together to have John meet Joey’s parents. The rest of the movie plays out while Joey’s parents decide whether or not to give their blessing for marriage, which they wish to have in 3 days. Time is of the essence, and the pressure is on the Drayton’s to put their money where their mouth is.
Guess does a great job looking at racial attitudes from a variety of angles. The couple is in love – they don’t care what other people think of their relationship. Indeed, both Joey and John say at different times that they will proceed with the marriage regardless of whether they receive approval, although John’s position is more hesitant at first. They both acknowledge the difficulties and problems they expect to face being an interracial couple, but are willing to make that sacrifice.
The predominant view of the couple, shared by Joey’s parents, John’s parents, and nearly all auxillary characters, is of shock and disapproval. While America was less tolerant of interracial relationships at the time, attitudes were shifting, and Mr. Drayton is portrayed at the forefront of tolerance to the public, but still stuck in the past in private. His admission that he “never thought this would happen to us!” is telling. Would Mr. Drayton be able to walk the walk that he had been talking about for years? The movie entices the audience to ask the same question of itself, especially if you consider yourself liberal on social issues. In 2011, interracial relationships in America are largely accepted, but not all relationships are. What would you think if your daughter wanted to marry a black man? Or, if you’re black, what if your daughter wanted to marry a white man? Regardless, what would you say if your daughter wanted to marry a Muslim, Asian, Native American, Ghanaian, Russian, poor, rich, short, or tall man? What if your daughter wanted to marry a woman? There are bound to always be some relationships that are taboo by societies standards, so while we may think nothing of an interracial relationship now, this movie still feels relevant.
Interestingly and accurately, it isn’t only the white characters in the movie that have problems with the couple. The Drayton’s have a black maid, and she is NOT happy with the situation! She has no qualms about pulling John aside to tell him that she doesn’t “care to see a member of my own race getting above himself.” Likewise, when John’s parents are invited to dinner (hence the name of the movie), they don’t realize they are about to meet a white family. In fact, it was amusing to see the similarities of reactions between the different races. Society thought that blacks and whites were so different, yet their reactions were practically a carbon copy.
In both families, the mother doesn’t care for the relationship initially, but quickly softens when they see the love their children share. The fathers remain resolute in their nonacceptance. Much of the movie plays out in different dialogs: John and Mr. Drayton, Joey and Mrs. Drayton, Mr. Drayton and Mr. Prentice, etc. No spoilers here, but the final scene by Tracy, which turned out to be the final scene of his career and life, is masterful and heart-felt.
I enjoyed this movie quite a bit. Katharine Hepburn was outstanding as Mrs. Drayton. Her shock manifested as de facto paralysis – it was as if she was so surprised by what she was seeing that she had to shut down the entire rest of her body just so her mind could process it. Houghton has apparently received criticism for being one dimensional, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it was intentional. Her character was uncompromisingly positive, which I think was a caricature of the attitudes of the youth of the 60s. John, on the other hand, was a smart but compassionate, highly-educated doctor, which I felt was meant to show the upward achievement of blacks in a newer, more tolerant society (others have postulated that he was portrayed as a doctor to make the relationship more acceptable to viewers – certainly possible as well). Poitier played the role well, showing both the confidence of an educated man and the insecurity of a man walking a tightrope of acceptance.
Guess was a good movie about a sensitive topic, and still remains relevant to this day. It’s worth a watch, in my book. Well, at least it was better than Yankee Doodle Dandy. 😉