August 19, 2022

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AFI Challenge Countdown #99: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner

The landmark 1967 film on interracial marriage.

In 1967, Sidney Poitier was one of the biggest stars in the United States, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, and Spencer Tracy’s last movie came out.  It was Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.

Truth be told, when I saw this one the first time, I was not a fan.  It struck me as being a bit too ham-fisted.  Granted, it was 1967, and it maybe had to be.  Living in 2018, it isn’t a subtle movie.  I’ve seen lots of movies, TV shows, and especially real-life instances of interracial couples.  But as the movie notes, it was illegal in a number of states when the movie was made, and even after that law was struck down, it was still frowned upon by custom in many places.

As it is, I think I appreciate the movie a little more with this second viewing.  Oh, it still isn’t subtle, but some of the things I thought absent truly weren’t.  Or at least, weren’t as absent as I thought they were.

The setting is San Francisco, and as a plane drops its passengers off from Hawaii, we meet John and Joey.  John is a doctor.  Joey is a young woman besotted with him.  And I mean, she is well and truly besotted.  As the two walk through the airport, they talk, share a laugh, and then take a cab where the driver looks into the rearview mirror to see the pair kissing.

By the by, that is the only kiss the two share for the whole movie, and John tends to keep a slight distance from Joey for much of the film, though he is certainly happy to be in her presence.

Oh, yeah, John is a black man and Joey is a white woman.  They’re in San Francisco to meet Joey’s parents Matt and Christina Drayton (longtime on- and off-screen partners Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn).  Matt is a liberal newspaper editor (he keeps a framed photo of FDR on his desk next to one of his wife and daughter) while Christina runs an art gallery.  Both are clearly well-off.  Neither are prepared for the news their daughter is engaged to John though Christina warms to the idea very quickly.

But what about Matt?  Do his liberal values extend to his daughter’s potential happiness?

Here’s the thing:  whatever reservations there might be about John and Joey, most of them don’t come from John himself.  He’s a doctor, does a lot of charity work in Third World countries, and is financially comfortable and mature.  True, he was married before, but his first wife and son both died in a train accident years earlier.  John has not slept with Joey yet because he’s a true gentleman, even though Joey would probably have no objections if he tried.  He’s also Sidney Poitier.  Sidney Poitier is one of those actors who I find is automatically the coolest guy in any given room.  The only real objection there might be is a racial one, and even then, it isn’t because Matt is a racist.  He likes John very much, and in one scene between the two, it is quickly established that he likes and respects John on a number of levels.  He just isn’t sure about John marrying his daughter out of fears that the whole country might be against them, a fear John’s own father has too as it turns out.  The mothers are both much more understanding.

As it is, the movie suggests younger people are a different story.  A white delivery boy dances a bit with a young black woman who assists the older black cook in the Drayton kitchen.  A group of white youngsters applaud a young black man for telling Matt off after a fender bender.  Joey’s white friends suggest the two need to run off together immediately.  It’s the older folks, like Tillie the cook (is it meant to be humorous when the cook tells Poitier he isn’t that good looking while telling him to stay away from the young girl?), or Christina’s white assistant, or the fathers who object.  And even then, the only older character who offers immediate support for the young couple is an Irish Catholic priest.  Few here are depicted as a racist, and none of the major characters are.  Everyone is worried about what will happen when the rest of the world finds out about these two.

Will Matt agree to the marriage, especially since John has said he will call it off if he doesn’t approve?

What do you think?

This was Tracy’s last movie.  He was actually gravely ill while filming and, I gotta say, it doesn’t really show for the most part.  His co-star Hepburn’s tears are, it turns out, not her faking it during a few scenes, most notably during his final monologue where the movie shows the most emotional nuance and he explains, clearly, where the conflict came from before ultimately deciding to endorse the marriage because love is all that matters.  He died a few days after filming stopped, and Hepburn claimed she never watched the whole thing afterwards because of that.

As a nice touch, Joey is played by one Katharine Houghton, Hepburn’s niece.  She plays a very silly girl in love well from where I was sitting.

The film’s lack of subtlety is definitely part of the movie’s legacy.  It’s dated.  I had a student a couple years ago, a young lady from South Carolina, who said in class one day that in her home town, interracial dating is still frowned upon, and she took heat for it (to her credit, if she personally had a problem with that, she never said, and I like to give people the benefit of the doubt).  As I watched the movie, the objections I had for the marriage were the sorts of things the movie itself glossed over as inconsequential, namely a 14 year age difference between John and Joey and the fact the two had decided to get married after only knowing each other ten days.  In fact, when the movie was remade not that long ago, the races were reversed, and it was a slapstick comedy with Ashton Kutcher and the late Bernie Mac.

That should say all anyone needs to say about how much times have changed since 1967.  This movie’s ultimate conclusion is “love is all that matters,” and it seems simplistic since marriage is hard and love isn’t always enough, but for this movie and this time and this place, it works.

NEXT UP:  We’re skipping ahead to 1992 for Clint Eastwood’s last–and among his best–Westerns with Unforgiven.

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