Friday, May 3

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: Favorite Movie #12

Directed by Stanley Kramer
1967 Drama
1 hour 48 minutes
From Columbia Studios

Spencer Tracy
Sidney Poitier
Katharine Hepburn
Katharine Houghton
Cecil Kellaway
Beah Richards
Isabell Sanford
Roy S. Glenn Jr.
Virginia Christine

Praise overflows when I think of my 12th favorite movie of all time.  It touches me at some very emotional levels.  I feel great happiness, I feel some sadness, I laugh, I cry several times, I am warmed, I am charmed and I see the frustration of not having things the way you want them and the sacrifices one faces when one gets what one wants.  I also get to experience some of the greatest ensemble acting there has ever been on film headed by three towering performances, two of whom had been acting giants for decades, and another who was responsible for taking his race to new heights in the acting profession and helping to open doors everywhere.  And the remainder of the cast is as flawless as it stalwart stars.

Another thing I get to experience... and I couldn't have a better reminder than having just finished watching the film for God only knows how many times... some of the best movie writing ever.  William Rose won just about the most deserved Oscar in the history of the shiny golden man.  He apparently wrote the script rather quickly but it hits every chord it's designed to do.  Some have complained of the dated or corniness in the writing on the inter-racial plane but I found it inspiring then and still do.  I've always wanted to sit with a naysayer on this subject and after watching the film together, just hash it out.  No blood.  No bruises.

I thought Rose had the most wonderful things to say on relationships and marriage and generational differences and prejudice and aging.  He also hit some soft spots for me personally.  Coming out as a gay man to one's parents can be just as fraught with angst as a young woman telling her parents she is going to marry outside her race.  This is some big damned deal stuff and Rose hit the bullseye on all points.  In his drama on such a serious subject, he laced it with bit after effective bit of humor.  I was already taken by his writing via The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming and The Flim-Flam Man and later on The Secret of Santa Vittoria but he never put pen to paper any more specially than he did for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

I am immediately smiling as I watch the handsome, rather regal black doctor and his pretty, younger white girlfriend walk through the airport in San Francisco, arm in arm, laughing, obviously pleased in being a couple.  The cabbie shows some distaste as does the girl's mother's employee at the gallery.  Then the black maid develops a quick attitude.  The fun comes when Poitier, who's been in the study on the phone, opens the door just as the daughter is telling her mother the man's name, having never mentioned his color.  Hepburn's expressions are so priceless and amusing.  Mrs. Drayton, Poitier's Dr. John Prentice says, I'm medically trained so I hope you don't think it's presumptuous if I say you ought to sit down... before you fall down.

Much of the humor... and let's face it, we need some of that in a story that could get overly-dramatic, even soap operaish... is in no small part due to Isabell Sanford (who would go on to great acclaim as part of television's The Jeffersons) with her sassy comments to all four leads and also just playing to the camera.

Tracy arrives home and walks onto the patio where his wife, daughter and the doctor are lunching and not understanding why his daughter is suddenly home from her travels and the maid's circuits are burning out says what the hell's going on here?  Indeed.

Part of my rather wry amusement here is that the rich, white, older parents are liberals.  Had they been Republicans, this would have been a whole other kind of film.  But the twist is that these old tried and true Democrats have always taught tolerance to their daughter, no one color is better than any other, prejudice is wrong.  The father's great undoing comes because he never expected these teachings to invade his family like this.  There is some great fun watching him become more and more rattled as he comes face to face with his bleeding-heart principles.

Hepburn recovers from her shock fairly quickly and embraces the idea of her daughter's relationship and plan to marry.  She is the type of mother who is happy about anything that makes her child happy.  A priest, just a family friend, arrives in the middle of the chaos and after a brief chat with the young couple finds himself supportive of them, saying inter-racial couples usually make it because they have a special quality of effort.

There is a classic scene where Hepburn's gallery coworker comes to call. Played exquisitely by character actress Virginia Christine (Mrs. Olsen of those long-ago coffee commercials), she wants to snoop and put in her bigoted two-cents' worth. Here, have a peek:

When Poitier's parents arrive from Los Angeles and are just as shocked as the white parents were a couple of hours earlier, it quickly develops that Poitier's mother sides with Hepburn while his father sides with Tracy.

What the daughter does not know is that Poitier has taken Tracy and Hepburn aside and told them that unless they both give their blessings free of doubt, there will be no wedding.  The statement provides the first kernel for the drama that will germinate in the film's final act.

A favorite moment for me was watching those two old pros as the white parents listening together, head-to-head, on the phone as his secretary reads off a list of the doctor's sterling accomplishments including worldwide acclaim in his profession of tropical medicine.  Without uttering a word, they both show why they are considered the greatest.  Acting silently, getting across all they need to get across, just using their faces, is simply extraordinary.  They accomplish the same things in many other scenes together.  What pros.

I always wince at the main scene between Poitier and Roy S. Glenn Jr. who plays his postman father.  It comes in the middle of all the other one-on-ones that various people are having around the house.  You know it's gonna get rough when at the start Poitier calls his father man instead of Dad.  He tells the father, who is not at all supportive, to shut up.  After his father tells the son that he owes him for all those walks with a mail sack on his shoulder, Poitier says that he owes him nothing, that the father did what he was supposed to do.  Rough stuff.  It gets rougher.

Poitier:  You and your whole lousy generation believes that the way it was for you is the way it's gonna be and not until your whole generation has lain down and died will the dead weight of you be off our backs.  They were the toughest words of them all, the harshest scene in the film.  I still can't decide whether it was necessary to go there but it is what it is.

My favorite of all the pairings is the scene between Beah Richards, as Poitier's understanding mother, and Tracy.  She is on a stone seat in the patio and he stands next to her looking out at the bay as she asks him rhetorically what happens to men as they grow old.  She is sure he has forgotten all he has ever known about love.  On DVD I play this scene over and over again, through my tears, as this lovely woman offers her counsel.

Richards would make another film with Poitier this same year, In the Heat of the Night, in a very, very different kind of role.  I was so enchanted with her quiet demeanor, her kindness.  She was wise and loving.  It's a shame the actress didn't have more of a career.  I thought she was the very heart and soul of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

After much chatting with others, Tracy gathers the seven others, including the maid, in the living room for the film's famous final speech.  It will wrap everything up and Tracy will give his decision.  He looks around the room and one by one reminds us of his conversations with all of the other principals.  Finally, looking into the sweet face of Richards he says and there's Mrs. Prentice who says that like her husband I am some burnt-out old shell of a man who can't even remember what it's like to love a woman the way her son loves my daughter.  He pauses.  We look deep into his eyes and hers.  And strange as it seems that is the first statement made to me today for which I am prepared to take issue.  More pauses.  Because I think you're wrong.

Just one reason the long scene is so famous is because as Matt Drayton he looks into the eyes of his wife Christina Drayton and says the words that for 26 years Katharine Hepburn had wished Spencer Tracy had said to her and there are many books to confirm he never said them.

Of course, it was known Tracy was dying during the making of this film, his final, and the ninth and best film to costar him and Hepburn.  He said the words as outlined on the script and in my mind he, the actor not the character, was saying goodbye to his longtime companion.  Her eyes welled up and I find the moment to be very special indeed.  Wait.  Maybe those were my eyes that welled up.

It's been well documented that this long scene was the most difficult of Tracy's career.  There were only a couple of words spoken by other characters; otherwise, it was all Tracy.  He was so sick that insurance was not going to be available to him so Hepburn and director Stanley Kramer put up their salaries so that he could do the film.  He actually worked very little during any given day and rested a great deal when he was called in.  Everyone was dreading the filming of this climactic scene, some even thinking it might kill him to do something so taxing.  It took days and days to film.  For his closeups and reaction shots, sometimes the other actors weren't even present.  Long passages were acted a little bit at a time.  When it was finally all finished, a great sigh of relief was let out along with mighty applause from the cast and crew.

If you have 7-8 minutes to watch this incredible scene, I recommend you do.  It's just a click away...

The last scene actually shot was an earlier one where Tracy and Hepburn go to a drive-in for ice cream and he ends up backing into a kid's hotrod car.  It's so apparent how sick he'd become when viewing this scene.  He looks worse than at any other time in the film.  Actually this scene could have been eliminated and I think it should have been.  It contributed nothing to the overall effect of the film except to show the actor looking so bad.

This ground-breaking film would go on to earn 10 Oscar nominations.  Tracy would be nominated for a posthumous best actor Oscar but would not win.  Hepburn would win for best actress and while she was quite deserving, I expect part of that Oscar was for him.  She said she never saw the film.

File this under super trivia but I always found it interesting that in the film Poitier was going to marry a white woman named Joanna and in real life he married a white woman named Joanna.  Isn't this carrying things too far?

It got my attention that Poitier was billed over Hepburn.  Maybe his contract stipulated it.  Guess she didn't put up a fight.  As big of a star as she was and for so long, the billing (always important in Hollywood) shows that in 1967 Poitier, already an Oscar winner, was at the top of his game.

Roy Glenn was once the voice of Tony the Tiger in the Kellogg cereal commercials.  Hear him again in this film and you will have no doubt.

Katharine Houghton made her film debut here and was in real life Hepburn's niece.  She apparently appeared a little too sunny for some, but I thought she brought to the part just what was needed.

Stanley Kramer was a fabulous director that will one day probably be the subject of a posting here himself.  But suffice it to say that he loved two things for sure... one is Spencer Tracy and they worked together several times.  He truly loved the old actor.  And Kramer loved message movies.  All his films truly had something to say.  He handles his cast with great aplomb.

It's interesting to note that after the film was completed anti-miscegenation laws were struck down by the Supreme Court.  At the time the film was being made, inter-racial marriage was still against the law in 17 states.  I sometimes forget what a controversial film this was in 1967.


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