Wednesday, October 11, 2017

On GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER

This movie was quite popular with moviegoers and critics when it came out.  At the time, Sidney Poitier, one of its stars, was the first Black actor in Hollywood history who'd gotten opportunities that made him a top box office draw.  The 1960s was his decade.  He cracked the Hollywood color barrier as the first Black man to win the Oscar for Best Actor.  He won for 1963's LILIES OF THE FIELD.  It was his second nomination.  He became the first Black man ever to receive an Oscar nomination.  That was in the Best Actor category thanks to his performance as the bad-ass escaped convict in 1958's THE DEFIANT ONES.  Two of Poitier's biggest box office hits were both released in 1967 and both were in the field of five Oscar nominees for Best Picture.  They were IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, which won the Oscar, and GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER.  In that film, Poitier joined two Hollywood legends who, starting at MGM with 1942's WOMAN OF THE YEAR, became a celebrated screen team in several movies and a close, intimate team off-screen from the making of that 1942 comedy until one's death in 1967.  It was the team of Hollywood greats Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.  Their characters got married in WOMAN OF THE YEAR.  They played a married couple in GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER.  Tracy was a New York City newspaper columnist in WOMAN OF THE YEAR.  In GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, he's the owner of a San Francisco newspaper known for taking on social issues.
Hepburn, as the wife, runs an art gallery.  Like her husband, she's intellectual and liberal-minded.  They're liberal beliefs are put to the test when their loving daughter comes home and announces that she's engaged to be married.  The man she's engaged to is...African American.  In real life, Hepburn was famous in Hollywood for being the liberal-minded, intellectual, independent feminist.  Her roles in WOMAN OF THE YEAR, ADAM'S RIB and GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER (all with Spencer Tracy) seemed to be extensions of her off-camera self.  Couple that with the decades-long Hollywood buzz of her secret love affair with Tracy.

They were beloved in the Hollywood community.  Young, new actors were in awe of Tracy's skill.  Young, new actresses were adopting Hepburn as a role model.  Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn would be in the Best Actor and Best Actress Oscar race for GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER.  His nomination would come posthumously.  Cast, crew and Hollywood insiders knew that Tracy struggled with health issues during the making of the film.  They knew it would probably be his last movie.  And it was.  When the husband reaffirms and professes his love for his wife in the final moments, that is a touching and heartbreaking scene on two different levels.  We felt it was the husband talking to his wife and an ailing Spence talking to his Kate.
People may see this film as somewhat sentimental today, but I watched the whole thing again recently.  I had not seen it in quite a while.  There's a heart and muscle to it that folks may have come to overlook through the years.

Did you see the recent film LOVING?  That's the 2016 biopic story about Mildred and Richard Loving.  He was the white man who fell in love with a black woman.   They were arrested in the 1950s for getting married.  Interracial marriage was illegal in several American states.  They took their case to the Supreme Court.  Loving v Virginia was the landmark civil rights decision in 1967 that made interracial marriage legal in all the United States.  1967 was the same year GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER was released.
The more I see GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, the more I appreciate it.  Let's face it.  Kate Hepburn and Spencer Tracy never could've made a film like this at MGM in the 1940s.  The Hollywood color barriers were higher and thicker then.  Most African American actors were seen as maids, mammies, butler or porters.  Very few were seen in upscale professions and in roles in which they shared scenes with white stars as equals in society.

In GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, the newspaper owner husband has deep reservations at first about the daughter's wanting to wed an African American, accomplished though the man may be.  Poitier's doctor is a widely respected and published one.  When the daughter and her fiancé have dinner and drinks with another couple, the couple expresses its appreciation for the tough social causes her father's newspaper took on.  I'd forgotten about that short but key scene.  When Matt (Tracy) has a knee-jerk reaction to his daughter's marriage plans, it causes friction.  When Christina (Hepburn) reminds him that they taught their daughter that black, brown and other people of color were just as good as white people, they didn't add -- "but just don't marry one."  She supports their daughter, Joanna.

Dr. John Prentice (Poitier) has parents in Los Angeles who fly up to San Francisco to meet the fiancée, her parents, and to have dinner.  They have no idea she's white until they land at the airport and meet her.  John's dad, like Joanna's dad, has reservations.  The two mothers are in sympathy with each other.

You might tend to think that Matt's crustiness may come from a little prejudice.  I don't think so.  I think it comes from fatherly fear.  He's the owner of a newspaper that apparently gave voice to the disenfranchised.  Like people today who realize that America did not immediately become "post-racial" when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, Matt's paper has surely had to report international headlines of the decade such as the killing of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King's March on Washington, the racist murder of four little girls in an Alabama church bombing and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  And The Lovings had gone to the Supreme Court to challenge America's laws against interracial marriage.  Matt says to Joanna and John that a multitude of people will be "shocked, offended and appalled" at their union.

He hates the dark elements still at play in our Land of the Free.  He's afraid for Joanna and for John.  But, as the family friend and Catholic priest tells Matt, "They'll change this stinking world."
In 1968, when this 1967 release won Oscars, the Oscars ceremony was postponed for the first and only time in its history because of the recent racist killing of Dr. Martin Luther King.  America was in mourning.  Dr. King's funeral was a live network news telecast.  Sidney Poitier was a friend of Dr. King's and a civil rights activist.

As for Dr. John Prentice, we tend to forget that the marriage will be his second one.  He was married for about five years.  His wife and son were killed in an accident.  For nearly ten years, he was a widower who racked up an impressive list of credentials -- probably becoming an over-achiever in his profession to deal with his grief and numb the pain of being a childless widower.  We can tell from the way the parents react that the first wife was Black.
Katharine Houghton, Kate Hepburn's real life niece, plays the daughter in GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER.  It's a good, charming performance and it really works because Joanna seems so much like her mother in attitude, tone and style.  Joanna kisses John when they get to her parents' house and prepare for dinner.  Again, this was a 1967 film.  British pop star/actress Petula Clark made entertainment headlines in 1968 when she defied NBC executive orders and touched Harry Belafonte on her NBC special while they performed an ant-war ballad.  NBC brass was against interracial touching.  Petula Clark took his arm during the number.  She was the show's executive producer and did what she bloody well wanted as a response to network ignorance.  The number and the touch remained in the special.  Harry Belafonte, like Poitier, was also a friend of Dr. King's.  Early that same year, 1968, Harry Belafonte was guest host for a week on the TONIGHT Show while Johnny Carson was on vacation.  Against the wishes of NBC network executives, he booked Dr. Martin Luther King as a guest for one show that week.  It was a wonderful appearance.  But NBC brass initially felt that the Nobel Peace Prize recipient was a political "radical" whose appearance would cost NBC some sponsors.  Not a single sponsor was lost due to the appearance of Dr. King.

Yes, there is sentimentality and Hollywood legend at play in GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER.  But, considering the backdrop of American history the year it came out and the night it won Oscars, it was pretty bold for its time.

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