Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (Directed by Stanley Kramer in 1967) tells the story of Joey Dayton, (played by Katharine Houghton) a young white woman who falls in love with a black man by the name of John Prentice (Sidney Poitier). After only spending ten days together on vacation in Hawaii, Joey and John decide to get married. The happy couple quickly makes a visit to Joey’s parents’ home in order for John to be introduced to them before his lengthy trip to Geneva. John is hesitant and concerned as to what Joey’s parents may think. But Joey reassures him that he has no reason to worry because her parents have no issue with racial differences. When they finally arrive at Joey’s home her mother meets them. Christine Dayton (Katharine Hepburn) is in utter disbelief when she finally sees John. Soon after, Joey’s father, Matt Dayton (Spencer Tracy) comes home to discover that his daughter is engaged to a black man. As the tension between the family and John rises, their situation gets even messier as John’s parents get in on the action.
With the entire story taking place in the span of one day, Stanley Kramer does a stupendous job in keeping a steady, yet realistic pace throughout the film. From the arrival of the interracial couple at the airport in the morning, to the very end of the stressful night, Kramer leads us through the emotions, thought processes, and misunderstandings that each character is forced to face. And it is all done in a realistic and respectful manner. Not too rushed, and not too slow as to lose interest in the plot, but the perfect pace in order to keep the audience deeply engaged in the fears, doubts, love, and heartache these two families experience.
Although the cast and crew were nominated for a total of ten Academy Awards, the film only took home two Oscars, one for Best Original Screenplay, and a Best Actress Oscar for Katharine Hepburn’s performance as the sympathetic mother. Both Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy won the BAFTA and a David di Donatello Award (the Italian equivalent to an Oscar) for Best Acting in 1968. And it’s no wonder that such a distinguished pair of actors would be recognized for their dramatically heartfelt, yet comical performances. Their roles display what many white Americans were experiencing during the 1960s, a struggle between encouraging racial equality while dealing with social, economical, and even relational boundaries for black Americans. Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner does an amazing job at portraying the racial tension from both sides of the coin. In this film we have a rare opportunity to see the opinions of the Prentice family as well as the concerns of the Dayton family all within one movie. Showing the intense emotions and anger that this topic has caused for millions of people, the film gives a clear distinction between what is morally right and wrong.
During the writing and production of the film 14 different states within America prohibited by law interracial marriage. Years before the release of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving, an interracial couple, had been imprisoned by the state of Virginia because of their marriage which took place in Washington D.C. They eventually were forced to move out of state, and when visiting their family in Virginia five years later, were once again jailed for traveling together. But thanks to a long fight put up by Mr. and Mrs. Loving, the U.S. Supreme Court eventually banned any law prohibiting marriage between a man and woman of different races, declaring that such a law is unconstitutional and has no concrete reason for existence. The Loving v. Virginia case had been dropped and the United States allowed all interracial couples to legally marry. The climax of this court case had occurred just months before Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner was released in December 1967. But even though the concept of “miscegenation” was no longer a problem for the courts, racial tension among the American people continued.
Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner has brought about much inspiration to those who are experiencing prejudices themselves. Many who felt they had no voice regarding racism fully believed in the message given through the movie. The film proudly, and fearlessly addresses many of the prejudices and hatred that black people were experiencing at the time, and still do today. The movie challenges many views about racism and is shameless about the issue. By telling the story of the very first interracial couple that has an optimistic ending on screen, not only is this a groundbreaking accomplishment for the cast and crew, but it is also an open invitation to thousands of real life interracial couples to openly live the lives they’ve wanted for so long. The film proved to be a much-needed catalyst for future films to come, and paved the way for many interracial relationships on screen, in both film and television.
Making the already strong bond between the cast even stronger are some family connections, which benefits the film in many ways and develops a deeper sense of chemistry between the actors, producing an even more realistic environment. It was Katharine Hepburn’s niece, Katharine Houghton who played her on-screen daughter, Joey. Houghton was fortunate to have her Aunt pull the necessary strings in order for her to play the role. The resemblance between the two is quite remarkable and can easily be seen throughout the story. Additionally, Hepburn and Tracy who had known each other for decades had been having a somewhat secretly open affair for over 25 years. Although Tracy was very ill at the time, Hepburn knew that he was the only man who she wanted to play the role of her husband, Matt Dayton.
Hepburn, Tracy, and the director, Stanley Kramer, had chosen to give up their paychecks in order to appease the insurance company who fought to take Tracy out of the film due to the severity of his illness. The company felt that he wasn’t physically able to complete the picture and did not want to invest in the film if he were to pass away during the production. Tracy did indeed pass away; however, he it was a little under two weeks after filming the last scene in which he gives a heartfelt monologue to his family. The emotions seen on Hepburn’s face as Tracy performed for the last time were far from acting. After their long life together, Hepburn knew that Tracy’s time was short. Once the film was completed, she decided that she would never see the finished product due to the emotional pain it would cause her. She said that seeing Spencer again would bring back too many memories of her difficult struggle in being his caretaker up until the day he died.
Of course, remakes of the film have been attempted, but have never fully lived up to the original. In 2005, Guess Who, starring Ashton Kutcher, Bernie Mac, and Zoe Saldana hit theaters. The film was a full-fledged comedy and reversed the original storyline, having a white man visit his black fiancé’s family. Although the film was not a failure, many critics couldn’t help but compare the film to the original, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Even the stars of the film themselves knew that they could never top the performances of the original cast.
Even though film and television have come a long way in showing liberality, there is still a lack of interracial relationships on screen due to the level of discomfort it may cause to certain audiences. But one thing is for sure, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner created a different type of open dialogue about racism. And it paved the way for future films taking on such a controversial topic; opening doors many would never have dreamed of in the 1960s. Thanks to a dedicated cast and crew, this film will go down in history as the beginning of interracial couples on the big screen.