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Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

Updated: Apr 12, 2023

In 1967, Stanley Kramer’s GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER was a bold, controversial film about mixed race relationships. Thankfully over 50 years later, it serves as a reminder of how backward we were all too recently.

By turns powerfully dramatic and laugh-out-loud funny, Kramer’s film is quite a ride.

Sidney Poitier is brilliant doctor John Prentice, widowed since his wife and child died in a tragic accident, he’s poured himself into an incredible career that’s brought him worldwide recognition.

While at a conference, he meets Joey (Katharine Houghton) a younger white woman who is beyond confident that her liberal parents will have virtually no issues with their relationship and sudden engagement.

Kramer treads a fine line, delivering huge laughs that also make you look at your own attitudes. Joey’s parents have espoused liberal beliefs their entire lives, but when she acts on them, their deepest opinions are challenged.

Luckily for us, Joey’s parents are played by Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. They are both fantastic. Christina (Hepburn) is an art gallery owner, Matt (Tracy) owns a newspaper. Their home in the San Francisco is a jaw dropper and the 360 Hollywood set is as good as it used to get, before CGI.

From the first moments of John and Joey’s arrival at her parents, the film piles up the laughs, the drama and the powerful moments, knocked out of the park by a brilliant cast.

Just when you think the night can’t get any crazier, Joey urges John’s parents to fly up from Los Angeles to the house for dinner. John hasn’t told them he’s engaged and he’s neglected to tell them that Joey’s white.

It’s fascinating to watch Mr. Prentice (Roy Glenn) and Mrs. Prentice (Beah Richards) arrive at the airport and react, just as shocked as Christina and Matt were.

As the three couples come together, the fireworks really begin to go off and the film shifts into some serious territory about latent racism, family dynamics and a world that was JUST beginning to change in the mid-sixties.

Cecil Kellaway almost steals the movie as the Prentice’s friend, a hilarious Monsignor and great compatriot to the agnostic Prentice family. He’s brilliant in his lack of judgement and powerful observations.

Isabel Sanford, who would go on to star as Louise Jefferson on the classic TV sitcom, has some hilarious moments as the Prentice’s cook/maid, but some of her scenes with Poitier haven’t aged well. She has some of the weakest moments in a nearly flawless film, the other being Hepburn’s real-life niece who plays Joey.

She’s not horrible, like Sofia Coppola’s nepotism based horrible performance in “Godfather III” but she does fade pretty quickly into the wallpaper compared to the actors around her. In all fairness, Tracy, Hepburn, Poitier, Glenn and Richards provide a master class in every scene.

The music score by 60’s DeVol is really bad, but blessedly sparse.

I don’t think I’ve anticipated a dinner scene in a movie this much since “The Birdcage” but the joke is on me as dinner never takes place until the closing moments. Spencer Tracy’s revelations in his final speech to the group are powerful and palpable. Hepburn’s silent reactions to his words, along with quick witted retorts earned her a Best Actress Oscar as Christina.

Hepburn and Tracy were married for many years and as this movie filmed, she knew how ill Spencer was, his words about life-long love generated powerful emotions in her on film. She never saw the final film, saying it would be too painful to relive those moments.

Spencer Tracy died 17 days after filming was complete.

Historically significant, beautifully acted, funny and moving, GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER gets an A+.

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