Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is fifty years old this year. No stranger to controversial topics, in 1967 director/producer Stanley Kramer (Inherit the Wind, Judgement at Nuremberg) offered his thoughts on race relations and interracial marriage (something that had been illegal in 17 states, until June 12, 1967, just six months before the film was released) with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. He cast long-time friends Spencer Tracy (who worked with Kramer on three other films), Katharine Hepburn, and Sidney Poitier, who’d received acclaim and an Oscar nomination for 1958’s The Defiant Ones.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner concerns a young couple who met in Hawaii who are coming home to announce their plans to marry. The catch? The girl Joanna Drayton (Katharine Houghton), is white and the man, Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), is black. (Stanley Kramer always said he made Poitier’s character a doctor to debunk ethnic stereotypes and make sure that the only possible objection to him marrying Joan a would be race) In 1967, this would be quite a shock for any parents, including Joanna’s infamously liberal ones. Played by Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. The somewhat older Dr. Prentice approaches the meeting with thoughtful trepidation, while the excited Joanna simply believes that the liberal parents she has always known will easily accept the man she loves. Some of the most important moments in the film come in the first twenty minutes, when John initially meets Joanna’s mother Christina and father Matt (Spencer Tracy) is measured, every word carefully considered.
Christina’s face can’t hide her initial shock when first introduced to Dr. Prentice. Nonetheless, Christina quickly gathers herself and remains refined and polite, which fits her upper-class status. Poitier plays the scene with the confidence and intelligence you would expect from an accomplished doctor in his late thirties. Houghton’s Joanna at just 23, is young, in love, somewhat oblivious and occasionally annoying. The dynamic of these three characters in this scene is a master class in intelligent acting. The objections of longtime black maid/caretaker (Isabel Sanford) feel like they’re coming out of left field, but it’s all right.
With Matt home from the office, he and Christina must deal with the shock of their daughter’s relationship while struggling to rectify their concerns with the liberal values they’ve always espoused. The fact that the couple want their approval, and further, that John has privately told Matt he will walk away from the engagement if he doesn’t get it, has really put the pressure on. While he comes to like John, Matt realizes the incredible difficulties the couples will face in a still very racist society.
The arrival of John’s parents leads to a softening of Matt’s position via the two wives—watch Beah Richards as John’s mother in the two garden scenes and you’ll realize what an underrated actress she was—which ultimately leads to leads to a lengthy and moving speech from Tracy about acceptance and love.
Despite its age, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner doesn’t feel particularly dated and deals with issues that still feel relevant today. Unfortunately, discrimination still exists and people can likely still relate to it on some level. It should also be noted that this was Spencer Tracy’s last movie; he died roughly two weeks after filming his final scene. So if nothing else, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner represents the final opportunity to see three of the great actors—Tracy, Hepburn and Poitier—of our time together on screen.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner ‘s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track does a nice job, offering clear dialogue and a nice replication of Frank De Vol’s score. Fidelity is fine and there are no distortions to note.
English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Introductions: Brief but interesting thought provided by several different people: Karen Kramer (SD, 2:44), Steven Spielberg (SD, 1:07), Tom Brokaw (SD, 2:46),Quincy Jones (SD, 2:50)
- A Love Story for Today (SD, 29:53) In this thorough retrospective, several involved in the film look back including Katharine Houghton, Karen Kramer, Sidney Poitier’s agent Martin Baum, editor Robert Jones, and script supervisor Marshall Schlom. We also get thoughts of critics and industry insiders. All of this is supplemented by photos and clips, including an excerpt of a 1978 Stanley Kramer interview.
- A Special Kind of Love (SD, 17:15) Archival recordings of Hepburn, along with an interview with Houghton discussing what it was like to be Hepburn’s niece.
- Stanley Kramer: A Man’s Search for Truth (SD, 16:57) A general overview of what Stanley Kramer hoped to accomplish through his films. Includes some nice clips of his work.
- Stanley Kramer Accepts the Irving Thalberg Award (SD, 2:01) At the 1962 Academy Awards.
- 2007 Producers Guild Stanley Kramer Award Presentation to An Inconvenient Truth (4:37) Al Gore accepts and this is all put into context by Karen Kramer.
- Photo Gallery (SD, 4:10)
- Original Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2:37)
- DigiBook: Includes an essay by Gil Robertson; illustrated with photos.