As I previously mentioned in my review of White Dog, racism and bigotry is not taboo for filmmakers, and while some films made these days addressing the issue can be suitably heavy and almost controversial, they are nothing compared to older films that tackled the subject decades ago. Perhaps one of the most influential films to ever address the topic is Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. However, that is far from what the film actually is, and it has become iconic for other reasons apart from its very progressive political stance.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner has a simple enough premise – Katharine Houghton, a dainty and quirky little newcomer to film, plays Joanna, a spoiled rich girl who brings her recently-discovered fiancee home to her parents. Her fiance is played by none other than the legendary Sidney Poitier. Her parents are equal (maybe even bigger) screen legends Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. When you have that sheer amount of acting talent in a room, you are bound to receive the acting showcase to end all similar ones. Throughout the film, I grappled with the question as to who actually was the best in show – was it the iconic Katharine Hepburn, as the fiery but loving mother with a heart of gold and a tounge of venom? Was it Sidney Poitier, playing a more humorous and relaxed character that is a welcome break from his intense roles of the past? Was it Spencer Tracy, who overcame incredible illness to play the part of the conflicted father? There is no answer right now, and there probably never will be. The entire cast was insanely strong, and each and every castmember – from the legends, right down to the brief performances of the supporting cast – made this one of the most riveting examples of acting in history.
I think Stanley Kramer is an immensely talented director, and I previously made my love of his other film addressing racism, The Defiant Ones, known. While he never made a huge impact on the mainstream of cinema, he did indeed help form the base of progressive cinema, and his daring and risky looks at social issues significantly affected the way audiences thought and felt about these inevitable hot topics. To make a film such as The Defiant Ones, Inherit the Wind and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in a time when swords and sandal epics and broad comedies were very popular makes Kramer all the more of an underrated legend of filmmaking. Even though Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is firmly progressive and liberal in its message, it had a hugely positive reaction all around the United States…ironically even in the Southern States. It puzzled me at first why such a film would be so popular at the time, and I came to the conclusion that Kramer was such a meticulous and dedicated craftsmen to his stories, he could make the most serious and dire of issues entertaining and easy to digest, and his films allow us to see real-life issues portrayed on screen, allow thoughts to stir in our minds and most importantly, entertain us and instead of making us feel emotions of sadness and horror at the stories, allow us to see a slice of life that isn’t supposed to be heavy, but instead simply be real.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is an unusually funny film considering its subject matter. It is always very serious, but there are some genuinely humorous moments throughout, which make this even more realistic – I doubt that in 1967, in the inevitable case of this event actually happening, that it would be completely serious and somber. It is a great piece of light drama that takes a look at the subject matter in a way easy enough for us to sit down and actually enjoy. Of course, a lot of the film’s brilliance comes from the chemistry between the cast. The legendary scandalous couple of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy have some of the greatest chemistry in any of the ten films they did together. It is almost bittersweet that their last film together would be Tracy’s very last. Sidney Poitier, of course, is as brilliant here as he always is, and I stand by my belief that he is one of the greatest actors of all time, if not the very best. Although he takes a back seat to Hepburn and Tracy, he is still incredibly good and steals many of the moments in the film.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a legendary film – not only does it tackle a very important and at the time, controversial, topic with grace and tact, it is also a fiercely powerful acting showcase that brings out the best in all the castmembers, even with seasoned icons like Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Progressive films like this need to be made, because stories like this need to be told, and I am so glad we have such a brilliant film like this. A true masterpiece.