Tuesday 15 November 2011

Movie Review: Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967)

The start of a new era and the end of a momentous career, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner is a milestone film. With his health failing to the point that no coverage could be secured to insure his ability to complete filming, Spencer Tracy delivers a final exclamation point to a career spanning 37 years and 75 movies. Katharine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier share the spotlight with the ailing but game Tracy to round out a stellar cast and tell the unlikely tale of evolving race relations in the United States.

Joanna Drayton (Katharine Houghton, the real-life niece of Hepburn) and Dr. John Prentice (Poitier) arrive in San Francisco, and drop in unexpectedly at the home of Joanna's parents Matt (Tracy) and Christina (Hepburn). Joanna, who is very white, and Dr. Prentice, who is very black, met while on vacation in Hawaii, fell madly in love, and after a 10 day courtship have decided to get married. Prentice, a widower with a spotless record of academic and professional achievement, wants Matt's immediate and unreserved blessing prior to committing to the marriage, while Joanna, bright eyed, energetic and idealistic, is determined to tie the knot no matter what.

Matt and Christina are proud of their liberal world views and equally proud of Joanna's colour-blind fearlessness, but they are both initially stunned by their daughter's bombshell. Christina quickly recovers her equilibrium and wholeheartedly supports Joanna's decision to get married to the man she loves. Matt's attitude and reaction are clouded by his concern for the future happiness of his daughter and his grandchildren, and he does not appreciate the need for a rushed decision.

Unexpectedly, the Draytons' long-term black housekeeper, Tillie (Isabel Sanford) is most hostile to the idea of a black man marrying Joanna. On the opposite side of the spectrum is family friend Monsignor Ryan (Cecil Kellaway), who is immediately heartily and joyfully supportive. Matters get a lot more complicated when Dr. Prentice's parents (Roy E. Glenn and Beah Richards) fly in from Los Angeles to join the dinner festivities: they are shocked to learn that their son wants to marry a white woman. By the time dinner is served, Matt needs to make a decision that will have long-lasting family implications.

Although written for the screen by William Rose, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner has the compact structure of a sharp play. Director Stanley Kramer keeps his cameras moving between the many rooms at the Draytons' home, with a few perfunctory external trips, but Kramer is fully aware that the energy resides within his cast: Tracy, Hepburn and Poitier are given ample breadth to shine, and Houghton more than holds her own in the presence of acting greatness.

Tracy and Hepburn, in their ninth and final screen pairing, portray a long-married couple and tap into their real-life relationship to demonstrate the comfort and respect that only comes when deep love renders the most basic conversations unnecessary. Matt and Christina never have to tell each other what they are thinking: instead, they take turns to warn each other about the consequences of their unstated but accurately predicted judgements.

Poitier delivers his trademark proud yet humble performance, a man at ease with himself but acutely aware of the discomfort that his skin colour causes in others. Katharine Houghton's bright performance leaves open the question as to why she did not go on to have a much more prominent career in film.

Race relations in the United States of the 1960s are the core issue that Guess Who's Coming To Dinner grapples with, and the questions from Rose and Kramer just keep on coming. How will a liberal couple react when their own daughter announces an imminent marriage to a black man? Why does a white family's black housekeeper resent the white daughter marrying a black man? How is it that the representative of the most conservative institution, the Monsignor, has the least difficulty with the issue? And why would the reaction of Prentice's black parents be any different than the reaction of Joanna's white parents?

Finally, and with the most deft of touches, Rose manages to shuffle the pieces of the puzzle so that the dividing line appears between the mothers and the fathers, and not the between the blacks and whites. He raises a whole new set of questions about the role of men and women in first instilling the proper values in their children, and then being true to them when it matters the most.

Tracy draws the curtain on Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, and his career, with a gripping monologue summarizing the day's events and delivering his verdict about his daughter's future. Seventeen days after filming ended, he died. Rarely has a distinguished actor had the opportunity to exit the stage so clearly on top of his craft.

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