The 40th Academy Awards (1968)
So 1968 is the Oscar year where everything changes. It’s the year where the Academy stops only nominating musicals and British period pieces (save for Doctor Dolittle) and starts nominating movies about what was happening in the culture, man. It’s an Oscar year so pivotal that Mark Harris wrote the book Pictures At A Revolution about the five Best Picture nominees in 1968 and how they reflected where Hollywood was at the time. While I had already seen The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, and In The Heat of The Night, I had never gotten around to Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, probably because I’d assumed that its depiction of ’60s-era race relations wouldn’t hold up that well. However, I was actually quite surprised how deftly this movie handles its complicated subject matter.
I was also surprised by how much I enjoyed this movie because I’m not really sure where this film stands in the canon of “important” American movies. Sure, it was tied for the most Oscar nominations that year and could be seen as a key moment in normalizing inter-racial marriages in the culture. But just like My Fair Lady, it’s a film that was included in the 1998 version of AFI’s Top 100 Movies but was then dropped from the 2007 version, while its close cousin In The Heat of The Night made its way onto that list. Similarly, I feel like In The Heat of The Night is now accepted as the more beloved Sidney Poitier film of 1967, which I think is tied to the way each movie deals with race. While In The Heat of The Night can be enjoyed on its merits as a whodunit buddy cop movie in addition to its commentary on race, this commentary is all that Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner is about. Which I think makes people a little too squeamish to make any definitive pronouncement on whether this movie is a classic or not.
I suppose another thing that surprised me about Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner is that it had a ticking clock element to it. You see, Joanna Drayton (played by Katharine Houghton), a young white woman, has returned from a vacation in Hawaii to visit her parents in San Francisco. While on vacation, she met a Black doctor named John (Sidney Poitier) and they both have fallen madly in love with each other, so much so that they’re already engaged. However, the night that he’s meeting Joanne’s parents, he also has to fly to New York before spending three months in Switzerland. It’s before he leaves that he also would like to get the blessing of Joanne’s parents to marry her, even though Joanne has basically already made up her mind about getting married.
When Joanne introduces both of her parents, Christina and Matt (Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy) to John, they’re both a bit shocked that she plans to marry a Black man. Though at the same time, they are clearly trying to hide their discomfort, since both of them are lifelong liberals. After John puts forward his desire to have their blessing to Matt, the old man says he’ll think about it but doesn’t love getting only the timespan of an evening to do it. Various conversations are had about how hard it will be for John and Joanne to weather the harsh judgments of more bigotted people as we see a few characters in the movie that have these reservations towards their relationship, one of which is the Black maid that works for the Draytons. Then this oncoming dinner becomes heightened even more when John’s parents fly up from Los Angeles for the dinner and it becomes apparent that John’s father has a lot of the same concerns as Joanne’s father about their marriage.
So, obviously, you get a lot more nuanced of a look at an interracial marriage by making the “disapproving parents” liberals who want to convince themselves that there’s nothing wrong with any of this. It’s also pretty clever the way the film introduces the whirlwind nature of this romance as something that the naysayers can latch onto as a reason that these two kids shouldn’t get married. Which, honestly feels a lot more connected to the way racism is dealt with today, where no one actually would come out and say a racial slur, but would instead cloak it in some bullshit rhetoric that’s beside the point, like saying that “Blue Lives Matter”.
I also think the way each actor and their corresponding character is used in this movie is pretty masterfully done. Obviously, the casting of Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy — two of classic Hollywood’s iconic screen couples — is an inspired one. I think it must have hit audiences very close to home to see this couple placed in a more modern context to drive home the point that times have changed and the older generation is having a hard time adapting. It’s been said that Tracy was in very poor health when he filmed Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (he died weeks after production wrapped), but he’s always bringing exactly the right energy that this conflicted character needs. I think what I’ve found to be special about Tracy is the way he played characters that embody a very male traditionalism while having to grapple with changing times, and this performance is just one more testament to his ability to serve that role in a way that’s gentle but commanding at the same time.
I’m not sure how Sidney Poitier wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for this role or In The Heat of The Night this year, but maybe the Academy just felt like they’d already done their part by giving him an Oscar a few years prior. Either way, he’s as solid as ever, though I think this character may be the easiest thing to criticize, since you could make the case that he falls into the “magical negro” stereotype. He is basically the kindest, most impressive person ever, though this was director Stanley Kramer and writer William Rose’s intention, as they wanted to make it as clear as possible that there was absolutely no reason for the Draytons (or the audience) to think that he wasn’t marriage material. That said, I think the movie does a good job of turning John into more than a bastion of good-ness by bringing his parents and his complicated upbringing to the forefront, which makes him feel just as fully realized as any of the other characters in the movie.
It is odd to me that Katharine Hepburn won Best Actress for this performance, which is nonetheless quite good and she embodies the movie’s mantra that love should be able to flourish under any circumstances. It’s just that it’s very much a supporting performance, but I guess the Academy couldn’t get enough of giving Oscars to Hepburn. Less surprising is that it won Best Screenplay, as everything I’m talking about that works is because of the way this dialogue-heavy film tackles its tricky subject matter. I’m sure there are plenty of things a person of color could point out about Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner that are a little iffy, but I’m not sure I necessarily think of this movie as landmark in Black representation onscreen (though it does feature just about as many Black characters as white ones). I think of it more as a movie about the conversations about race that white people needed to start having with each other and, for better or for worse, need to keep having with each other.