Thursday, April 28, 2011

Film: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

Title of film: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)
Directed by: Stanley Kramer
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, and Katherine Hepburn
My rating: ★★★★★

Summary: Matt and Christina Drayton (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn), two white liberals, come face-to-face with their principals when their daughter Joey (Katharine Houghton) surprises them with the news that she plans to marry Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), a black man. The mother and father are faced with a difficult decision: give the young couple their blessing even though they know they will have an extremely difficult life together, or not and break up two people so obviously in love. Though unsure at the beginning, Christina wants to give the pair her blessing, while Matt most certainly does not. The decision is made harder by the fact that it must be made by the time the two leave for New York that evening, and by Dr. Prentice's parents (Roy Glenn and Beah Richards) joining them for dinner. Mr. Prentice also does not want the two to marry. In the end, Matt sits everyone down, including the maid, Tillie (Isabel Sanford) and the family friend Monsignor Ryan (Cecil Kellaway). He then tells them that he, too, knows what it is like to be in love and that he can not keep Joey and Dr. Prentice from that. To the surprise of all, he gives them his blessing. Then the newly formed family finally sits down for dinner.

My take: Growing up in the deep South, this movie had a special importance to me. As a white woman living in Alabama, I have heard my fair share of racist comments ranging from the stereotypical to the absolutely ridiculous. In fact, I am one of the least racist people I know. Throughout Guess Who's Coming to Dinner I continuously changed my mind about what "rating" I would give the film. It started at three stars and ended at five after Spencer Tracy gave his unbelievable soliloquy that literally brought Katharine Hepburn to tears. I don't know a single person in this state who, in real life, would say the things his character said or agree to what his character agreed to. That in itself should bring me to tears. Here we are, forty-four years later, and still I see and hear racism every where I go. And not only from white people but from black people as well, just as Dr. Prentice's parents had their opposition to the relationship. When Joey says "I wouldn't let him go now, even if you were the governor of Alabama. I mean if Mom were," I knew exactly to what she was referring to, or whom rather. Governor Wallace, the most racist governor the state of Alabama has ever had (and possibly the United States) was seceded by his wife, Lurleen Wallace in 1967, when Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was released. In fact, it is Lurleen Wallace whose namesake is given to the building in which I attend class everyday. It is embarrassing that there are still people, and people I know well, who are just as racist as Governor Wallace, so many years later.

Aside from my personal background/emotions mixed in with the film's I truly enjoyed it. Katharine Hepburn's acting was, of course, superb (she did win the Oscar for Best Actress for the role). I must admit, when Joey said "He thinks you're gonna faint because he's a negro" I about choked on my popcorn. I loved her character's bluntness with the whole situation. When one is in a position like that, it would be backtracking to skirt around the issues instead of getting right to it. I'm glad the writer saw this when creating her character.

One random thought – did people back then really honk every time they pulled up to a house? Definitely there was no chance of surprising anyone! I think now it would almost be considered rude!

Spencer Tracy's monologue at the end was by far the best part of the film, especially knowing that he passed away 17 days after filming ended and this was the last scene shot (or so I've read). It was as if he knew that he didn't have much longer and decided to put his whole heart, everything he knew about acting and everything he could know and throw it all in for those last few minutes."There'll be 100 million people right here in this country who will be shocked and offended and appalled and the two of you will just have to ride that out, maybe every day for the rest of your lives. You could try to ignore those people, or you could feel sorry for them and for their prejudice and their bigotry and their blind hatred and stupid fears, but where necessary you'll just have to cling tight to each other and say 'screw all those people'!" he says. And that is true today. There are still those people and, I fear, there will always be those people. But Guess Who's Coming to Dinner took that attitude and exposed it to what it is — stupid fear. And for that, this film gets (and deserves) five stars.

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