This ideal America lasted until one fateful day in November, 1963, when the innocence of America was shattered and a vibrant young man, the leader of the free world, was gunned down in the prime of his term in office.
From that point on, America lost it's way. Gone were the days of the Malt Stop and Buddy Holly's Rock & Roll. Now there were race riots, assassinations and free love. But something, one thing that was a source of controversy and trouble across the decade, was the subject of civil rights. Rosa Parks sat at the front of the bus in direct defiance of the law. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached non-violence, and one movie dared to break down the color barrier.
Star Trek, the popular 1960's sci-fi adventure show, was the first to have a white man (William Shatner) and black woman (Nichelle Nichols) kiss. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was the first to showcase an interracial couple.
Christina Drayton (Hepburn) and her husband, Matt (Tracy) are overjoyed that their daughter, Joey (Katherine Houghton), has returned from Hawaii, but are shocked to find she is engaged to a prominent, albeit black, doctor (Sidney Poitier).
Mr. Drayton can't take the news, and is even more shocked to learn that the groom's parents are coming to dinner. It should be a fun night, don't you think?
Highlighted by standout performances by the entire cast, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was a sensation in the United States. The picture won praise from civil rights groups and critics across the country, and darned if it isn't a magnificent film, but it does have it's flaws.
For one thing, the film is filled with stereotypes. There is the joyful Monsignor Ryan who puts even Bing Crosby to shame. There is the black housekeeper, Tillie (Isabell Sanford) who hates the situation: "I don't care to see a member of my own race getting above himself," she states. And she is talking of John Prentice, the super-human doctor who does it all. Had it been some poor black man, would we still believe they fell in love? Or would it have been MORE believable?
The only real characters in the film are Mr. and Mrs. Prentice, the good doctor's mom and pop. Dad wants to see junior use what he has earned, because he owes his father for everything. After all, Mr. Prentice carried a mailbag 75,000 miles to give his son a grand education. And marrying a white woman, well that would quash any chance of further success for his son. But Poitier's Prentice steps out of character here, tell his old man: "I owe you nothing! If you carried that bag a million miles, you did what you're supposed to do! Because you brought me into this world. And from that day you owed me everything you could ever do for me..."
It's hypocritical of the doctor to say these things, that he doesn't accept his father's judgement, yet if Mr. Drayton disapproves, he will step away from marrying Joey. A flaw in the character, perhaps.
As the film goes on, the eclectic cast of characters argue to no end pro and con why they shouldn't get married. But like a blot of lightning right out of the blue, Tracy's Matt Drayton has an epiphany and declares, through a long-winded monologue that he is Ok with the marriage and gives his blessing.
His sudden change of heart is terribly unbelievable and almost clichéd, like you knew he would change all along. It's just wrong that he would change his mind so quickly, give a long and impassioned speech, and have the film end right then and there, without any rebuttal, like everyone agrees and the young couple will live happily ever after. This paints a false ending to a film that needs to tell much more. But this monologue by Tracy is his best scene in the film, and garnered him an Oscar nomination. (Or was it the fact that he passed away only two weeks after the filming ended?) While Tracy drones on, they cut to a shot of Hepburn in tears, not for his speech, but because she knows he is dying and that this scene - the last one Tracy filmed for the picture - would be his last scene, EVER. (Tracy and Hepburn were close friends for years and had a long-running affair. Hepburn never watched this film for the memories of Tracy were too painful.)
One of the greatest films of the 1960's and a motion picture film that feels dated, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is still a film that provides great entertainment today, but when looking at it from the point of view of John Q. 1960's, was very provocative and powerful. A masterpiece not be missed, it was Spencer Tracy's final film, and boy, did he go out with a bang!
Age at win: 59
Nominated for: Best Actress in a Leading Role, Christina Drayton, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Nomination: 2/12 (acting), 2/12 (total); Win: 2nd
Her first win came for 1933's Morning Glory, and, having been declared box-office poison, came back to reinvent herself a couple times. Audiences loved her. Her films were popular. and from the time of her first win until 1963, she was nominated a further 8 times, all in a leading role, without winning. But she won consecutive Oscars in 1967-68, and again in 1981.
Katharine would win her second Oscar after 33 years, in 1967, for playing the mother of the bride, so to speak. Katherine has always been sophisticated in every role she did, and here was no exception. As elegant as ever in the role of Christina Drayton, the understanding mother who approves of the marriage of her daughter to a black man, she is the level-headedness to Spencer Tracy's foolishness.
She knows what kind of life awaits her daughter should she get married, but she won't say it... she loves her daughter too much and wants the best for her. Yes, she is in shock, but her daughter's happiness is more important than her own misgivings.
Hepburn, always a beautiful and charming actress, was stunning again here in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. She commented herself that she was probably given the Oscar because Spencer Tracy had died. Nevertheless, she gave a terrific performance that was well worth an Oscar, even if Spencer Tracy had died.