Screen legend Sidney Poitier stars in a groundbreaking and timeless film
Screen legend and trailblazer Sidney Poitier passed away yesterday at the age of 94. In honor of the life and career of this talented actor, I am presenting one of his most popular and successful films, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”.
Sidney Poitier's film career started in the early 1950s, and by 1967 he had become the first Black actor to win a Best Actor Academy Award (for 1963’s “Lilies of the Field”), was the first Black actor to be cast in leading roles, and the first Black mainstream movie star. The same year as “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, Poitier starred in two additional classics, "To Sir, with Love", and his iconic role in the landmark Best Picture Oscar winner that year, “In the Heat of the Night” (film #12 on this blog). He was at the height of his career, and come 1968, Poitier was the number one box office star in America. At the same time, he found himself criticized for not being more politically radical, for playing idealized roles that lacked sexuality or defects (such as the near-perfect “John” in this film), and some felt he catered to whites. Poitier consciously chose his roles and films (compromising only twice - “Porgy and Bess” and "The Long Ships”), as he only accepted roles that did not play on racial stereotypes and in which his character had dignity. In a 2000 interview in “O, The Oprah Magazine”, Poitier said, “I was the most successful black actor in the history of the country. I was not in control of the kinds of films I would be offered, but I was totally in control of the kinds of films I would do. So I came to the mix with that power - the power to say, ‘No, I will not do that’. I did that from the beginning. Back then, Hollywood was a place in which there had never been a ‘To Sir, With Love’, ‘The Defiant Ones’, ‘In the Heat of the Night’ or ‘Guess Who's Coming to Dinner’. Nothing like it. What the name-callers missed was that the films I did were designed not just for blacks but for the mainstream. I was in concert with maybe a half-dozen filmmakers, and they were all white. And they chose to make films that would make a statement to a mainstream audience about the awful nature of racism”. However one might feel about his choices, there is no question Sidney Poitier broke new ground for Blacks actors and helped Blacks become more visible and accepted in white America. He was without-a-doubt an important cinematic and cultural figure. You can read more about Sidney Poitier’s life and career in my post on “In the Heat of the Night” .
As with many of Poitier’s films, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” ruminates on race issues - though this time with a somewhat lighthearted approach. Through its humor, drama, charismatic characters and some unexpected moments, this story about interracial marriage is exceptionally entertaining. Even with its 1960’s style, the interpersonal relationships and situations ring so true that “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” remains personal, powerfully stirring, and timeless. Its groundbreaking script won that year’s Best Original Story and Screenplay Academy Award, Katharine Hepburn’s performance won a Best Actress Oscar, and the film had eight additional nominations (including Best Picture). It is ranked at #35 on the American Film Institute’s List of The 100 Most Inspiring Films Of All Time, #58 on their 100 Greatest Love Stories Of All Time list, and #99 of the list of the The 100 Greatest American Movies Of All Time. Every time I watch this film I’m reminded that it is even more spellbinding than I recall.
This classic revolves around a successful Black doctor, “John”, and his white fiancee, “Joanna”, as they announce their engagement to their unsuspecting parents who know nothing of their relationship, let alone upcoming marriage. Escalating the situation, “John” is leaving the country the next morning, and confides in “Joanna’s” parents that he won’t marry her without their blessing. On such a short deadline, “John’s” parents,,“Joanna’s” parents and others, are each forced to grapple with their own inner battles. Through laughter, tears, disappointment and love, the film exposes generational divides, parent/child relationships, racism from different points of views, and a realization that love knows no boundaries. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is not a run-of-the-mill film about prejudice, but a highly entertaining and thought-provoking journey, which in the end is more a statement that love conquers all.
While a story about interracial marriage might not seem like such a big deal today, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was a daring film to make, and one must keep in mind the state of America at the time. Interracial marriage was still illegal in sixteen states when filming took place, and became legalized nationwide just six months before the film premiered. It was the peak of the Civil Rights movement, and a time of explosive racial tensions. Recent events included the passing of The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Selma to Montgomery March, the Watts riots, and the founding of the Black Panther Party. There was resistance to desegregation, and interracial marriage was very much a taboo subject. According to director Stanley Kramer’s wife, upon making the film Poitier asked her husband, “Do you think the country is ready for this film?”, to which Kramer replied, “No. But we’re gonna make it anyhow”. The film was a box-office hit and for the most part a critical success.. Once the film opened Kramer received death threats.
The success of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is largely because of Stanley Kramer, who produced and directed it. Kramer became known for making important films about controversial subjects and social issues - including fascism, biker gangs, paraplegic war veterans, corruption, nuclear war, greed, evolution, and racism. He made three films about racism prior to “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, “Home of the Brave”, "The Defiant Ones", and "Pressure Point” (the latter two also starring Poitier). With “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, Kramer made a socially significant film without a heavy hand in sight. His easygoing and entertaining approach makes for a completely absorbing and touching film experience. For “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, Kramer earned his final two (out of nine) Academy Award nominations, this time for Best Director and Best Picture (which goes to a producer). Though he never won a competitive Oscar, in 1962 he was awarded the Academy’s Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for his body of work. I wrote a bit more about Stanley Kramer in my post on another of his classics, “High Noon”. Please check it out for more information on him and his career.
Sidney Poitier stars as “Dr. John Wade Prentice”, the man about to marry. Poitier uses his charm, sensitivity, good looks, and talent to a procure a masterfully nuanced performance. One can feel “John’s” discomfort and unsaid emotions floating just beneath the surface throughout the film - whether while trying to impress “Joanna’s” parents, or to avoid mentioning the race of his fiancée to his father on a phone call. “John” has a powerfully stunning moment when confronting his father in person. His words are brutally harsh and profound , and Poitier delivers them with an explosive honesty, and this is one of his most famous roles.
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was the final film of one of cinema’s most popular and endearing screen couples - Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. The two were both big stars when first paired in the 1942 classic, “Woman of the Year”. In the 1992 documentary "MGM: When the Lion Roars", Hepburn recalls the moment they met as Tracy was walking from the commissary with producer Joesph L. Mankiewicz, “I had very high heels, I was about 5’ 7 ½” then, Spencer was about 5’10”. I said ‘Sorry I’ve got these high heels on’, and Joe looked at me and said, ‘Don’t worry Kate. He’ll cut you down to his size’”. Perhaps Mankiewicz had the foresight to sense their chemistry, since a large part of their screen magic involved Tracy taking Hepburn’s force-of-nature presence down a peg or two. They were a perfectly matched pair. His gruff, straight-shooting, no-nonsense manner softened her, while she was able to bring out his hidden sex appeal. Much has been written and said about their off-screen relationship, which became (and to some degree remains) one of Hollywood’s greatest romantic love stories. It seems Tracy was unhappily married but too religious to get divorced. When he and Hepburn met, they fell in love, he became the love of her life, and she graciously understood they could never marry.
There are more than a few accounts by credible sources claiming that both Tracy and Hepburn were gay and their love affair was concocted by MGM’s stellar publicity department to hide Hepburn’s being a lesbian and Tracy being a closeted, religious, self-hating homosexual. One such claim came from playwright Larry Kramer in a 2015 interview by Maer Roshan in The Hollywood Reporter, in which Kramer stated: “Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were both gay. They were publicly paired together by the studio. Everyone in Hollywood knows this is true, but of course I haven't seen it printed anywhere”. When I first heard the reports about a decade or so ago, I was shocked and in disbelief - not that Hepburn was a lesbian, but that their love affair was not real. After the dust settled, I began to realize how that scenario made so much sense, and filled in the gaps of the things I had read about each of them for decades. After meeting people who knew them both well who confirmed this, and knowing how Hollywood works, I personally have no doubt it’s true. As I stated in my “Pillow Talk” post, when there is solid evidence of this sort about Hollywood stars, I feel a need to present it since Hollywood did everything it could to erase homosexuality from our consciousness. That said, feel free to make your own conclusion. If you want to keep the romantic fantasy alive please, go for it! Either way, the two undoubtedly had an exciting and tangible on-screen chemistry and an off-screen relationship, even if not sexual (or as film director and Hepburn's close friend George Cukor has called it in many interviews, a "friendship"). “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” contains their most moving and emotional pairing.
Spencer Tracy is first billed as “Matt Drayton”, “Joanna’s” father, and a successful newspaper editor and liberal. Tracy brings his expertise of almost forty years of acting before the camera to the role. An actor known for getting the most out of doing the least, he somehow enables us to watch “Matt’s” inner thought process. There’s the scene in which “Matt” stands alone on the patio by the tree, reflecting on the day’s events. Without saying a word, and with no more than a simple, direct truthfulness, Tracy enables us to actually see his mind thinking. It is extraordinary. It was Kramer who ingeniously thought to reunite Tracy with Hepburn for this film. The two hadn’t appeared in a film together since “Desk Set”, ten years earlier, and Tracy’s last film appearance was in Kramer’s 1963 film “It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”. After that he stopped acting due to failing health. With Kramer’s convincing and Hepburn’s support, Tracy agreed to do “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”. It was a rough shoot, as everyone (including Tracy) knew he was dying. His final monologue is an astounding example of the honest naturalism for which he was known. The words roll off his tongue as if said for the first time. When he utters the line (referring to love), “and if it’s half of what we felt, that’s everything”, and then looks at his teary wife (Hepburn), you know that is the dying Tracy speaking directly to actress Hepburn, transcending the film while staying in character. It is moving and heartbreaking at the same time. This speech was the last scene Tracy shot, and the last piece of acting he ever did. He died just seventeen days later.
Considered by many to be the greatest actor of classic films, Spencer Tracy was voted by the American Film Institute (AFI) as the 9th Greatest Male American Screen Legend. He began his career in theater, in stock companies, making it to Broadway in 1923, where he worked steadily. Film director John Ford spotted Tracy on Broadway, and cast him in the lead of his 1930 film, “Up the River”. It was Tracy’s first feature film (and Humphrey Bogart’s too). Tracy was immediately given a film contract with Fox Film Corporation, and moved to Los Angeles to begin a film career. A critical success after almost two dozen films, he remained unknown. Released from his contract with Fox, Tracy signed with MGM in 1935 where studio executive Irving Thalberg was determined to make him a star. MGM quickly cast him opposite a couple of their biggest stars such as Jean Harlow and Myrna Loy, but his career took off in 1936 with three films - “Fury”, “San Francisco” (for which he earned his first of nine Best Actor Academy Award nominations) and the classic screwball comedy, “Libeled Lady” (opposite both Harlow and Loy). In 1937, just two films later he co-starred in "Captains Courageous”, and won his first Best Actor Oscar. The following year he won his second for “Boys Town”, and became the first actor to win two consecutive Academy Awards (the second was Tom Hanks in the 1990s).
Tracy's first pairing with Hepburn in 1942's "Woman of the Year" boosted both their careers, and they paired in six more films in the 1940s, (including “Adam’s Rib” and “State of the Union”) and two in the 1950s (“Pat and Mike” and “Desk Set”), before making “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”. In a career spanning just shy of forty years and almost eighty films, his other classics include, “Father of the Bride”, “Bad Day at Black Rock”, “The Old Man and the Sea”, “Inherit the Wind”, and “Judgment at Nuremberg” (each of which earned him an Oscar nomination), as well as "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", "Edison, the Man", "Northwest Passage", and "20,000 Years in Sing Sing". He received his ninth and final Best Actor Academy Award nomination posthumously for “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”. In 1923 Tracy married actress Louise Treadwell, and the two remained married for the rest of his life, though they mostly lived apart. They had two children, one of whom was born deaf (and Tracy felt his deafness was punishment for his own sins). In her autobiography, “Me”, Hepburn describes Tracy as a man battling inner demons and never at peace. Tracy was plagued much of his life by insomnia and depression, and by the end, prescription drugs. He began drinking excessively in the 1930s and was an alcoholic who would fluctuate between periods of very heavy drinking and sobriety. His years of alcohol and smoking weakened his health, and by the 1960’s he was faced with severe heart disease and diabetes. Spencer Tracy died of a heart attack in 1967 at the age of 67.
Katharine Hepburn stars as “Christina Drayton”, the liberal mother of “Joanna”, who runs an art gallery. While “Christina” is a bit more ready to accept her daughter’s marriage than her husband, Hepburn lets us know through crackling underlying emotions that this is a woman wrestling internally. We see it from the second she sees “John”. They way Hepburn plays that exact moment is astonishingly, truthfully complex. In a couple of seconds she manages to convey shock, disbelief, confusion and self-questioning - all while putting on a brave face. I’m flabbergasted every time I watch it. Hepburn clearly conveys that this is a woman who’s had the wind knocked out of her sails. And the scene in which she confronts the woman who works for her is played to perfection. It is a truly magnificent performance.
Though the role is comparatively subdued, it is one of her greatest. Katharine Hepburn had not made a film for five years when Kramer lured her back for this role. She won her second Best Actress Academy Award for “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (thirty four years after winning for “Morning Glory” in 1933), and it gave her career a second coming at close to sixty years old. The following year she won her third Best Actress Oscar for “The Lion in Winter” (the second actress to win consecutive acting Oscars, the first was Luise Rainer). Hepburn would win a fourth and final Oscar for the 1981 classic, “On Golden Pond”. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was a tense shoot for Hepburn, as she was consumed by Tracy’s deteriorating health and protective of her niece (who plays “Joanna” in the film). She was in full support of Tracy doing the film and kept an eye on him throughout. Just after filming began, Columbia Pictures said they couldn’t insure Tracy and cancelled the film (some believed it was a ploy stop this controversial film from being made). As a retort, Kramer and Hepburn put up their salaries as collateral for Tracy’s insurance and Columbia had no choice but to let the film proceed. She stated numerous times that she never watched the final film since her memories of Tracy were too painful. I wrote about Katharine Hepburn in three previous posts, “The Philadelphia Story” , “Bringing Up Baby”, and "The African Queen", where you can find out more about her and her career in those posts. A fun piece of trivia: the tiny bronze bust of Spencer Tracy seen in the film was actually sculpted by Hepburn. After her death, Sotheby’s auctioned it as part of her estate, and sold for a whopping $316,000 (the highest selling item in the auction)!
Katharine Houghton plays “Joanna ‘Joey’ Drayton”, the girl about to marry. Houghton brings just the right amount of youthful excitement and naïveté to the part, and becomes a stronghold for a world of racial equality. "Joanna” sees no difference between her and “John”, challenging the conventions of the day, forcing audiences to confront the then uncomfortable subject of integration. Perhaps that is why Houghton, like Kramer, received death threats after the film opened.
Katharine Houghton was Hepburn’s niece (the daughter of Hepburn’s younger sister), and when Kramer said he wanted an actress who looked like Hepburn and Tracy, Hepburn suggested Houghton for the role. She had previously appeared on two TV shows, and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was her first film. She continued her acting career on stage (including Broadway) and television, and appeared in just under a dozen films including "Ethan Frome" in 1993 and "Kinsey" in 2004. She also had a recurring role on the daytime TV soap opera, "All My Children" in the early 1990s . Houghton is also a playwright, and has published eleven plays to date. She married actor Ken Jenkins in 1970, and the two are still currently married. As of the writing of this post, Katharine Houghton is 76 years old.
Cecil Kellaway is wonderful as “Monsignor Mike Ryan”, friend of the “Draytons”. “Mike” sees people for who they are and not how they look, and when he looks at “John” and “Joanna”, all he sees is a happy couple. Kellaway is able to bring a calm and kindness to the mix, and in his priestly role he manages to rise above the conflicts and help quiet the storm. “Mike” sums up everyone’s predicament perfectly when he states that he is amused that “Joanna’s” father has “come face to face with his own principals”. For this role, Kellaway earned a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination (his second and final).
South African born Cecil Kellaway realized his love for acting at an early age, and after working briefly as an engineer, quit to become a full-time actor. After touring in Asia and Europe, he settled in Australia where he became a very successful stage actor. While on stage, he dabbled in films with his first in 1933, and his second (“It Isn't Done”) in 1937, from which RKO Pictures discovered him and gave him a film contract. He moved to Hollywood, and began with a small part in 1938’s “Everybody's Doing It”. He continued in small roles (including the classic “Gunga Din”), and by the end of the 1930s was getting better roles in such films as "Wuthering Heights”, “Intermezzo”, and "I Married a Witch". By the mid 1940s he was moving back and fourth between leading and supporting roles in classics such as "The Postman Always Rings Twice", "Mrs. Parkington", "Joan of Arc", "Portrait of Jennie", "Harvey", and "The Luck of the Irish” in 1948, which earned him his first Best Supporting Oscar nomination. He appeared in films, TV, and theater for over forty years, amassing almost 150 film and TV credits. He was married once, for over fifty years, until his death. Cecil Kellaway died in 1973 at the age of 82.
Beah Richards plays “Mrs. Prentice”, John’s surprised mother. Richards gives a spectacular performance starting from the moment we see her at the airport. She radiates a warm and gentle clearheadedness while feeling shock and disappointment, trying to make peace within herself and for the others. Richards is a first-rate actress giving a knockout performance. Just watch how Richards looks at the actors she acts opposite. She listens with so much vulnerability and openness. And when “Mrs. Prentice” gives her speech about men growing old I practically shed a tear every time I watch it. Richards’ performance is deeply moving, and for it she received her one and only Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination.
Beah Richards began her career on stage, quickly making it to Broadway where she appeared in the original cast of both “The Miracle Worker” in 1957, and “A Raisin in the Sun” in 1959, and was later nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in the 1965 James Baldwin show, “The Amen Corner”. She started her film career with the part of a maid in “The Mugger” in 1958, followed by a more substantial role in “Take a Giant Step” in 1959. She played one more maid in an uncredited part in the classic film version of “The Miracle Worker” (and it briefly mentioned in that film's post). Just prior to making “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, and appeared in a small but memorable role as “Mama Caleba” opposite Poitier in “In the Heat of the Night”. Richards worked extensively on television, including recurring roles on the series "ER", "Hearts Afire", and "Beauty and the Beast", and won two Emmy awards for her appearances on “Frank’s Place” in 1987 and on “The Practice” in 2000. With about sixty TV credits and over a dozen film appearances, some of her other classic films include "The Great White Hope", "Mahogany", "Drugstore Cowboy", and “Beloved”. In 1974, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. She was married and divorced once. Beah Richards died in 2000 at the age of 80. I am a huge fan!
Isabel Sanford plays “Tillie”, the “Drayton’s” housekeep and cook. The cantankerous “Tillie” rides a delicate line delivering much of the film’s comedy. Protective of “Joanna”, whom she practically raised, and mistrusting of “John”, “Tillie” represents society’s reluctance to accept changing race roles. It is not an easy role and Sanford is superb, and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was her very first film.
Isabel Sanford began her career on the New York stage. After several years, she moved to California, and funny enough, five years later made her New York Broadway debut in James Baldwin's “The Amen Corner” in 1965. From that show, she was cast in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, followed by more films, and an appearance in an episode of the classic TV series, “Bewitched” in 1968, which was the beginning of a golden television career. She made appearances on “Love, American Style” and “The Carol Burnett Show”, among others, and in 1971, was cast in the landmark TV series, “All in the Family” as the next-door neighbor, “Louise Jefferson”. She and Sherman Hemsley (who played her husband) were such a hit on the show, they reprised their characters, “Louise” and “George Jefferson”, starring in their own spin-off landmark sitcom, “The Jeffersons”. The hit series ran from 1975 until 1985, made Sanford a household name and face, and earned her seven consecutive Emmy Award nominations (from 1979 through 1985), winning the award in 1981. She appeared in close to sixty TV shows and films, in a career spanning just shy of forty years. Some of her other films include, "Lady Sings the Blues", "Love at First Bite", "South Beach", and "Up the Sandbox”. She was married once. Isabel Sanford died in 2004 at the age of 86.
In addition to the Academy Award wins for Best Actress (Hepburn) and Best Writing, and the already mentioned nominations for Best Picture, Director (Kramer), Actor (Tracy), Supporting Actor (Kellaway), and Supporting Actress (Richards), “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was also nominated for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Robert Clatworthy and Frank Tuttle), Best Film Editing (Robert C. Jones), and Best Music, Scoring of Music, Adaptation or Treatment (Frank De Vol). Costumes were designed by Jean Louis, who I wrote about in the “Pillow Talk” post.
This week’s outstanding film honors cinema giant Sidney Poitier, a man who gave great performances, opened doors for Black actors, and reshaped culture in a groundbreaking film that is as powerful today as it was in its time. It is moving, funny, and highly entertaining. Enjoy “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”!
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