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Building My Movie Posters Puzzle: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

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In late June I took advantage of some free days to visit my Mother in Virginia for her birthday. It was a fun long weekend that included meals out, a screening of Finding Dory, and an unexpected shared activity when I ran across a puzzle in the book store that was just too good to pass up. It consists of thirty-nine posters from a wide variety of classic films stretching from the silent era of the 1920s into the 1970s. It was an engrossing project to undertake alongside my Mother and we naturally discussed several of the featured movies as we built it. What stunned me a little was that I had actually only seen twenty-six of the thirty-nine films honored. I have vowed to fill these gaps in my knowledge of film and take you along for the ride as I reconstruct the puzzle in question. I’ll re-watch the movies I’ve already seen along with experiencing the ones that are new to me and share my thoughts on each one.

Just two moves to the right of The Graduate (1967) on my movie posters puzzle is another well-known movie from the same iconic year in American history. This one stars three Academy Award winners and is also set in the San Francisco area. It’s also a reminder that the sexual revolution of the era which is so often associated with the peace and love hippie movement going on just a few neighborhoods over from where the action of this film takes place was a much wider phenomenon than that. The expanding presence of young women in the professional world combined with the advent and wide availability of effective birth control had an effect across a large range of populations. The script for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner touches this in only the gentlest of ways, but its social concerns are much more focused on another issue of the time which has, unfortunately, not shown anywhere close to the progress its characters appear to think it will.

By 1967 Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn had already appeared together in eight other films, mostly throughout the 1940s, and both were among the most honored actors of all time. Tracy had been nominated for eight Best Actor Oscars, winning back-to-back for Captains Courageous (1937) and Boys Town (1938) while Hepburn had been nominated nine times, winning in 1934 for Morning Glory. And the two were romantically involved with one another from 1941 until Tracy passed away in 1967 just 17 days after wrapping photography on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. To put that into perspective, imagine if Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson had been together since 1990. That’s how big these two were. The relationship was not public until late in Tracy’s life, as he never divorced his wife Louise, and even though Hepburn was the one who was entering the room when he collapsed and succumbed to a heart attack, official news releases at the time claimed that he had been found by a housekeeper. Hepburn even took the step of not attending his funeral out of respect for his family.

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Both of them were later nominated for their performances in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, with Hepburn bringing home her second Oscar statuette up to that time. Tracy lost out to Rod Steiger, who took home the award for his excellent work on In the Heat of the Night, which isn’t a choice I’d go out of my way to argue with, but there’s really no question that this movie belongs to Tracy even though he technically has less screen time than either Hepburn or Sidney Poitier.

The story, if you haven’t seen it yet, is about a successful and very socially progressive couple whose twenty-three year old daughter comes home from a trip to Hawaii with a suitor in tow who she announces that she is engaged to. The central problem is that the handsome, charming, and successful doctor she brings home with her just happens to be African-American. To amp up the pressure on her parents, the girl blithely sets their wedding for Switzerland and within a couple of weeks and her fiancée, played by Sidney Poitier, claims that if they object to the marriage he will withdraw. The entirety of the action plays out over a single day as the people in the young couple’s lives absorb the impact of what they’re in for and consider how to react.

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While it might be reasonable to criticize the movie for placing its story of racial reckoning in only the most liberal and upper class of households, doing so does have the advantage of allowing the filmmakers to sidestep the lack of nuance that could come with such a story. Introduce this same situation into a different environment or with a suitor less ideally fashioned than Poitier’s and the ignorance of racism may put a haze over proceedings that wouldn’t allow the thoughtful scenes and conversations that occur here. While such a story with messier people and motivations might indeed make a very interesting film, this one is plenty entrancing on its own merits, in part due to truly nuanced and open performances from its three Oscar winners. Poitier in particular shows off the impressive naturalness, verve, grace, and intelligence for which he has been known.

The time limits imposed by the script are a bit artificial and the predictable ending to a story like this as presented in a film is not particularly dramatic. The film also manages to underline and circle its own time period by applying what seem like rather cartoony ancillary characters and touches that I’d have to talk to someone significantly older than myself to get a real read on. For instance, a butcher’s delivery man seems like a leftover from director Stanley Kramer’s own It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World from four years prior and a hot-rodder Tracy has a run-in with also seems like the sort of character more popular in movies than they ever were in real life.

Yeah, as you can tell, that scene is completely out of step with the tone of the rest of the picture and I have to blame it on the vagaries of the time. Filmmakers appear to have thought this was funny or charming or something.

The studio chorus rendition of “The Glory of Love,” which had been recorded by Dean Martin the previous year, also seems out of place, plastering something that would seem appropriate to the parents’ relationship over scenes of the younger couple’s happy arrival.

If you can go in accepting some of these weaknesses, however, what you’ll find at the core of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a warm and nuanced depiction of likable characters wrestling with their own senses of self. And I’ll typically pay the price of admission for that kind of entertainment, even when it’s flawed.

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Posted on August 27, 2016, in Awards, Movies, Oscars, reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I viewed “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” in its entirety close to a year ago; I rather liked it, and was already prepared for some of the social limitations and narrative that would be involved. On another note, I also like the song “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” by Black Uhuru.

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    • The film is easy to nit-pick based on what any individual would wish for it to be rather than what it is. If the viewer is open to the context as established by the filmmakers then they’ll be rewarded with a solid B+ picture. It does feature some antiquated moments/elements, but those are also things that a smart viewer needs to see, identify, and accept.

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  2. Katharine Hepburn actually won 4 Oscars (MORNING GLORY, GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER?, THE LION IN WINTER, and ON GOLDEN POND).

    The only problems that I have with this movie are the ridiculous dance scene noted above, which is completely out of nowhere, and the acting of Katharine Houghton (she was actually Katharine Hepburn’s real-life niece). She seems to be acting in another movie – one where the acting isn’t quite so good.

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    • Yeah, I was detailing the position each of these actors held at the time that this movie came out.

      I agree that Houghton is a weak link. It’s kind of a thankless and shallowly written role in comparison to the other leads and depends heavily on the actress to carry it off. Unfortunately Houghton doesn’t quite give us something as unique or idiosyncratic as she should have.

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