Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967)

This is a film that’s been on my watchlist for a long time. It was recommended to me all over again last year when Sidney Poitier passed away, and since then, I’ve been meaning to watch it. So, finally.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? is a film that can be easily summed up in one sentence: a young white woman and an African American man fall in love, and their shocked families have to learn to cope with their feelings. This is a story not so much of plot—very little actually happens, and most of the nearly two hours of the film consists of dialogue, of people discussing this frighteningly new development that has hit all of them—but in that time, the film manages to make several very pertinent points, not just on racism (which is, naturally, the most obvious) but other issues as well.

The film begins with Joanna ‘Joey’ Drayton (Katharine Houghton, the real-life niece of Katharine Hepburn) and Dr John Prentice (Sidney Poitier) arriving in San Francisco from Hawaii. The ease with which they laugh and chat as they go through the airport, collecting their bags, hailing a cab, and climbing in, seems to suggest these are two old, good friends.

But the cabbie, driving them to Joey’s home, is taken aback when he glances in the rear view mirror and sees the couple kissing.

He is only the first person to be shocked; others, soon, are going to be equally (and more) stunned by the idea that two people of different races could be so much in love.

Joey tells John that she needs to stop at an art gallery on the way home; the gallery is her mother’s, and Mrs Drayton is likely to be there. At the gallery, Joey is told by her mother’s assistant Hilary (Virginia Christine) that Mrs Drayton isn’t there, but at home. Hilary, however, senses that something is up: Joey has introduced John to her, and perhaps their closeness, and some of Joey’s obvious excitement, gives Hilary the notion that there’s something up here.

But Joey whisks John away, off to her home, where the door is opened by their domestic help, Matilda ‘Tillie’ (Isabel Sanford), who is immediately suspicious of this black man Joey has brought home.

Joey’s mother Christina (Katharine Hepburn) looks utterly flabbergasted when Joey tells her the news: she met John just ten days ago, and twenty minutes after first meeting him, she had fallen in love with him. John, who’s a doctor, is headed to Geneva for the next three months to work on an assignment for the World Health Organization. Joey intends to follow him to Geneva in two weeks’ time so that they can get married.

Christina’s reaction is pretty much that of her husband Matt (Spencer Tracy), who arrives shortly after. Matt is headed out—he’s going for a round of golf with a very dear family friend, Monsignor Ryan (Cecil Kellaway), and has only stopped by to say hello. He is pleasant and amiable when Joey introduces him to John, but as soon as he realizes that his daughter intends to marry this man, Matt Drayton’s demeanour changes.

He cancels his date with Monsignor Ryan, and immediately retreats to his study, where he phones his secretary (Matt is a very successful and well-respected publisher and journalist). He tells her to find out all she can about Dr John Prentice, and looks more than a little impressed when she reports back shortly after. John, though he’s the son of a retired mailman, is a very well-educated, important man. He’s a widower, 37 years old (and therefore 14 years older than Joey), whose first wife and son died in a car crash 8 years earlier.

John, obviously, is a very eligible match: the sort of man any parents would want for their daughter to marry.

If only he were white…

The Draytons aren’t the only ones who will find themselves floundering, trying to decide what’s best. John, when he phones his parents (who live in Los Angeles) to tell them about his fiancée, can’t summon up the nerve to also tell them that she’s white. His parents are so happy to hear John’s news that they decide, on the spur of the moment, to come to San Francisco that very evening to see their son and his sweetheart before he leaves for Geneva. Joey, who comes in on the conversation, impulsively invites them to come over to the Draytons’ for dinner.

And when Mr Prentice (Roy Glenn) and Mrs Prentice (Beah Richards) arrive, to be received at the airport by John and Joey, their shock is every bit as severe as that of the Draytons.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? won two Oscars (Best Actress for Katharina Hepburn; Best Writing, Story and Screenplay for William Rose). It was nominated in several other categories at the Oscars, and won many other awards and nominations at other film festivals, including nominations for director Stanley Kramer. It remains a favourite, more than fifty years after it was made, and has been remade and/or adapted several times since.

What I liked about this film:

The nuanced, sensitive treatment of the story. This isn’t outright black and white (pun unintended): nobody’s utterly villainous or overbearingly, insultingly bigoted (except possibly Hilary, and she gets her comeuppance quickly enough), and there are sensibilities here, dialogues and behaviour that show how people think. For instance, instead of a straightforward situation where the coloured domestic help rejoices that a coloured man might be marrying the daughter of the house, Tillie is shown as being utterly furious at the John-Joey match. For her, no matter who John may be, no matter how educated or successful, he’s still aspiring for something beyond what he’s entitled to, by wooing Joey. (Made me think: how deeply bigotry in different forms is entrenched, often even among those who are most discriminated against).

Then, there’s Matt Drayton, a man who is renowned for being anti-racist. As Monsignor Ryan testifies, this is a man who always stands up for equality—but now, faced with the idea of his daughter marrying a coloured man, Matt realizes that his personal life might be a very different kettle of fish.  

Interestingly, watching Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? I couldn’t help but think how pertinent this film would be even in present-day India. Not just when it comes to bigotry and its nuances (how would a so-called ‘liberal’ react to an offspring marrying someone from the other community?) but also about how much right (or not) parents have to dictate an adult offspring’s decisions.

The acting is uniformly good, but three actors stand out for me: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, and Sidney Poitier. All three of them do full justice to their roles, and are simply brilliant. Hepburn and Tracy are wonderfully nuanced. Her joy at her daughter’s happiness shines through, whether it’s in the form of a ballistic (but suave) taking down of the obnoxious Hilary, or a gentler but still firm putting into place of Tillie. Or, even, the way Christina stands up to Matt and tells him exactly what she thinks…

And Spencer Tracy, so good as the man torn between his desire to do what is ‘right’, and prejudices so deep-seated he doesn’t even realize till now that they exist.

What I didn’t like:

Not so much something I didn’t like, but rather something that I thought could have been improved: the fact that John Prentice, all said and done, isn’t your average African American of that period. He is urbane, well-educated, very intelligent and successful. An important man. If you look at it, other than that he’s coloured, there is really no reason why Matt would not want Joey to marry him. Ultimately, accepting John as a husband for Joey is not so much of an uphill task simply because he is really, other than his colour, as much of the elite as the Draytons are. But what if John were someone different? An average African American? Even if well-educated, not quite so successful? Just an average man, ordinary, not well off? Would it be quite so easy to accept him?

And I personally don’t like the fairly large gap between Joey’s and John’s ages. I can understand that John’s character best fits a somewhat older man, one old enough to be well-established in his career, and with a past marriage to highlight his experience with a certain level of emotional maturity. But why must Joey be so much younger? Would a woman somewhat closer in age (say in her early 30s) be such a problem? Would a woman of this age and still unmarried be an anomaly? Or would a woman this old be too jaded to allow her heart to take her where it would?

But, as I said: these weren’t things I outright didn’t like. Overall, this was a film I liked a lot. It made me think, it made me get a lump in my throat. It had the nuances to make me appreciate the points of view of various people. It was a heartwarming film about love in different forms.  


14 thoughts on “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967)

  1. Any film with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy gets an automatic upgrade.
    Hepburn got an Oscar and Poitier deserved one which he duly got for ‘Lillies…,’
    This really is a superb film.
    Great cast and a really relevant theme for America in the early 60s.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I do agree with your assessment that it is a very nuanced film. I saw it a long time ago and was very impressed at the time. Poitier seemed a little stiff but the Hepburn and Tracy were superb. Good review, Madhu.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Madhu, having lived her all this while, I can assure you that however educated a man/woman is, the colour of his/her skin will – even today – will, in most cases, be the most important thing about that person! Unfortunately. So accepting him as the son-in-law would be a difficult thing whether he was educated or not. In this case, I think the reason that Poitier is educated/settled is that a person in Joey’s position would be more likely to meet someone like Dr Prentice. Especially in the 60s.

    I watched this a long time ago – but I think, the reason for Joey’s youth is that someone older wouldn’t have the parental issue, perhaps? I do have to watch it again. Thanks for this review.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re very right, Anu. That’s an interesting insight, a good different perspective. Very appropriate in the context of this film, given that it too is about different perspectives. :-)


  4. This is indeed a wonderful film. I think it is more powerful in conveying the message than some of the other films on racism (Mississippi Burning). The chemistry between Spencer Tracy and Hepburn is brilliant. They were indeed real life partners for a period as well. The internal conflict they are facing has been so well written and we barely leave the house at all after the initial sequence. It’s so ironic that present day San Francisco is so multi-cultural.

    Sidney Poiter though below his best in this movie, still managed to do very well. He also starred in another movie with a similar message “In the heat of the night” which was also fantastic.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Madhu,
    Thanks for the excellent review of a beautiful film. This and ‘To Sir With Love’ were our introduction to Sidney Poitier thanks to the old Doordarshan – bless them! With just two channels they were able to show the best of cinema, theatre and short stories from all over the world.

    I have a few observations. You have dealt in some detail the coloured domestic help’s bigotry. In retrospect she appears to me protective about her ‘child’. Recently I saw ‘Django Unchained’. The coloured loyal servant of the racist white plantation owner is abusive, cruel to the coloured protagonist, and tortures he inflicts makes you cringe.

    The mothers soon hit it off very well. They are joined in an emotional bond for their children’s love and happiness. The fathers remain stiff and doubtful; the two mothers frankly talk about their husbands’ attitude – this is so natural and universal.

    You have dismissed Joey as of no consequence. She plays a very natural and important role for the time, she is not even conscious that her lover is of colour or that that is an issue. In fact it is John who has a long chat with Drayton about his daughter’s simplicity and being unaware of the daunting future they would face ahead. The dilemma of Drayton is also because John is so mature and understanding.

    John also has a long one to one with his Dad when, at the end, John bursts out, I owe you nothing. You did what you did because you brought me to the world. The Dad is shocked, and in a complete reversal of tone with tear-filled eyes and trembling voice John says, I love you Dad! That would sure bring lump in your throat.

    Then the climax itself, Spencer Tracy’s long dialogue/speech and the final resolution is high point of the film.

    As complete a film as it could be.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, AK, and for that insightful comment. I agree about Tillie being protective about her ‘baby’, so to say – I think that’s something that comes through very well in other films too (I haven’t seen Django Unchained, though). About Joey, too, now that you say it.


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