Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

Dir. Stanley Kramer. Starring Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Houghton

The original plan was to do an unlikely moving pairing post which put this in conversation with Gunga Din, sort of a commentary on the resounding popularity of moderately racist entertainment. And then I actually watched Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a movie which is significantly more interesting than I would have guessed given the way it’s talked about in most corners fifty years later; this is more than just the outline for Get Out. The most boring possible version is the one that gets the play: a decent liberal family struggles to accept their daughter’s intentions to marry a black man. This is not merely a bad summary of the movie, but it’s a misleading one of the movie as a movie, and as a cultural artifact. Thus: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner solo, and I guess I’ll need to schedule my swig in hell for later.

As a movie, this has the look and feel of other Stanley Kramer movies, which is a shame. Few other directors inspire in me that kind of polite disgust I gret looking at a table full of tchotchkes in someone’s living room, the thought of, “Well, I wouldn’t have chosen that for myself.” The movie is sort of a cinematic crock, the most TV movie to ever come to the big screen, shot haltingly, as if the crew were taking dictation instead of trying to make something artful. Replica Modiglianis and Cezannes don’t really dress up the cheerful, false little sets in the way the movie thinks they will, and the frequent costume changes for the white ladies feel like a waste, a throwback to when Tracy and Hepburn were young and people came to the picture show to see the gowns. Fifteen years hence, they made a documentary about what it’s like to be on the set of such a production, and they called it Tootsie. I hated the scene where Matt (Tracy) and Christina (Katharine Hepburn) have the fight while he’s shaving, and the camera swivels at these perfect, ugly angles to give us a mirror shot of Tracy and Hepburn together, the peeks at Tracy’s drink and shaving materials, a close-up of Hepburn in person, and then back again to the mirror; I’m all for knowing what the camera is doing, but one does not necessarily call for the picture to draw a map for the viewer, either. Kramer chooses close-ups over and over again, and I like it not so much for the actors’ performances, but mostly because it takes us away from the cardboard house where the Draytons live and the backdrop behind the terrace that could have been easily repurposed for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

What gets much less play when people talk about this movie (or what people named it, for that matter) is the fact that this is, like its much more heralded Best Picture nominees The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, primarily about generational warfare. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner gets its drama from the one of the great self-owns in movie history. John (Poitier) lets his prospective parents-in-law know that he won’t marry their daughter, Joey (Houghton) unless he has their total approval to do so. Christina needed a minute to handle her daughter’s engagement to an African-American, although by the time that John provides this juicy little detail she’s already on board. Matt, on the other hand, cannot shake his own disapproval. Nor can John’s father (Roy Glenn) wrap his head around his son’s engagement to a white woman. Matt’s hesitance is what the movie is most famous for, I’d say, although the almost total and extremely loud unanimity of disapproval from others is understated in the popular imagination. Joey thinks he’s wrong; Christina thinks he’s wrong; Monsignor Ford (Cecil Kellaway), an old family friend who’s also hanging out at the Draytons’, says that if they were younger men he would literally fight Matt over what a terrible decision he makes. But there’s never a brawl between Joey and her dad. There is a stunning sequence in which the Prentice men really have it out with one another, in which both of them say things that, frankly, I would guess neither one will forgive the other one for saying. Prentice the Elder implies that the sacrifices he and his wife made for John are being thrown away over a fling that he cannot understand. Prentice the Younger denies that he owes his father, going so far as to say that his father owes him everything because he brought him into existence. Then he drops a bomb: “You and your whole lousy generation believes the way it is for you is the way it’s got to be. And not until your whole generation has lain down and died will the dead weight of you be off our backs!” If John’s dad says anything after this, I don’t remember it. It’s one of the most savage attacks on a parent I’ve ever seen, and it gets at the heart of what the movie is really suggesting, and it is the reason why this movie now holds the reputation it does. Racism is the problem, and the fear that it has engendered in its survivors is the problem. Fine. But what it’s suggesting is that Matt Drayton not accepting this son-in-law because he is black and he fears for the fate of the marriage is a problem because he is outmoded, not because he is racist. What Mr. Drayton and Mr. Prentice are wrong about—and this is spoken into the movie by Mrs. Prentice (Beah Richards), who accuses Matt of this shortcoming personally—is what being old does to men. You have not felt for a long time what my son and your daughter are feeling for each other, she says, which is funny, because when you were young, no doubt you knew all about that feeling. (Personally, I think “You’re racist because of your ED” is just legendary material.) Matt chews on that for a while, complete with close-ups, and then comes back to make a speech to send us all home.

Matt’s speech is a lengthy one, and at least three-quarters of it is pure summary that you don’t need as long as you didn’t walk into the theater an hour late. That’s a significant reason why it is deeply, deeply forgettable. But what I will never forget about this movie is watching Spencer Tracy on that screen, standing up as everyone sits down, sharing the rationale he has for giving his approval to the upcoming wedding of his daughter to the Prentices’ son. This speech, and the reaction to it, are what white people are nostalgic for. They want to learn without consequences for having been wrong; when Matt finishes his monologue, everyone goes into the dining room and sits down, where they will presumably have a lovely evening before they send the young folks off to Geneva. No one is going to so much as rib Matt for being the ultimate limousine liberal, a newspaper publisher who rose like a brook trout to make moral stands as long as they didn’t really concern him. They want to have center stage when the moment comes, everyone completely rapt by the conclusions they’ve come to. There’s no particular reason for Matt to make this a long, drawn out statement about…whatever it’s a statement about, I guess, as this is a total flop by dramatic standards and would be much kinder if he’d just said to John that he gives his unstinting consent to the marriage. It’s the attention he’s seeking that moves him to stand while his family and friends and future relations sit like spectators in a stadium to witness him. And most of all, white people want to be given time to work it out for themselves, regardless of how that makes anyone else feel, or of how just that inclination is. In one scene with Ford, he expresses his discomfort with the feeling that he’s being “boxed into a corner.” He does not much care for John’s offer in the first place, feeling like it puts too much pressure on him to be the good guy. Give us time, white people say. Give us time and we’ll make the right choice. And to Matt’s credit, I suppose, he makes the right choice. But the movie lauds him for it. It congratulates him for doing what he should have done like, six or seven hours before. We are happy enough for John and Joanna that perhaps we can overlook this swinish backslapping, but if there is something about Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner which really feels of our time, and not just of the ’60s, it’s this belief that white people make the world go ’round, and that their decisions ought to be at the center of our lives.

There are other things which rankle when watching the movie now, most of all the colorblind language in which we see people solely for who they are and without seeing the history which made them alongside them. There’s a lot of colorblindness in the movie that must have been fashionable then, and it’s colorblindness that is largely espoused by John. Joanna only ever saw me for me, which touched me, he explains in one scene. In the same scene where he delivers a knockout blow to his dad’s jaw, he explains that (tired) his father views himself as a “colored man,” and (wired) he views himself as “a man.” What it does for us now, although I imagine it did so less in ’67, is to beg a question: does Matt Drayton, or Monsignor Ford, think of himself as a “white man”? And if the answer is no, which one can assume, what does it say about John’s worldview that he thinks of himself the same way Matt Drayton thinks about himself? One cannot help but think of John’s résumé, which is perfect to the point of comedy, and the way that it is actively designed as a shield to prove that John is sufficient, and how true all this is about proving the worth of African-Americans to white people. (Think about Philando Castile, whose charity in helping kids pay for school lunch is obviously a sign of great personal virtue and kindness, but is also absolutely irrelevant to the fact that a cop murdered him, and that is reason enough for us to be outraged.)

Then again, now that I’m here, I’m not really inclined to bury Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. I’m surprised to write that, since this movie is guilty of multiple sins that I, frankly, take some pleasure in throwing the dirt on top of. But I’m haunted by a sentence that’s been bouncing around in my head as soon as John’s parents showed up at the airport: “This is officially better than Green Book.” After all, Green Book intended to isolate Don Shirley in a world of white people, strip him entirely of his family, and ensure that on Christmas he might show up to their door and call them, by presence, the white family he chooses. (That the actual Don Shirley definitely had a family makes this all the more stupid and/or insidious.) But Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner thinks that including John’s family is an imperative for the story, and although the script is enormously condescending to Tillie (Isabel Sanford), it is at least not terribly condescending to the Prentices. It is also a movie which at least has decent acting as opposed to whatever the heck Viggo Mortensen was doing in Green Book. Although Tracy died something like two and a half weeks after the shoot ended, which gives the movie a tinge of sadness I don’t think it would have otherwise, he is still in fine form for those scenes. I think about the way he does a lovely old man bit while ordering ice cream at a drive-in, talking to the waitress like she has any idea who he is or what he ordered, picking the “Oregon Boysenberry,” declaring that certainly that was the one he liked so much last time, taking a bite, making a face, and angrily declaiming that this is certainly not the ice cream he had last time. It’s as delightful and charming as any other vignette I’ve seen from Tracy, fully engaged in the “America’s grandpa” bit that had been given to him, not a little unfairly considering the vigor and fire in his earlier roles and his personal life. One wishes for a nobler end to such a brilliant career than that nothing speech written for him, but we’ll always have Oregon Boysenberry.

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