“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” Serves Up Racial Equality

Movie Poster | Courtesy of cinematerapia

The moment of truth was finally at hand for Stanley Kramer. Flashing camera lights could only capture his calm reflection, but underneath his tailored tuxedo, carefully styled hair, and beaming smile, was undeniable nervous anticipation. Tonight he would be in front of all the cameras, instead of instructing from behind them, and everything rode on the outcome of this evening. Stanley Kramer had levied a huge risk in taking on the direction and production of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and as he sat in the audience of the 1968 Academy Awards, he would soon find out whether his gamble had truly paid off. With the country politically fractured and the public divided, could Stanley Kramer realistically expect his movie to win the hearts and minds of the American people?

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is the comical drama piece written by William Rose, featuring an upper-class young woman who brings her new fiancé home to meet her parents in order to announce their engagement, after having met each other on a vacation just ten days prior. The older handsome man is quite the catch as an accomplished physician and Nobel Prize candidate. The only problem? He’s a black man intent on marrying their white daughter. The couple cause quite the stir in attempting to overcome interracial bias and be seen as any other couple in love wanting a parent’s blessing for marriage.

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy | Courtesy of mptvimages.com

Coming together for their ninth film was the universally-loved on-screen couple Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. The two major actors believed in the project wholeheartedly and agreed to the roles before even setting eyes on the script.1 The natural chemistry between the stars was undeniable, as was the illness rapidly overtaking Spencer Tracy. Almost at once, there was a major hold up in the attempt to start the production. After years of Tracy’s deteriorating health, no insurance company would cover Tracy in his failing condition. What was to become of a project that couldn’t get off the ground? For this movie to stand a chance at the box office, headlining two such profoundly loved actors as Tracy and Hepburn was crucial. An emotional solution was discovered between Stanley Kramer and Katharine Hepburn. They both decided that they would both put their salaries from the film into an escrow account, in the tragic event Spencer Tracy could not continue the movie. With that money as security, another actor could be hired as a last resort to finish the film if need be. With a solution that satisfied the Columbia Pictures production company, filming was finally cleared to begin.2

Obtaining the cast was just the initial problem that Kramer faced. Time was always working against the team, in a race against the clock to finish filming before Tracy became too ill. As a result, the cast members were continuously working with two separate scripts. The original script had the patriarch involved in as many scenes as possible, yet there was always a “back up” script circulating that eliminated Spencer Tracy’s character at any given point.3

Another major obstacle in filming Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was Sidney Poitier’s intimidation from fellow actors. Despite his own prominent acting career and reputation as a calm and collected professional, Poitier felt humbled to be in the presence of such talent and could never remember his lines. At the time, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn had both been Hollywood shinning stars for over three decades, and audience members had grown up with these silver screen marvels. Comparatively, Poitier’s acting career had gained more acceptance from his film releases overseas. American audiences had still not fully seen past his African-American ethnicity. This trepidation went on for weeks, frustrating the entire crew with reshoots and wasted film. Finally, Stanley Kramer pulled Sidney Poitier aside for a heart to heart talk in an attempt to get to the bottom of what was causing tempers to rise. The actor simply couldn’t focus in the presence of Tracy and Hepburn. In an attempt to keep Poitier on as a lead character, scenes were then shot as he delivered his lines to two high-back chairs, while stand-in crew delivered his costars’ lines.4

When the movie’s filming began in March 1967, it was still illegal for interracial couples to marry in fourteen states, mostly in the South. If the country could not accept the idea of blacks and whites intermarrying in real life, could Stanley Kramer realistically expect people to be any more agreeable to the idea being portrayed in Hollywood? If the movie was not welcomed by society, future prospects for everyone involved with the project would fall into jeopardy, if not certain ruin.

Coinciding with the film’s production was the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case. A white man and a black woman involved in a romantic relationship circumvented the Virginia legislation barring interracial marriages. In 1958, Mildred Jetter and Richard Loving drove to Washington D.C. to say their vows and become legally married. Soon after returning to Virginia, an anonymous tip was given to authorities and the newlyweds were arrested in their home in a late evening police raid. Local prosecution argued that a marriage license from D.C. was not valid in the state of Virginia and the couple were sentenced to a year in prison. The Lovings appealed the judge’s guilty verdict. Monumentally, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mr. and Mrs. Loving, just as production on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was wrapping up, ruling that marriage is a fundamental human right and effectively ending all anti-miscegenation marriage laws in America.5

Iconic Movie Scene of a Black Man Meeting White Fiancée’s Father | Courtesy of Cineoutsider.com

Tragedy struck just seventeen days after production concluded, when Spencer Tracy died of a heart attack. His passing gravely affected the cast, and overshadowed any joy of the movie’s release. Katharine Hepburn refused to attend any premiers or award ceremonies, let alone see the final movie cut, as the memories of her long-time costar were just too painful.6

Reviews of the movie from audiences and critics alike received an initial mixed response. The initial estimation was one of low attendance of Caucasians, especially in the Southern states. After all, new laws or not, long-standing socially-formed opinions take time to overcome. However, this was not the case, and never again was the race of a lead character a factor in projecting audience film acceptance.7 Written reviews were not so kind. Sidney Poitier took the brunt of criticism, not simply for being an African-American actor, but for being “too perfect” and “too white” in his role portraying a Nobel Prize nominated doctor.8

Stanley Kramer fiercely defended Sidney Poitier’s performance and explained that every character was meant to portray model social and moral perfection; only then could the sole protest land at the couple’s racial divides.9 In an attempt to clarify his intentions with the film, Kramer undertook a nine-university tour to discuss the political and social controversy. For all his efforts, Kramer was met by indifference at best and death threats at worst! The movie seemed to be caught in between an atmosphere of younger students who did not see interracial relationships as controversial, and the older generation who wanted to keep the races forever separate.10

The lights now dimmed on the Academy Awards audience, and the announcements began as everyone took their seats. Spencer Tracy’s widow was in attendance to hear her husband be nominated as Best Actor one final time. Katharine Hepburn was at home still mourning, and the magic of the evening was muted by sadness. But for all the hardships, when Stanley Kramer heard his name read as a nominee for Best Picture, he knew in his heart that the trials and bitter-sweet tribulations were all worth it in the end. Stanley Kramer did not win the award for Best Picture that night. But he had produced the most emotionally important movie of his career, directed award-winning performances, and showed all the Hollywood elite that they did not need to be afraid to take a leap of faith in making controversial films.

Winner of Two Academy Awards | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

When all was said and done, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner became an international box office hit grossing over $70,000,000 and nominated for twenty-two different awards. In 2017, the movie title was entered into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being culturally and historically significant.11

 

  1. Donald Spoto, Stanley Kramer: Film Maker (Putnam, 1978), 280.
  2. James Curtis, Spencer Tracy: A Biography (London: Hutchinson, 2011), 839.
  3. Bill Davidson, Spencer Tracy, Tragic Idol (Dutton Adult, 1988), 206.
  4.  Sidney Poitier, This Life (Alfred A Knopf, Inc, 1980), 286.
  5. Loving v. Virginia, 388 US (1967); Maria Mancha, “The Love Story of the Lovings,” StMU History Media. https://www.stmuhistorymedia.org/the-love-story-of-the-lovings, (accessed Oct 4, 2018).
  6. Katharine Hepburn, Me: Stories of my Life (Alfred A Knopf, Inc, 1991), 402.
  7. Mark Harris, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (Penguin Press, 2008), 374.
  8. Dolores R. Townek, Letter to the Editor, Ebony, June 1968.
  9. Christopher Andersen, An Affair to Remember: The Remarkable Love Story of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (William Morrow and Co, 1997), 295.
  10.  Mark Harris, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (Penguin Press, 2008), 398.
  11. Sheryl Cannady, “2017 National Film Registry is More Than a ‘Field of Dreams,'” Library of Congress, December 13,2017, https://www.loc.gov/item/prn-17-178/.
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29 Comments

  • this was a very well written and eye opening article. I love classic films just because they are so interesting. this film must have been a very eye opening film for a lot of people. it was written in a time where blacks and whites did not coexist and for the film writer to present this at that time was brave but this helped lead people into the right direction to equality.

  • This article is well written. I have never seen or heard of the movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” After reading this article it makes me want to watch this movie, because now I know about the hard work it took to make this movie. It sends a powerful message that everyone should watch and reflect on. Because this movie was written in the 60’s, it had a wide audience that was not going to like it. However, I am glad it was made to send the message and make a difference.

  • I have never heard of this movie before this article. For especially in many states in Southern American interracial marriage was not permitted. We advanced morally and just as a society to allow this to happen. If yo people want to be love each other, let them. Love will defeat any ignorance in my eyes and i’m glad that we changed as a people and saw beauty in different perspectives. Great article!!

  • This was a very interesting article that taught me a lot about the culture of film during the 1960’s due to the state of society at the time. I personally have never seen the film, but the history behind the film really intrigues me and makes me want to go watch the film. It is unfortunate what happened to Spencer Tracy and that he was never able to see the success he had helped to create. At least at the end of the day, the film could at least be a way to keep his memory alive. His legacy will continue through the films he’s produced and acted in and will carry on his legacy for generations to come.

  • I am a huge fan of classic movies and I remember when I first saw this movie, and I was completely shocked that this movie was made in the late 60s. So many racial conflicts were going on at that time, and for a movie to make it to the big screen with this message was a huge thing for Hollywood. I was extremely happy when I heard that this movie made it to be one of the most remembered movies. It truly has such a great message to give, and it did make me upset that the Southern states were not fond of this movie, although it makes sense.

  • I never seen or heard of this movie before. “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” has a really powerful message. It is very interesting that the director who is also the producer of this movie, decided to stick with his gut and continue to make this movie. He could of easily stopped but his determination helped gross this movie to $70,000,000. This movie helped convey a very powerful message that needed to be heard and what better way to do it then turning it into a movie.

  • I have seen many older movies which I love, but I have not seen nor heard of the movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” But, after reading this article I am looking forward to getting my hands on this movie. In today’s films we see interracial relationships even same-sex relationships and I think it is beautiful. But, times were different in the 60s. Interracial relationships was like walking on egg shells because many people hadn’t accepted interracial relationships. But, Stanley Kramer was a great director who took that gamble and in the end it paid off. I cant imagine how tough it might have been to make sure to keep a safe setting for the actors, creating a connection with the actors and audience, and creating ways to keep getting funds for his movie. But, he managed and his movie became a great success.

  • Even before these times Hollywood struggled with the actors, time, and cultural traditions. Writers and producers had a hard time with actors being scared in front of shining stars like as time now. As well as actors creating a connection with one another either negative or positive and this affects the movie outcomes. And Stanley Kramer had to come up with different ways to work around these struggles like money in accounts, and creating a safe setting for actors and more. This helped with his success.

  • I had never seen nor heard of this movie but it was quite interesting to read. Interracial relationships have always been looked at very different and honestly, that is not fair to the couples. I know some couples to this day that always get looked at very different from others whenever they go out to public places but they just chose to ignore them because at the end of the day they are happy with their significant other. I believe this article was very interesting because it is an issue that is still not easy for people to grasp in today’s world.

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