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

Movie Poster | Courtesy of cinematerapia

Winner of the Fall 2018 StMU History Media Award for

Best Article in the Category of “Year 1968”

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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102 Comments

  • I thought it was crazy how while the movie was going on it was still illegal for interracial couples to marry in fourteen states! If the country could not accept the idea of blacks and whites intermarrying in real life then how is this movie going to work. Also, I was so sad to read that Spencer Tracy had died! This was the first time I heard of this film, and it just sounds amazing, especially for the time period. I know that there was a lot of mixed feelings as said in the article. I loved it, great job.

  • I think that there is some sad beauty in the fact that Spencer Tracy died right after shooting ended. I think that he held out till the end because he knew that a film like this needed to be made. His passing added weight to the film and I think he would have been proud to have seen it’s success. I am just surprised that it took that long to be entered into the National Film Registry.

  • This was such a great article; I can see why it was awarded. I admire how the author chose this topic and discussed breaking boundaries between races. It is important that movies like this existed during this time to end this prejudice. I have never seen this movie, or heard of it actually, but after reading this article, I am intrigued to watch it.

  • This is a wonderful article. I honestly teared up a little bit reading it and watching the scene with Spencer Tracy. I am glad there is a movie like this that was controversial and made people give a second thought about the banning and social implications of interracial marriage. In my opinion, this is what movies should be for to make humanity take a second look at something and teach us instead of solely entertaining us. I will be watching this movie this evening. Thank you.

  • No wonder this article was awarded. Cheers to that. It was a great read overall. Every paragraph was explained and well organized, I liked it. It is amusing how the younger generations are always the ones who deem some acts of hate as nonexistent and are always more welcoming, while the older generations tend to be more prejudice. We see it in this article (and time period), and we see it today as well.

  • I like breaking boundaries, I think it is very good and it helps to shape up the world that many people want to have. This movie seems to have had that kind of effect on the world culturally because at the time it was made things were still a little far off from the whole equal rights thing. Change is good, it keeps things interesting for people and sometimes it has a greater impact on things. I would actually like to watch this movie just to see it. This was a good article and I would like to know more about this.

  • Having just completed chapter 2 of Jack Hart’s Story Craft, I found myself focusing on the five areas of structure which make up a stories arc as I read through this piece. In reading this article, I was without a doubt left with questions. For this reason, I immediately thought of the falling action part of a narrative as described by Hart. In truth, much of this article could be considered as the falling action. From the almost the beginning the author made it clear the ill health of Spencer Tracy. As the story progress, much of the storyline was in anticipation of his death.

  • Stanley Kramer always intended to shed light on social issues with his films. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” is no exception. Indeed, Sidney Poitier’s character’s perfection in the film hasn’t helped the film age well, but it is an important artifact that continues to influence films, such as Jordan Peele’s 2017 film, “Get Out,” which uses this film’s premise of a white daughter taking her black boyfriend to visit her white liberal parents. Both films comment on race in different ways. What makes Kramer’s film an artifact and not a classic, is that his film has an optimism that we as a society have yet to achieve. Otherwise, “Get Out” wouldn’t exist.

  • Annissa, This is a really inspiring example of an article. I really like how you introduce the topic in the first paragraph, and the drama that it brings. I didn’t know anything about this movie before, but the overlap with the Loving decision makes this even more remarkable. This is now a required reading in my graduate Advanced Public History methods course.

  • I find myself surprised that I’ve never heard of this film before, given its controversy and impact to society. I liked how you started out the article telling us about Stanley Kramer’s internal worries at the Academy Awards. The introduction raised interesting questions to the reader such as “why was the movie a risk to make?” and “was the film a success?”. In addition, the video included contributed greatly to the presentation of the article. Very interesting read; well done!

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