Tag Archives: Katharine Hepburn

Guess Who

Matt was excited to watch Ellen last week, a particular episode celebrating the 20th anniversary of her sitcom’s coming out episode. He and I reminisced on the episode and how very 90s it was in its approach to homosexuality. Last year we saw a movie at an LGBTQ film festival that felt very 90s in its approach, which really disappointed us. You would hope by this day in age that we no longer have to assure people that gay isn’t something you can catch, and that it doesn’t make you queer to support someone who is, and “tolerating” someone else’s sexuality is really pretty basic.

I just watched the equivalent in a movie about race, a film that feels miles out of date beyond its 2005 release. Guess Who is the inverse remake of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, but without any of the thought or the grace.

Theresa (Zoe Saldana) brings her boyfriend home to meet the parents. She hasn’t told them that Simon (Ashton Kutcher) is white – and that turns out to be a bad gamble when 536_m1225688364dad Percy (Bernie Mac) goes ballistic. Not to say that there’s not friction about interracial relationships anymore; that’s clearly not the case. Jordan Peele had a thing or two to say about them in this year’s Get Out. But Guess Who is a dinosaur, an anachronistic way of looking at the world that’s cringe-worthy in its assumptions (it also manages to be misogynist and homophobic in its first 10 minutes). The only good thing to come out of it was Zoe Saldana, who has had a successful (and redeeming) career – and no one who’s seen this would say she hasn’t paid her dues. She’s paid in full.

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner is a lot to live up to, and you don’t begin to do it with the likes of Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher, whose red kabbalah bracelet had to be digitally edited out of the movie to the tune of $100K. Starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, and Sidney Poitier, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner struck a nerve in America. Miscegenation laws were literally just being struck down (thanks to Loving!), and the film was still being shown in theatres when Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated (which necessitated a quick edit of the film – one scene mentions him by name).

Compared to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which was groundbreaking in its time, Guess Who lacks social relevance. It’s a dead fish. And it’s not even funny.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Matt and Christina Drayton (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn)’s daughter has come home from university with some exciting news: She’s met a guy! She’s only known him for 10 days but she thinks she’s in love and would like to get married. They’ve never seen her so happy so, even though this is pretty sudden, this is great news. What’s his name? Dr. John Prentice. Oooohh, a doctor? What’s he like? Well, Mom and Dad,  There’s just one little thing. It’s not a big deal but you might want to sit down. He’s, well, he’s black.

You probably still could pull enough drama out of this concept to make a movie today but, in 1967, no one else had really tried to make a movie about inter-racial marraiges in a positive light. Hell, it was even still illegal in 14 states when they started filming. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was a huge success, disproving the conventional wisdom of major studios at the time that films with black actors and black themes would not be interesting to mainstream audiences. It was also nominated for 10 Oscars. But how does it hold up today?

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner has been the subject of some controversey in recent years. Both Herman Koch’s novel The Dinner (read it if you get the chance) and Lee Daniels’ The Butler feature impassioned dinner table debates over the film’s message. Dr. Prentice is played by the great Sidney Poitier as polite, well-spoken, and successful. Of course her parents learn to love him, modern haters claim. Prentice is as non-threatening as can be, with some criticizing the character as too “assimilated” or even “too white”.

I will not address these criticisms except to suggest that they may miss the point. This was a pretty forward-thinking movie for 1967 but it was still 1967 and it was made with a white audience in mind and it’s what’s going on with Tracy and Hepburn’s characters that make things interesting. A less interesting movie would have potrayed them as a couple of overt bigots, leaving it up to Poitier’s character to shatter their prejudices. Instead, Matt and Christina are San Fransisco intellectuals ( he runs a newspaper, she runs an art gallery) and self-appointed liberals. Matt’s daughter describes him as a “life-long liberal who has spent his entire life fighting discrimination”. But what happens when a black man asks him for his daughter’s hand in marraige? One friend of the family watches the whole drama with amusement, “watching a broken-down phony liberal come face-to-face with his principles”.

The haters aren’t wrong. It is dated. The music is corny, the backyard scenes are so obviously filmed on a set that it’s almost hilarious, and a couple of scenes are just plain silly. But the dilemma that Matt and Christina face still rings true. Spencer Tracy is especially compelling as he lashes out at everyone, angry mostly at himself as he comes to realize that maybe he wasn’t as enlightened as he thought, now that he himself has to make the changes that he keeps insisting America must make. Maybe because Poitier has such screen-presence, it can be easy to put the focus on Dr. Prentice but the film’s main struggle is really between the Drayton’s and their own values. Watching this unfold is what makes Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner a Hollywood classic, one that I make a point of revisiting every couple of years and that will endure long after we’ve all forgotten about Lee Daniels’ The Butler.