When I wrote that piece I published last Friday about Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, I felt like a slight phony. You see I haven’t actually watched every collaboration between Hepburn and Tracy. A couple of the movies I have neglected to see are minor entries in their filmography, but Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was a gross oversight on my part. This movie is significant in both of these actors’ careers because this was the last picture they did together before Tracy died a couple of days after production wrapped. This was the last testament to their undying affection for each other. So I set out to fix this issue right away and here I am. I just finished Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and boy do I have a few words to write about it.
Hepburn and Tracy play affluent San Francisco parents to a young liberal woman, Katharine Houghton (who was Hepburn’s niece). This liberal woman is so liberal that she brings home a well to do African-American that she met while on vacation in Hawaii. She tells her parents out right that they intend to get married and she doesn’t care if they have any objections. The African-American, played by Sidney Poitier, is a little bit more hesitant about the matter. He tells Tracy that if he has any objections by the end of the night, he won’t marry her because he knows that she would be heartbroken if her parents didn’t approve of her actions. The mother accepts almost right away, but the father is worried about their chances of making it in this racially segregated world. To make matters worse the daughter invites the African American’s parents over to meet them for dinner. Everything is sprung on these old fogies so fast that they barely have time to catch their breath. His parents do not take it well that he wants to marry a white girl. Tensions rise as the time approaches for Tracy’s decision. Will he be able to reconcile his liberal political beliefs with his practical objections?
A message movie is a tricky genre to pull off right. You don’t want to seem like the audience is sitting through a moralizing lecture on your particular message, but you also don’t want to lose the message in too complicated of a plot. There is also a shelf life to a message movie if you were making it about something that may grow quaint as the years pass and the problems begin to be solved. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is the classic example of all of these problems. Interracial marriage is more accepted and therefore seems like a quaint problem, grandstanding and long speeches about true love slow down the pace of the movie, and the script and plot are clunky at best. Despite all of these heavy burdens the movie lugs around, it stands up as an interesting movie to modern eyes. This is a function of solely the acting. Tracy, Hepburn, Poitier, and Houghton all turn in great performances that sell the message and the contrivances to the audience in a convincing manner. Each actor plays off of each other and compliments each other in turn. Even when they are talking to characters that are solely in the script as a representative of the different sides of the issue, they elevate the importance of this character while simultaneously running circles around the actor. The script should never have won a best Oscar, but each actor should have won every award that year. Being able to elevate such a clunky premise into cinematic gold is a great accomplish indeed. Nobody else could have pulled it off quite like these four actors do.