Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)
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- 108 min.
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Very topical in 1967, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner retains a lot of its punch even today (Get Out's first act owes a lot to this film, for example, but one might substitute other minorities into the mix), and is powerfully acted by Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn (not sure Katharine Houghton shows us the core of her character as well, rarely hitting notes above naive). Very much a talkie - it was very easily adapted into a play later - various combinations of characters have conversations trying to come to terms with what a mixed race marriage will mean for the couple, and for both people's parents, examining their own prejudices, and putting their money where their mouth is. Some will say the same points are made too frequently, but it never flagged for me. Some might say the subject matter is dated, but even if you make it only about parents worried their daughter is talking marriage ten days after meeting a man, it's relatable. Some might also find the film toothless because Poitier's John is almost too accomplished and perfect, to which I'd respond that this is a statement against racism in and of itself, in line with the rest of the film, and that if you give John too many "problems", it no longer becomes about race and loses its focus. Sometimes it's sickly sweet, sometimes more hard-hitting, but always worth seeing.
PRO: The whole film plays out like an episode of the Twilight Zone, 'when worlds collide', dealing with culture clash and prejudice in an accelerated way. All the characters are equally solid; foils for every side of an argument. Spencer Tracy plays the elder statesmen confronted with his social 'what-is-itis' and the encroaching limitations he can't see but we can, discovering his heart. Katherine Hepburn plays the emotional and heartfelt mother who reasonably believes in his daughters' will and optimism above any of the social pressure she might face. Katherine Houghton plays the invincible, bright eyed daughter of life who's oblivious to reality to the point it just might work. Sidney Poitier is a quiet, smart, and sensitive doctor coming out of heartbreak, who understands the immense social pressure of an idealised, inter-racial relationship better than anyone knows. Watching the characters viewpoints bounce off each other, break down, reform, is the very stuff of humanity.
The film is a drama that solely thrives on the acting, and it's generally superb, watching the older generation deal with change and fear of the unknown, freedom against security, and that strength could be applied to many of the issues we face today, so this is not a dated work by any means. The central scene between the Prentice men is powerful - watching his father try to convince his son to 'obey reality' at the expense of his heart, out of a misplaced sense of old age, forgotten passion, and arrogant rights. The stereotypes don't remove you from the narrative as long as you are engaged on every side of the debate - I was.
Here is a fantastic piece of dialogue towards the end that speaks for every man facing his father on practically every issue like this.
"You listen to me. You say you don't want to tell me how to live my life. So what do you think you've been doing? You tell me what rights I've got or haven't got, and what I owe to you for what you've done for me. Let me tell you something. I owe you nothing! If you carried that bag a million miles, you did what you're supposed to do! Because you brought me into this world. And from that day you owed me everything you could ever do for me like I will owe my son if I ever have another. But you don't own me! You can't tell me when or where I'm out of line, or try to get me to live my life according to your rules. You don't even know what I am, Dad, you don't know who I am. You don't know how I feel, what I think. And if I tried to explain it the rest of your life you will never understand. You are 30 years older than I am. You and your whole lousy generation believes the way it was 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! You understand, you've got to get off my back! Dad... Dad, you're my father. I'm your son. I love you. I always have and I always will. But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man. Now, I've got a decision to make, hm? And I've got to make it alone, and I gotta make it in a hurry. So would you go out there and see after my mother?"
CON: The energy of the film is roughly the same throughout - we pass through the 3-arc narrative at the same pace throughout, which makes the dramatic peaks and troughs more even and leaves the film often feeling like 'debate club' or an after school special. The last scene is a bit schmaltzy, as is the theme song. It would have been better to make Poitier's character less well off: instead it feels dated and slightly toothless by the final reel.
OVERALL: Powerful must-see drama, all things considered.
Being completely removed from the social context of the movie I can appreciate some of the acting and the general feel of the movie. But there's a lot of repeated situations and recaps and you basically see the same things happens to most of the characters. Nonetheless I can see why it is highly regarded and I can clearly feel the powerful Poitier presence in every scene he's in.
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In 7 official lists
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This movie ranks #35 in AFI's 100 years...100 cheers
This movie ranks #58 in AFI's 100 years...100 passions
This movie ranks #123 in 501 Must See Movies
This movie ranks #154 in All Time Box Office
This movie ranks #262 in Academy Award Best Picture Nominees
This movie ranks #405 in TimeOut's 1000 Films to Change Your Life
This movie ranks #760 in National Film Registry