I was at Penn State when Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released, and I remember going to see it. And that’s all I remember. No details of the plot (well, the basic situation is well-known, of course), no lines of dialog, not a thing. I don’t even recall what my reaction to it was. Did I like it or hate it or somewhere in between? It’s just not in my brain cells.
So watching it again the other night was like watching it for the first time. And my reaction was—I’m not really sure.
So many aspects of the film are dated, meaning it’s a product of its time. “Negro” was still the common term for Black people, although it was on its way out, and it is jarring to my 2022 ears. I certainly recognize the importance of the film and why it means so much to so many (when filming began, 16 states still made it a crime for Blacks and whites to marry), and of course, it was a huge hit at the time.
But nearly every positive I can find in the movie is counterbalanced by a negative one.
For example, the scene where Sidney Poitier’s parents meet his white bride-to-be. Roy Glenn’s reaction is over the top; it belongs in a bad sitcom. But Beah Richards, playing his wife, has such an understated reaction, it’s clear why she was nominated for an Oscar. (In Roy Glenn’s defense, I’m sure that Stanley Kramer directed Glenn to react like that in order to generate a laugh.)
And while I can’t fault Spencer Tracy (he was seriously ill at the time; he died days after completing filming) or Katherine Hepburn (she won her second Oscar for the role), I do have a problem with the William Rose’s screenplay, especially with his “Father Knows Best” wrap-up of the story. And maybe that’s my problem, it seems more like a sitcom than a movie, though it probably did not seem that way in 1967.
I think I need to give it some time and watch it again; often times I have a very different reaction on my second viewing. Of course, technically this was my second viewing.