Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 12, 2008)
Rare is the social commentary that doesn’t appear dated when viewed years later. What appears progressive and timely today seems goofy and tired tomorrow, and even the best efforts in that vein suffer from such concerns.
The Sixties were rife with this sort of concept. After all, that era is regarded as probably the most socially conscious of the 20th century, and all kinds of media recorded these attitudes for posterity. As part of that cause, 1967’s comic drama Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner has held up in some regards, but the ravages of time have affected it in many ways.
The film tells the story of rich white girl Joey Drayton (Katharine Houghton) and prominent black doctor John Prentice (Sidney Poitier). They met on vacation in Hawaii and quickly fell in love. In fact, the movie begins as they come to the San Francisco home of Joey’s successful and influential parents Matt (Spencer Tracy) and Christina (Katharine Hepburn). Although the two consider themselves to be socially progressive, the prospect of this interracial marriage startles both of them - especially Matt. The situation becomes even more entangled when John tells Matt that he won’t marry Joey without Matt’s blessing, a factor that becomes exacerbated by the couple’s insistence that they get hitched immediately. That means Matt has to decide within a few hours, and the scenario gets even more muddled when John’s parents (Roy Glenn and Beah Richards) fly up from LA to meet their future daughter-in-law.
Much of Guess works quite well. I think the story line moves along at an appropriate rate and that the tale is fairly engaging and compelling. Certainly one can’t fault most of the cast. Tracy, Poitier and Hepburn all offer extremely solid performances that give their characters life beyond the somewhat shallow script. These elements make Guess consistently watchable and entertaining.
However, I ultimately find the film to be unsatisfying for a variety of reasons. First of all, as Joey, Houghton is seriously out-classed by her costars. This was Houghton’s first film, and it seems likely she got the role due to nepotism since Hepburn was her aunt. I can’t imagine any other reason why she appeared in the film as her performance is largely terrible. Houghton seems wholly artificial and forced throughout the movie. Not for one second do I buy Joey as a real person, as Houghton makes her into a total idiot.
Some of the fault for that characterization must lie in the script, but I think most of the problem stems from Houghton’s performance. This issue leads into my main concern with Guess: the general absurdity of the plot devices.
Let’s look at the scenario. A naïve and innocent 23-year-old girl meets a 37-year-old widower on vacation. Within a week and a half, the two have decided they love each other and wish to marry. Not only that, but they insist on getting hitched absolutely immediately; the engagement is scheduled to last only a few days. When the loved ones of these people meet the significant others for the first time, these decisions are presented as done deals.
Consider that you are the parent of one of these two lovers: how would you react to their decisions? I have an extremely hard time believing that many folks would happily go along with their child’s choices. Even if you eliminate the age difference - and 14 years is an awfully big gap - the whole thing seems insanely impetuous and rash; there’s not one logical reason why they need to get married so quickly.
Actually, I know why they have to hook up right away: because it offers a plot device. The decision made by Joey and John forces the film to adopt an artificial timeline, a factor that’s exacerbated by John’s illogical choice to let Matt rule the roost. Had the film followed a sensible path, it definitely would have been less compelling. Here’s the alternate scenario: Joey and John come to her parents’ house and say that they’ve fallen in love and want to get married. However, they realize they’ve only known each other for a brief amount of time, so they want to get to know each other better before they tie the knot. Ooh, the drama!
While the plot found in the finished product obviously adds more tension, the story I describe would have been much more sensible and realistic. However, since that version would lack any high drama, Guess has to go out of its way to manufacture that effect. That’s what I find problematic about it, especially because the movie decides to regard any opposition to the plans of Joey and John as racially motivated.
Yes, Guess just loves to play the race card. Anyone who thinks the two are behaving impetuously doesn’t really feel that way - they’re just racist! While I won’t deny the obstacles that face interracial couples, Guess doesn’t present them in a realistic light. It forces the issue in such an absurd manner that the end result is counterproductive.
I felt extremely frustrated throughout the film because of this element. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner offers some solid acting and it has its heart in the right place, but the extremes to which the story goes to make its point are ridiculous. Characters are made out to be racist just because they don’t support the impulsive actions of an immature and obnoxious spoiled rich girl. Frankly, I thought it was insulting to Poitier to be so willing to ignore logic. John is obviously a bright and usually sensible man, but he goes along with whatever Joey wants. In real life, such a person would clearly understand the non-racial concerns held by others and would react accordingly. Instead, he just blindly follows the whims of his new babe.
This doesn’t work, and neither does much of the drama in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The film earns points for taking on a semi-challenging subject for its era, but it loses them for the heavy-handed and illogical manner in which it proceeds. Guess gets by based on the quality of its performances but ultimately falls short of its goals.