Katharine Hepburn MacGyvers a Sports Car, Ranks Higher Than the Pope, Takes Care of Spencer Tracy, and Sidney Poitier is the Classiest Man Alive. From 1967, it's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
After nearly a decade of travel, work, and artistic fulfillment, Katharine Hepburn returned to Hollywood and Spencer Tracy. By 1962, Tracy’s fragile health was evident, and Kate wanted to spend whatever years he had left together.
Kate made Spence the center of her life, nursing him back to health after extended hospital stays, and turning down film and stage roles to be by his side. But in 1966, the perfect opportunity arose for a final Tracy/Hepburn pairing in Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).
The film would prove popular with audiences, unpopular with critics, controversial, uplifting, thought-provoking, and humorous. It marked Spencer Tracy’s last screen appearance, and ushered in the end of Sidney Poitier’s brief reign as “America’s top movie star.” But Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner also brought Kate, at age 60, her second Best Actress Academy Award, setting the tone for the rest of her career as one of the screen’s most skilled and respected actresses.
Let’s go through the plot, then I’ll take you behind the last years of the Tracy/Hepburn romance, and the making of the film. We’ll cover the fascinating dichotomy between the popularity of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with audiences, and the unanimous critical panning of the film, which coincided with the Black Power movement’s rejection of Sidney Poitier, and all that his films represented.
It’s 1967. Joanna Drayton (Katharine Houghton) returns home to San Francisco after a 10 day vacation in Hawaii with some big news for her parents, Matt (Spencer Tracy) and Christina (Katharine Hepburn).
While in Hawaii, Joanna met the man of her dreams, and quickly fell in love. Dr. John Prentice (Sydney Poitier) is smart, educated, handsome, and accomplished. The top of his field, Dr. Prentice has lectured at Yale Medical School, directed the World Health Organization, and pioneered health programs in Africa. Undoubtedly, Dr. John Prentice is a catch for any woman. During their whirlwind romance in Hawaii, Joanna and John become engaged. And now, Joanna excitedly brings John home to meet her parents.
But there’s a complication to the impending marriage: Joanna is white, and John is black.
Remember, it’s 1967. This was a big deal: interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 states…
Matt Drayton, the publisher of a successful newspaper, and Christina Drayton, the owner of San Francisco art gallery, are liberal-minded, forward thinking parents. They raised Joanna to judge others not by “the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” As such, Joanna sees no racial complications to marrying John. She assumes that her parents will feel the same way, and accept John as their son-in-law with open arms.
But will they?
Meeting the Draytons
Joanna first introduces John to her mother. Christina’s initial shock when she meets John and learns of the engagement is clear. But she quickly recovers. Christina recognizes that Dr. Prentice is a good man who loves Joanna, and will treat her right. Christina puts her support behind the marriage.
Matt Drayton isn’t as accepting as his wife. Though Matt raised his daughter to be colorblind, his own principals are tested when he learns of the engagement. Matt likes John, and respects his admirable accomplishments, but he can’t ignore the difficulties he foresees for the future of John and Joanna as a married couple.
Shortly after meeting Christina and Matt, John pulls them aside. Being a respectful young man, Dr. Prentice asks the Draytons for Joanna’s hand in marriage. He informs the Draytons that he will not marry Joanna without their consent: if Matt and Christina don’t approve of the marriage, John will walk away from the relationship. And since John and Joanna plan to leave for his latest work engagement in Switzerland that night, and get married abroad, Matt Drayton must decide how he feels about the marriage fast.
In about eight hours, to be precise.
Principles in Action
Joanna remains oblivious to John’s ultimatum, while Christina acts as the bridge between her daughter’s enthusiastic assumption of parental acceptance, and her husband’s dilemma. As the Draytons’ best friend, Monsignor Ryan (Cecil Kellaway), teases Matt,
“It’s rather amusing to see a broken-down old phony liberal come face to face with his principles.”
The drama compounds when Joanna insists that John ask his parents to join them for dinner at the Drayton home that night. John calls his parents to share the news of his engagement and extend the dinner invitation, but fearing his parents’ reaction, he excludes the fact that Joanna is white. When Mr. and Mrs. Prentice (Roy E. Glenn and Beah Richards) arrive in San Francisco later that day, they are just as shocked at meeting Joanna as Matt and Christina were to meet John.
Meeting the Prentices
Like Christina, Mrs. Prentice feels the love that John and Joanna have for one another, and she is soon won over to the happy couple’s side. But Mr. Prentice remains unconvinced. A heated discussion with his son follows, with John pinpointing in the course of their argument why he thinks his father cannot accept the marriage:
“You don’t even know what I am dad, you don’t who I am, you don’t know how I feel, what I think. And if I try to explain it, the rest of your life you will never understand…You and your whole lousy generation believes the way it was for you is the way it’s got to be…Dad, you’re my father, I’m your son, I love you…But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.”
While John works to change his father’s mind, it’s Mrs. Prentice who eventually changes Matt Drayton’s heart. With an emotional appeal to his forgotten sense of romance, Mrs. Prentice reminds Matt of the intense feelings he once had for Christina.
Thanks to the wisdom of Mrs. Prentice, Matt Drayton reaches his decision: he joins Mrs. Prentice and Christina in support of the marriage. Matt’s acceptance of the union is heartfelt. And his blessing is just as full of love for his wife as it is of support of the young couple:
“Mrs. Prentice says that like her husband, I’m a burned-out old shell of a man who cannot even remember what it’s like to love a woman the way her son loves my daughter…[but] I think you’re wrong. As wrong as you can be…I know exactly how he feels about her…Old? Yes. Burned-out? Certainly. But I can tell you, the memories are still there. Clear, intact, indestructible. And they’ll be there if I live to be 110….
In the final analysis it doesn’t matter a damn what we think. The only thing that matters is what they feel, and how much they feel for each other. And if it’s half of what we felt. That’s everything.”
And with that, John and Joanna will presumably make their flight to Switzerland, and begin their new life together. But first, dinner is served at the Drayton home.
And that’s the end of the film.
Years of Growth
With 1951’s The African Queen, Katharine Hepburn began one of the most artistically fulfilling periods of her career. After nearly a decade of building her life around Spencer Tracy’s needs and schedule, Kate made her own personal growth a priority, tackling Shakespeare on Broadway, and traveling as far as the Congo, England, and Australia for good film and stage roles. Hepburn arguably reached her pinnacle as an actress in Eugene O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Her performance in the 1962 film as the morphine addicted matriarch Mary Tyrone remains unmatched today, and ranked among the work Hepburn herself was most proud of.
Kate’s years of travel and artistic fulfillment wound down at the end of 1962, with the death of Dr. Thomas Norval Hepburn. It was painful losing the beloved father from whom Kate inherited her drive and passion for life. But as she wrote good friend George Cukor following her father’s passing, Kate felt incredibly blessed for the parents she’d been given:
“How lucky I have been to have been handed such a remarkable pair in the great shuffle.”
I absolutely love that.
Dr. Hepburn’s death most likely influenced Kate’s decision to once more put Spencer Tracy, who’s own health was faltering, at the center of her life. Years of hard drinking took their toll on Spence, and it seemed that whatever time he had left was limited. So Kate, with her trademark determination, decided to nurse Tracy back to health. And if that failed, at the very least, Kate and Spencer would enjoy his last years together.
From 1962-1967, Spencer Tracy was Katharine Hepburn’s world. Kate made Los Angeles her home base to be near Tracy at all times. She cooked for Spence, helped him stick to a healthy diet and exercise program, and made sure Spencer’s bungalow on director George Cukor’s estate was always stocked with his favorite non-alcoholic beverages: cold milk and tea. During these years, Tracy and Hepburn could be seen walking or picnicking at Malibu’s beaches, but they were more often than not happy just keeping to themselves at Tracy’s modest bungalow, painting, reading, and simply enjoying one another’s company.
The press, which for the most part had respectfully kept quiet about the Tracy/Hepburn romance for nearly two decades, began to drop hints, some not so subtle, that Kate and Spence had been more than friends all these years.
The years between 1962’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner marked the greatest length of inactivity in Katharine Hepburn’s career. In that five year period, Hepburn didn’t make a single film. And she was happy. Kate reflected on these quiet years in a letter to Tracy in her autobiography [aff. link],
“We led a tiny little life. But it was very satisfactory. I felt very necessary to you and I really did enjoy that immensely. At a time when most ladies of my age were falling apart because they were no longer desirable—either personally or career-wise—I was wanted every hour of the day and night.”
But these quiet years weren’t without health scares. In 1963, Tracy suffered a pulmonary edema. Kate nursed him back to health before another health scare in September 1965, when Tracy required prostrate surgery. Tracy’s prostatectomy led to greater complications: he suffered kidney failure, and lapsed into a coma. Worse still, the trauma of everything combined weakened Spencer’s heart. But he pulled through.
Katharine Hepburn's Finest Hour
Through it all, Spencer Tracy couldn’t have asked for a better caretaker and companion. Kate’s sense of fun, thoughtfulness, and great love for Spence during these health crises are perfectly underscored by an anecdote Hepburn shared with friend and writer, James Prideaux. When Spencer was released from the hospital, Kate encouraged his dream of owning “a snappy little sports car,” one of the few physical possessions Tracy longed for. As Kate related to Prideaux,
“But then he [Spencer] said, ‘It wouldn’t do, would it—with the white hair and everything?’ And I said, ‘Shoot, if it’s [a sports car] you want, get it.’ So he ordered it and it was delivered to the hospital the day he got out and we went down together and there it was at the curb. All the nurses were leaning out of the windows, watching us.
So he got behind the wheel and I got in beside him and he tried to start the motor and it wouldn’t start. And it wouldn’t start. So I jumped out, opened the hood, took a bobby pin out of my hair, and in two minutes flat I had it fixed. All the nurses started applauding. I took a bow. And we drove off in a blaze of glory. It was my finest hour.”
That may be just about the most adorable image ever: 65-year-old Spencer Tracy, and 58-year-old Katharine Hepburn, behind the wheel of a snappy little sports car, speeding off to the applause of several nurses after Kate successfully MacGyver-ed the engine.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: A Final Tracy/Hepburn Pairing
While Tracy was in and out of the hospital, Hepburn at age 58 reaped the benefits of a life lived healthfully. Trim, buoyant, and as full of energy as ever, it seemed Kate had discovered the fountain of youth. But she routinely turned down a steady flow of film and stage offers. Nothing would get in the way of Kate’s devotion to Spencer. As her good friend Irene Mayer Selznick wrote in a 1966 letter,
“Kate is in absolutely smashing form. [But] There would be not a chance in a million that she would do anything at all on the stage at this time. She won’t even do a film unless possibly one with Spence. He is fine, but that is her decision and I can’t imagine anything shaking her.”
But in the fall of 1966, a film opportunity came along for Kate and Spence that they couldn’t refuse. It would prove to be not only the capstone 9th film pairing of the legendary duo, but Spencer Tracy’s last screen appearance. It was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
Stanley Kramer and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
Under his contract with Columbia Pictures, director Stanley Kramer was obligated to make one more film for the studio. And Kramer, respected for his moral “message pictures,” including The Defiant Ones (1958), Inherit the Wind (1960), and Judgement at Nuremberg (1961), wanted his last film for Columbia to address the controversial topic of interracial marriage.
In 1966, interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 states.
The film industry at large was cowardly when it came to addressing the hot button issue. According to Stanley Kramer,
“As far as I know, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was the first picture ever made on this subject. When it was made in 1967, the film industry taboo against even the implication of sex between blacks and whites was still in force. While it was not written into any document, it didn’t have to be. Everyone in the industry knew about it and honored it, even those that may have considered it wrong.
…to judge by the resistance I faced when I introduced the idea and the silence from most of my colleagues, the great majority thought I was, at the very least, premature in my hopes for such a daring venture. The black-white taboo was supposedly too strong to challenge.”
Writer William Rose actually thought Kramer was joking when Kramer asked him to write the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner screenplay. But Rose soon realized he was serious. Together, they brought Kramer’s vision for the film to life.
Kramer's Vision for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
Stanley Kramer thought it crucial for Rose’s screenplay to make it clear, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the only possible objection Matt and Christina Drayton could have to their daughter’s marrying Dr. John Prentice was race:
“I wanted the prospective black bridegroom to be a person so suitable that if anyone objected to him, it could only be due to racial prejudice…I also wanted the girl’s parents to be unprejudiced white people because if they were bigots, it would make the story too obvious and predicable.”
Kramer was smart enough to realize that Columbia would nix the project if he was completely honest with them about the subject matter. So when Kramer pitched Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner to the studio executives, he remained as vague as possible about the storyline. Kramer said the film would be about “a marriage proposal,” and that he had Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, and Sidney Poitier for starring roles. But he didn’t mention much else.
Sidney Tops the List
Poitier’s name alone was enough to convince Columbia’s executives of the film’s potential. Indeed, a Gallup poll would soon find that Sidney Poitier topped the list of an elite group of actors whose films the public would pay to see simply because they starred Sidney Poitier.
Can we just stop for a minute to appreciate how incredibly cool this is?
Sidney Poitier, the son of a humble tomato farmer who grew up in poverty on Cat Island in the Bahamas, came to America as a young man, and, amidst the racism and prejudice of the time, decided to “set the bar higher” for himself, becoming the first black movie star in the process, so popular with audiences that they’d literally pay to see him in any film. At a time when many hearts had yet to be softened towards racial equality, Sidney Poitier was beloved by audiences of all colors.
What a remarkable man.
On the strength of Poitier’s name, the romanticism of another Hepburn/Tracy pairing, and a vague but commercial sounding screenplay, Columbia agreed to give Stanley Kramer $3 million to make Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
Now all Kramer had to do was get Poitier, Hepburn, and his good friend Spencer Tracy to agree to make the film. Aware of Tracy’s fragile health, Kramer knew he’d have to act fast.
Getting Spencer Tracy for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
In the fall of 1966, Stanley Kramer approached Spence and Kate about the possibility of a final film pairing. Kate was all for it, but Tracy wasn’t so sure. Kramer remembered easing into his sales pitch for the film, but it didn’t matter. Tracy still turned him down:
“I asked him how he felt.He said, ‘How should I feel?I sit here [at home] on my ass all day because I haven’t got the energy to do anything else.’
‘You might have more energy,’ I said, ‘if you’d get out and exert yourself.’
‘How often have I heard that old song?If I haven’t got any energy when I’m sitting here, where will I find any outside?In the gutter?…Give me a break!’
Kramer preceded to tell Tracy about the film idea, “lying through his teeth” that all he wanted was Spencer’s impression of the Matt Drayton role.
“‘That should be a damned good role,’ he said about the father. ‘I wish I were strong enough to do it.’
‘I think you are,’ I said. “I could arrange the shooting schedule so you wouldn’t have too much to do on any one day.’
‘Get out of here,’ he said. ‘I should have known you had come to sell me something.”
What a crusty, yet somehow lovable old guy, that Spencer Tracy.
Kramer left that day without a commitment from Spencer, but Kate was squarely in his court. And eventually, she convinced Spencer to accept the role.
A Guess Who's Coming to Dinner "Pre-enactment"
Meanwhile, Stanley Kramer went to work on Sidney Poitier. But the thought of working with Tracy and Hepburn left the Oscar-winner starstruck:
“‘I couldn’t do it,’ he said [to Kramer]. ‘They’re just too good. I’m not in their league. I’d get stagestruck and forget my lines.’”
Kramer eventually convinced the modest Poitier that he could certainly hold his own next to Tracy and Hepburn. Kramer’s confidence, combined with Sidney’s enthusiasm for the subject material, was the final push he needed to sign on to the project. And as by far the biggest box office draw of the three stars, Sidney Poitier was the highest paid cast member, earning an impressive $250,000 and 9% of the profits. Out of respect for his legendary co-stars, Sidney gave Spencer Tracy top billing, while Kate graciously accepted third.
In his 2000 autobiography, A Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography [aff. link] Sidney Poitier relates that his first meeting with Kate and Spence was almost a “literal pre-enactment” of the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner storyline. Arriving at Kate’s home, Sidney was met with a rather glacial air as Kate sized him up, asking a series of questions without “cracking a smile.” But over dinner that night with Kramer, Kate, and Spence, it was clear that Sidney had completely won over his co-stars.
Would Paul Newman have been put through such a test? Probably not. But it wasn’t Sidney’s nature to be offended. As Poitier himself put it, the politics of Kate and Spencer were “sound,” and he appreciated that these were two “exceedingly decent people” putting “their ideals to the test,” similar to Matt and Christina Drayton in the film.
A Family Affair
Rounding out the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner cast was Katharine Houghton, Kate’s real-life niece, in the role of Joanna Drayton. Though her famous aunt had some influence in Kathy being considered for the part, Houghton won the role through her own merits after Stanley Kramer was “impressed” and “completely intrigued” by her performance in a Broadway production. As Kramer found, Kathy Houghton had
“…an appealing personality and an accent much like Hepburn’s, having come from the same background. She seemed exactly what Hepburn’s daughter would be if Hepburn had a daughter, so I hired her…”
Kate, always looking out for those she loved, reviewed her niece’s film deal, and gave her stamp of approval before Kathy signed.
Columbia Backs Away From Gues Who's Coming to Dinner
Stanley Kramer officially had his dream cast lined up. But now he ran into some issues with Columbia. Out of necessity, as the production start date drew nearer, Kramer was more honest with Columbia about the film’s subject. And it made the studio executives second-guess moving forward with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Worse still, Columbia discovered the extend of Spencer Tracy’s health complications when the studio ultimately couldn’t get health insurance for Tracy with the rest of the cast. When Tracy suffered another pulmonary edema just before filming was scheduled to begin, it looked like the production would shut down.
But Stanley Kramer and Katharine Hepburn saved the day by agreeing to put their salaries in escrow until principal photography was completed. This, coupled with an insurance policy with an exorbitant $71,000 premium that Kramer was able to get for Tracy—appeased Columbia’s worries. With Spencer Tracy insured and the deferred salaries of Kramer and Kate, Spencer’s scenes could be re-shot with another actor, should the need tragically arise, without cost to the studio. So filming of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner proceeded. But, as Kramer was more than aware,
“My head was on the chopping block. Spencer was shot to pieces by all those years of drinking. If he died, I’d be ruined.”
Kate Behind the Scenes of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
The ten week shooting schedule of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner began in February 1967. Even though she wasn’t in any of the scenes to be shot the first day of filming, Katharine Hepburn arrived on set early and ready to work. She announced to those present:
“In case my niece drops dead from the excitement, I’m here and I know all her lines, too.”
The humorous incident was indicative of Kate’s dedication and involvement in the production. As director Stanley Kramer observed shortly thereafter, “She can work until everyone drops.”
During the making of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Kate’s work day began at 5 am, running lines with Spencer. Kate ensured that Spence was completely confident, prepared, and ready to give his all to the half days Kramer generously scheduled for him. When the older Cecil Kellaway had difficulty remembering his lines on set, it was Kate who fed them to him. And wanting to help Kathy Houghton give a flawless performance in her big screen debut, Kate shared her tricks of the trade, which helped Houghton develop her natural performance in the film.
Kate’s generosity and helpfulness to all involved with the production was not lost on Spencer Tracy, who admiringly observed of his longtime love,
“Do you notice she’s the same with everybody—how she always tries to help people? She helps little Kathy, she helps Cecil Kellaway in his dialogue, she helps me…”
Throwing the Press
Kate even cooperated with the press, promoting the film with copious interviews. It was a little baffling to reporters, so used to Hepburn’s legendary privacy. But their confusion could be addressed with some classic Katharine Hepburn logic:
“I’m getting nicer in my old age. Most people become grumpy.”
Behind the scenes, Kate offered suggestions on lighting, wardrobe, and set design, even demanding that the fake fireplace in the Drayton home be replaced with a real one. It was also crucial, she told Kramer family secretary Leah Bernstein, that everyone on set learn to play tennis at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
More classic Hepburn logic. You gotta love her!
At times Kate’s enthusiastic involvement made for awkward situations with Stanley Kramer, who occasionally had to remind her who the director of the film was. Even still, Kramer called Hepburn “one of the two or three most creative artists I’ve ever worked with,” and recognized from where her immense desire to contribute to all aspects of the production came: it was clear to everyone on set that Spencer Tracy was dying. And Kate wanted desperately for his last film experience to be enjoyable, and a huge success. The perceptive Katharine Houghton observed of her aunt that:
“She was under more pressure than anybody. To see the love of your life fading before your eyes—she was extremely tense through the whole picture. Knowing her, I see it in the picture. I’m not sure that people who don’t know her would notice.”
Tracy and Hepburn: A Classy Team
Indeed, perhaps what stood out most to those on the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner set was the incredible love and professionalism of the Tracy/Hepburn team. D’Urville Martin, who shared the memorable car crash at the drive-in with Tracy in the film, fondly remembered that:
“No matter how big or how small, they treated everybody on that set as if they were the star. They made me feel that I was the greatest actor in the world. I mean, between takes they would compliment me and tell me how fantastic I was. The two of them…They made everybody feel as if they were the greatest thing since the wheel.”
Talk about a classy duo. Here were Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, American cinema’s most skilled team, making everyone on set feel like a star.
Kate and Spence may have been great at making everyone on set feel special, but Sidney Poitier still found himself unable to overcome the awe and admiration he had for his legendary costars.
“Working with the two of you is a dream to me.”
Sidney told them. Stanley Kramer remembered that Poitier “actually went speechless” the first day of rehearsals.
How sweet is it that Sidney, a groundbreaking, Oscar winner himself, still gawked in the presence of Kate and Spence?
Sidney is Awestruck
Nine days into production, Poitier was scheduled to film the critical scene when Dr. Prentice asks the Draytons for Joanna’s hand in marriage. The scene proved just as nerve wracking for Sidney Poitier in real-life as it must have been for his character in the film. As Sidney remembered,
“I had all the words. Very well written scene too. And it came time, and I’m thoroughly rehearsed. I knew everything I wanted to do. I was prepared to do my shadings, had little nuances here and there, was ready I thought….They rolled the camera…And suddenly into my mind came the realization that I am working in concert with these two people. I went up. I couldn’t remember a word. I blew every line for at least 45 minutes. I couldn’t—I couldn’t work. I was awestruck, actually. Simple as that.”
Kramer decided hold off, and try the scene again the next day. Eventually, it was Spencer Tracy who realized that Sidney would probably be more at ease if he didn’t have “these two old owls staring at him,” referring to himself and Kate.
As it turned out, Tracy was right: the next day, Kate and Spence stayed off the set. And Sidney acted his part and delivered his lines flawlessly. To two empty chairs.
A Sense of Victory on the Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Set
Spencer Tracy finished his final, touching speech in the film the last week of production in late May. On completing the difficult scene, he pulled Stanley Kramer aside:
“If I die on the way home tonight, you can still release the picture with what you’ve got.”
But Tracy did make it through the final week of filming. When he completed his last scene, the one with Kate at the drive-in, Stanley Kramer remembered a sense of victory permeated the set:
“His completion represented, not only for him but for all of us, a heroic act, a conquest.”
"What Love Is"
Spencer Tracy didn’t have the energy to make it to the cast party that followed, but before leaving the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner set, he shared with all who were present what was perhaps the sweetest tribute to his love for Katharine Hepburn these last 26 years:
“If you people can have anything like, anything approaching what we have…then you can understand what love is.”
Tracy wouldn’t live to see the finished film, or reap the accolades of his extraordinarily moving performance. Spencer Tracy died two weeks after the completion of filming, on June 10, 1967.
Kate describes Spencer’s death as sudden in her autobiography: the two were staying at George Cukor’s estate. It was early in the morning when Kate heard Spencer walk down the hall of his bungalow, on his way to the kitchen for a cup of tea. After hearing a loud thud, Kate rushed in. Tracy had died of a heart attack.
The fact that Kate was clearly with Spencer before he died, and that it was she who discovered his body, made things difficult for Spencer’s widow, Louise Tracy. Kate decided that after 26 years of living their own separate lives with Spencer, it was time for the two women to openly acknowledge each other. So a few days after Spencer’s passing, Kate called Louise, and offered her an olive branch of sorts.
But to Hepburn’s suggestion that the two of them become friends, Louise Tracy, perhaps understandably all things considered, responded,
“Well, yes, but you see, I thought you were only a rumor…”
Even Louise could appreciate Kate for making the difficult call; however. After hanging up the phone, Susie Tracy remembers her mother saying with respect,
“Well that certainly took guts.”
The Release of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released to limited theaters in December 1967. Even before its wide release in February 1968, audiences flocked to see the film and its daring message. Largely thanks to the box office power of Sidney Poitier, enjoying his brief reign as “America’s top movie star”, with not one, not two, but three hit films in theaters, (the other two Poitier films were In the Heat of the Night (1967) and To Sir, With Love (1967)), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner would earn $22 million domestically over the first two years of its release. The picture Columbia was almost too afraid to make turned out to be the highest earning film in the studio’s history, and of the careers of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.
But as audiences stood in line to see Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, film critics almost unanimously panned it.
So…what was it that the critics and intellectuals didn’t like about the first major Hollywood production gutsy enough to address the taboo topic of interracial marriage?
Critics Pan Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
The answer, in short, was that most film critics found Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner completely unrealistic in its portrayal of the issue. Some believed the film didn’t go far enough, while others thought the picture missed its target completely. As Wilfred Sheid wrote, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner showcased
“the old Hollywood knack for misstating a situation so grossly that the problem never arises.”
One of most negative reviews came from Judith Crist, who wrote in The New York Herald Tribune that:
“It would be easy to accept this film, as thousands of mindless moviegoers are doing, because it is designed to satisfy the slugs in its lip service to decency while it sloughs off our most pressing national problem in frighteningly insidious terms. In essence it says that it’s perfectly fine for the slightly silly daughter of a millionaire to marry a Negro provided that (a) he’s Sidney Poitier (b) he’s the smartest scientist in the whole wide world (c) his mother keeps her gloves on while drinking sherry with her prospective in-laws…and (d) the happy miscegenated couple gets the hell out of this country by midnight and spends the rest of their lives peddling medicine to the natives in Africa.”
Stanley Kramer Defends Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
Most critics more or less agreed with Crist’s assessment. But is it an accurate critique of the film? Stanley Kramer certainly didn’t think so.
Kramer argued that the characters in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner had to be perfect, and the premise simple, to keep race at the forefront of the film, to ensure that race was the only issue Matt and Christina Drayton could have with the marriage of John and Joanna. As Kramer put it,
“The film is an adventure into the ludicrous—the characters so perfect that the only conceivable objection to this marriage could be ludicrously enough, the pigmentation of the man’s skin. That was the point of the film, and it worked.”
Kramer and screenwriter William Rose were further censured for making John Prentice a highly respected doctor, rather than a more common profession. But didn’t that, too, effectively keep the issue of race at the center of the film? And would it even be realistic for Joanna Drayton, the product of an upper-class family, to be interested in a man with a more blue collar occupation. Stanley Kramer explained:
“When the picture was released, some of the critics said, ‘It’s an oversimplification,” and, I suppose, whenever you touch on the complications of race that is a danger. Some critics asked, ‘What if he were a plumber?’ In that family, a white plumber would have been as unacceptable as a black one. If he were a plumber, it might make an interesting story but it would have been some other story, which no one would put up the money to make, by the way. We knew we couldn’t cover the whole subject of racism. We hoped only to open that subject to public debate, and I think we succeeded.”
Sidney Poitier Defends Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
Sidney Poitier agreed with Kramer’s assessment, and argued for the revolutionary aspects of the film that critics of the time missed:
“Kramer made people look at the issue [of interracial marriage] for the first time…He treated the theme with humor…delicately…humanly…Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a totally revolutionary movie, and this is what so many critics failed to see. For the first time, the characters in a story about racism are people with minds of their own who after deliberations in a civilized manner, and after their own private reflections, come to a conclusion—the only sensible conclusion that people could come to in a situation like this!”
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Learning from "Fairytales"
Pauline Kael criticized Stanley Kramer’s “formula of using controversial subjects in noncontroversial ways” in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. But perhaps it was Kramer’s “noncontroversial” tone that made the film so attractive to audiences. Kramer’s friendly presentation of a taboo subject made Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner approachable and appealing for the masses. As a result, the film’s potential to positively influence opinions on racial equality and interracial marriage was great.
In a 2017 interview, Katharine Houghton referred to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, with its perfect characters and noncontroversial tone, as a “fairytale.” And don’t we often learn life’s most important lessons through fairytales? To quote Houghton:
“The fact is that it [the film] is a comedy and it’s a fairy tale. That’s what is interesting to me. Maybe we need comedies and fairytales to try to move forward, to try to progress as a society.”
What a discerning woman. Katharine Hepburn would be proud.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Sidney Poiter's Career Decline
A tragic casualty of the critical negativity towards Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was the film career of Sidney Poitier. As a fan of Sidney and his extraordinary legacy, I have to take a moment to address Poitier’s admirable response to the personal attacks that grew progressively frequent following the film’s release.
The critical panning of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner coincided with the increasing fragmentation of the Civil Rights Movement, as black nationalists and separatists found voices in the media. These segments of the black community were disenchanted with the non-violent, civil disobedience methods of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which they believed moved too slowly towards racial equality. By the tenants of the Black Power movement, namely the Black Panther Party, Sidney Poitier films, which championed brotherhood, non-violence, and integration, were out. They deemed Sidney an “Uncle Tom.” And he’d be called much worse.
Sidney Poitier summarized his career and image during this rapidly changing time:
“1968 was a time of incredible conflict and contrast…given the quickly changing social currents, there was more than a little dissatisfaction rising up against me in certain corners of the black community…
The issue boiled down to why I wasn’t more angry and confrontational. New voices were speaking for African Americans, and in new ways…Stokely Carmichael…the Black Panthers. According to a certain taste that was coming into ascendancy at the time, I was an ‘Uncle Tom,’…for playing roles that were nonthreatening to white audiences…In essence, I was being taken to task for playing exemplary human beings.”
Coming to Sidney's Defense
Amidst these personal attacks, many came to Sidney’s defense. Black journalist and author A.S. “Doc” Young argued that these more militant voices didn’t represent the black community at large. As Young wrote, “the loudmouths created by the media as ‘Negro leaders’ represent virtually no one but themselves.”
A sweet anecdote shared by Oprah Winfrey underscores that the voices against Sidney Poitier at the time did not speak for everyone. On her popular television show in 2005, Oprah spoke of what a lifelong inspiration Sidney has been for her. Oprah powerfully recalled seeing Sidney become the first black actor to win the Best Actor Oscar in 1964:
“I had watched Sidney Poitier win the Academy Award as a 10 year-old girl. And I thought, if he could do that, I wonder what I could do. So he was, and has been, and is, an enormous role model for me.”
So Sidney Poitier directly inspired Oprah Winfrey, who has been called the world’s most influential woman. As Oprah’s words and own extraordinary accomplishments evidence, Sidney Poitier and his films were important, effective, and influential forces for racial equality.
Sidney Poitier: An Inspiring Man
Through this difficult period, Sidney stuck to his ideals, refusing to bend his values and principles to appease his critics. As Sidney wrote in his 2000 autobiography,
“The heated tempers of that time have long since cooled, and ideological fashions have come and gone…
…As for my part in all this, all I can say is that there’s a place for people who are angry and defiant, and sometimes they serve a purpose, but that’s never been my role. And I have to say, too that I have great respect for the kinds of people who are able to recycle their anger and put it to different uses…
Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi, who certainly didn’t appear angry when they burst upon the world, would never have burst upon the world in the first place if they hadn’t, at one time in their lives, gone through much, much anger and much, much resentment…but they had some mechanism, some strength, some discipline, some vision that allowed them to convert that anger into fuel…into positive energy. Their transformed anger fueled them in positive ways…”
The same could be said for Sidney Poitier. If this remarkable man isn’t an example of what to aspire to, I don’t know what is.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Kate's Second Oscar
When awards season came around, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner garnered 10 Academy Award nominations. William Rose won the award for Best Screenplay (written directly for the screen), and Katharine Hepburn took home her second Oscar for Best Actress.
It was a particularly meaningful win for Kate, who based her portrayal of Christina Drayton on her cherished mother, Kit. Kate also viewed her win as a tribute to the legacy of Spencer Tracy, who was posthumously nominated for Best Actor. (Tracy lost to Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night.)
Hepburn didn’t attend the ceremony, as was her habit. Besides, she was already off to Europe, working on her next two film projects, by the time the Oscars took place. But she cabled a heartfelt acceptance speech to the Academy:
“[William] Rose wrote about a normal, middle-aged, unspectacular, unglamorous creature with a good brain and a warm heart who’s doing the best she can to do the decent thing in a difficult situation. In other words, she was a good wife. Our most unsung and important heroine. I’m glad she’s coming back in style. I modeled her after my mother. Thanks again. They don’t usually give these things to the old girls you know.”
Life After Spencer
The Oscar win was an appropriate beginning to Kate’s years without Spencer Tracy. The adjustment to life without Spence was hard. Kate took to wearing his old clothes for comfort, sewing and patching them up as needed. But it was Kate’s nature to “keep a-going.” As she wrote Noel Coward following Tracy’s passing,
“What a wonderful, lovely looking, sensitive creature I’ve spent so much of my life with. I know that I am lucky—he kept me hoping and I never had time to think about myself. So—on again, alone…”
Kate kept her workload full. After Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Hepburn went to Europe for production on two films, one of which, The Lion in Winter (1968), resulted in yet another Best Actress Oscar. The win, back-to-back with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, marked Kate’s third.
And then she took on Broadway, in musical form no less, playing Alan J. Lerner’s Coco, based on the life of fashion designer Coco Chanel, to packed houses for eight solid months.
Kate played Greek tragedy, the complicated works of Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, and made her first Western with John Wayne. She was 68.
Oh, and she won another Best Actress Oscar for 1981’s On Golden Pond. At 74 years old, Kate was an inspiring reminder that, regardless of age, our greatest achievements may always be just around the corner. Hepburn’s record four Best Actress wins remains unmatched today.
A Contemporary Hero
As an adorable older woman, Kate still commanded the attention of fans and moviegoers, many of whom only knew Hepburn for her later film work. Trying on scarves one day at Macy’s department store in the 1980s, Kate drew a crowd of fans, anxious to catch a glimpse of the spunky star and observe her selections, just as they would for any trendy, young Hollywood star.
A 1984 national survey of 4500 teenagers placed Kate at number seven on a list of their top ten contemporary heroes. Katharine Hepburn was the only woman who made the list, and she ranked one spot above the Pope.
Katharine Hepburn: A Fierce Hollywood Original
In her 1993 autobiographical documentary, All About Me, Kate shared that:
“I’ve been around so long now that people treat me as some kind of oracle or grandmother of the world maybe. Wanting to know what I think about the important things in life. What I think is being alive is a tremendous opportunity. It’s what you do with it that matters…I’ve been as terrified as the next person, but you’ve got to keep a-going, you’ve got to dream. It’s how you live that counts.”
For her extraordinary career and fascinating life well lived, there’s no question that Katharine Hepburn earned her commendable spot in Hollywood history. Kate’s drive, zest for life, loyalty to those she loved most, and great independence were unique for her time, and continue to inspire new generations of fans. Katharine Hepburn is one of Hollywood’s fiercest originals. And one thing is certain: there will never be another star quite like Kate.