Dinner: From Distress to Delight
In his detailed and extraordinarily invaluable chronicle of the films nominated for the 1967 Best Picture Academy Award®, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, Mark Harris penetratingly explores the making of director Stanley Kramer’s interracial romance Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which opened in theatres this week 48 years ago. The fragile health of Spencer Tracy dominating the filming schedule, the overprotective anxiety and sometimes intrusive helpfulness of Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Poitier’s initial reservations about the relative gentility of William Rose’s screenplay, Katharine Houghton’s inexperience, the determination to keep the set a closed one in order to complete the film, the naysayers among the supporting cast and the press who feared the finished product would be a whitewash of the volatile subject of race relations, the studio handlers who were loath to predict which audience segments the film would attract: who could guess what would result? “As it turned, Kramer’s movie didn’t run into trouble in the North, the South, the ghettos or anywhere else; it was an immediate blockbuster, the highest-grossing movie Kramer, Hepburn, Tracy or Poitier had ever made,” Harris writes. (Tracy would not live to see it, dying just 21 days after shooting his final scene.) “Where the critics reviewed the film as a timid and neutered issue picture, audiences saw it as a benign, often very funny, and finally touching portrait of discomposure….Watching two of the most self-assured stars in screen history not know how to behave in front of a black man – which was exactly how the two of them, particularly Hepburn, had chosen to play it – may not have ignited any revolutions, but it made for a genuinely crowd-pleasing comedy….Older moviegoers turned out in force to watch Hepburn and Tracy one last time; younger audiences, among whom Poitier had built a big following with the release of To Sir, with Love, showed up to see him again; and for the first time, black moviegoers were recognized as a massive force at the box office.” A long theatrical run through the first half of 1968, 10 Academy Award® nominations and 2 wins (for Hepburn and Rose) and underlying themes of adapting to new priorities and accepting change in the plight of, as Cecil Kellaway’s family friend says, “a broken-down old phony liberal face-to-face with his principles” set the table for its endurance as a beloved classic. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and To Sir, with Love can be invited home, each with generous courses of perceptive extra features, on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.