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Sidney Poitier's career began to peak in the mid-sixties. Thanks to director Stanley Kramer, he had already garnered his first Academy Award nomination for his performance in The Defiant Ones (1958) and in 1963, he won the Best Actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field.
Then, in 1966, Poitier was approached by Kramer to star in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, a film that would explore the issue of interracial marriage. Kramer stated in an interview at the time that he felt the question of race relations could be explored in a motion picture in very personal terms and in such a way that any moviegoer could relate to the characters.
In the biography Stanley Kramer: Filmmaker by Donald Spoto, the director recalled that "the idea for it came about while I was walking with William Rose one evening in Beverly Hills. Now, Bill Rose is a good comedy writer. Remember, he did It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) with me. Anyway, as we walked, he told me a story, mostly a comedy, about a white South African man, a liberal, whose daughter falls in love with a black guy. I said, 'Geez, we ought to set the story here, in this country, in this background....I thought to myself, 'What a sorry sight to see a front-line liberal come face to face with all his principles right in his own house.' I also thought, 'What a perfect situation for a picture for [Spencer] Tracy." Kramer also knew it would be a perfect vehicle for Poitier but first he secured Tracy and Katharine Hepburn's involvement. As he recounted in his own autobiography, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Kramer said, "I told Sidney I had no script but that I did have Tracy and Hepburn. Sidney already was a star at that point, but he said, 'I don't know if you can bring it off with the studio, but I'll tell you I'll do it. Absolutely.' So I had three stars committed in heart and principle before I had a word of dialogue on paper."
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is remembered today for two significant reasons: It was the first Hollywood film to portray an interracial romance that had an optimistic ending, and the film featured a dream cast that included Spencer Tracy's final screen performance. Although Tracy was seriously ill at the time, Hepburn knew that, with her help and a restricted shooting schedule, he would be able to work. According to Kramer, Tracy "had no physical energy for the shooting of this film, and so we had to film it only in the morning. Columbia doesn't know to this day that we shot only half days. They didn't believe the film would be a commercial success anyway, and if they'd known our schedule they would have been doubly furious."
Despite Tracy's poor health, filming on Guess Who's Coming to Dinner proceeded smoothly. Ninety per cent of the movie was shot on one set, the Drayton home, which was created on a sound stage. Exteriors for the Drayton's San Francisco house were shot in Pasadena, California and background mattes of the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge and other scenic landmarks were also used.
Hepburn, in particular, immersed herself in the production, often issuing recommendations on the lighting, wardrobe and camera angles, despite Kramer's comments about her repressed directorial ambitions. Poitier, however, was rather daunted by the prospect of working with Hepburn - and her real-life companion, Tracy. In his autobiography, This Life, he wrote, "I wasn't able to get this out of my head: I am here playing a scene with Tracy and Hepburn! It was all so overwhelming I couldn't remember my lines. With the other actors I was fine....Finally Stanley Kramer said to me, "What are we going to do?" I said, "Stanley, send those two people home. I will play the scene against two empty chairs. I don't want them here because I can't handle that kind of company." He sent them home. I played the scene in close-up against two empty chairs as the dialogue coach read Mr. Tracy's and Miss Hepburn's lines from off-camera."
The role of Dr. John Prentice, a renown doctor working with the United Nations, was one that earned Poitier a great deal of attention -- both positive and negative. While Poitier was at the pinnacle of his acting career in terms of popularity and earning power, the character of Dr. Prentice was derided by many critics as being "too perfect." Black activists also criticized the character for being non-threatening and an improbable superhero.
The portrayal of the relationship between Poitier and Katharine Houghton (Hepburn's actual niece), who played his fiancee, was also lambasted for not giving much screen time to their romance. Poitier biographer William Hoffman later wrote that several shots of the couple kissing were edited out of the final version. In fact, the only time you see the two actors' lips meet in the movie is in a brief scene where a cab driver glimpses them kissing in his rear view mirror.
Stanley Kramer had the reputation among critics and moviegoers as a filmmaker who made "message films." He had already made several hard-hitting dramas with Tracy, including Inherit the Wind (1960) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), though neither were huge moneymakers. But when Tracy and Kramer first discussed the possibility of Columbia Studio funding Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Tracy pointed out that although studios claimed to "knock message pictures," they certainly didn't turn their backs on films that made money.
Yet, Tracy's deteriorating health made the film a risky venture for the studio. Because the ailing actor was uninsurable, Hepburn and Kramer placed their salaries into escrow accounts - to be used by the studio as collateral in the event that Tracy died before the film was completed. Just 10 days after the filming wrapped, Tracy did indeed pass away and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner went on to become Columbia's highest-grossing theatrical feature to date, taking in $25 million.
The film's success was also responsible for making Poitier the first African-American box office star in its history and one of Hollywood's most popular actors. Recently, Poitier cited Stanley Kramer in the list of directors, writers and producers who had helped make his phenomenal career a reality, in an era when the odds of a black actor achieving his level of success would not have "fallen in his favor," as he so eloquently stated at the 2002 Academy Awards.
Producer/Director: Stanley Kramer
Screenplay: William Rose
Production Design: Robert Clatworthy
Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Costume Design: Joe King, Jean Louis
Film Editing: Robert C. Jones
Original Music: Frank De Vol
Principal Cast: Spencer Tracy (Matt Drayton), Katharine Hepburn (Christina Drayton), Sidney Poitier (John Prentice), Katharine Houghton (Joey Drayton), Cecil Kellaway (Monsignor Ryan), Beah Richards (Mrs. Prentice), Virginia Christine (Hilary St. George).
C-109m. Letterboxed.Closed captioning.
by Genevieve McGillicuddy