Join us as we celebrate Taste’s 43rd birthday with a special screening of the 1967 classic “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” at Taste Night at the Heights Theatre on Thursday, Nov. 1.
The particulars first: Tickets are $8 and are available at the door; for advance (non-refundable) tickets, go here. Showtime is at 7:30, but be sure to arrive early, because along with the movie, we’ll be featuring the song stylings of organist Harvey Gustafson at the theatre’s mighty Wulitzer. There’s also a cookbook raffle, with proceeds benefiting Second Harvest Heartland.
Here’s a quick plot synopsis: Dr. John Prentiss (Sidney Poitier) and Joey Drayton (Katharine Houghton) meet in Hawaii, quickly fall in love and decide to marry. They return to San Francisco to tell Joey’s parents, Matt and Christina Drayton (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn). Through various convenient plot complications — it’s a kind-of romantic comedy, so they’re allowed — Prentiss’ parents (Beah Richards and Roy Glenn) fly up from Los Angeles to meet their future daughter in law (leading Hepburn to utter to Tracy, in her inimitable Connecticut accent, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?”). They gather over dinner — prepared by the Drayton’s maid, Tillie Binks — with longtime Drayton family friend Monsignor Mike Ryan (Cecil Kellaway).
The issue is that Dr. Prentiss is black, and Miss Drayton is white. “Guess” is a prime example of what Hollywood once referred to as a “message movie.” The subject of interracial marriage was a radical one for a mainstream Hollywood film in 1967, but a timely one.
“But you do know, I’m sure you know, what you’re up against,” says Tracy’s character to his daughter and her fiance. “There will be 100 million right here in this country who will be shocked and offended and appalled at the two of you.” Several weeks after filming was complete, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down bans on interracial marriage in its Loving v. Virginia ruling. The movie opened six months later.
“Guess” garnered 10 Oscar nominations (including, shockingly, for both Art Direction/Set Direction and Music; you’ll know why they rate a “shockingly” when you see the movie), and won two: William Rose, for his original screenplay, and Katharine Hepburn (pictured, above) in the Best Actress category. It was her second Academy Award (“They don’t usually give these things to the old girls, you know,” is what she wrote in a thank-you telegram to the academy); her first, for “Morning Glory,” was in 1934, and she would go on to win two more, for “The Lion in Winter” in 1968 and 1981’s “On Golden Pond."
Other nominations included Best Picture, Best Actor (Tracy), Best Supporting Actor (Kellaway), Best Supporting Actress (Richards), Directing (Stanley Kramer) and Editing (Robert C. Jones).
Entertainment value aside, “Guess” boasts a treasure trove of Hollywood history and trivia. It was Tracy’s final film; he died 17 days after filming his last scene, part of a week-long endurance race to complete his character’s climactic eight-minute monologue. Tracy’s illness made him uninsurable, and so Hepburn and Kramer placed their salaries in escrow until filming was completed. It was the ninth film that Hepburn and Tracy made together, starting with “Woman of the Year” in 1942.
The cast included two women who would later become familiar to TV audiences. In her film debut, Isabel Sanford played Tillie Binks; in 1981 she would become the first African-American woman to win an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy, as Louise Jefferson in “The Jeffersons.”
Virginia Christine (pictured, above), who played the bigoted Hilary St. George to perfection (the actress was a favorite of Kramer’s), was also famous for her 21-year run as Mrs. Olson in a series of commercials for Folger’s Coffee. The scene where Hepburn's character tells her off in no uncertain terms is one of the movie's highlights.
The part of Joey Drayton was played by Katharine Houghton, Hepburn’s 22-year-old niece; “Guess” was her film debut. Poitier was the No. 1 box office draw that year, thanks to “Guess” and two other hit movies that had been released in the span of six months, “In the Heat of the Night” and “To Sir, With Love.” He wasn’t much younger than the two actors playing his parents; there was a seven-year difference between Poitier and Richards, and 13 years between Poitier and Glenn.
“Guess” has plenty of food references, most notably a scene at a drive-in (pictured, above, and staged in front of one of moviedom’s cheesiest rear-projection screens), where Tracy makes a fuss over fresh Oregon boysenberry sherbet. And it ends, of course, with everyone sitting down to dinner.