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« Introducing... The Supporting Actress Nominees of 1989 | Main | Linkman & Emmywoman »
Wednesday
Aug272014

A Year with Kate: Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967)

Episode 35 of 52In which Katharine Hepburn wins her second Oscar and loses Spencer Tracy.

Today is the first of many goodbyes we’ll have to say on this series. After the success of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, with critics declaring her one of the greatest screen actresses of her generation, Kate disappeared for five years to take care of her partner of three decades, Spencer Tracy. It was the longest break she’d taken since she started making movies in 1932, not even her infamous “Box Office Poison” drought had lasted longer than 3 years. But the news was bleak: Spencer Tracy was dying.

Spencer Tracy’s health started declining rapidly in 1961. By 1967, he was in such poor health that the studios considered him uninsurable. Everyone working on Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner knew that this would be his last film. As a result, when Spencer Tracy died 17 days after shooting wrapped, Stanley Kramer’s sweet dinner comedy gained new gravitas as the summation of the two decade-long partnership between Tracy and Hepburn.

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner was supposed more about miscegenation and racism than it was about reuniting screen legends. Released between Loving v. Virginia and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner told the topical story of a liberal San Francisco couple (Kate and Spence) whose daughter (Katharine Houghton, Hepburn’s pretty but dull niece) announces that she’s going to marry an African American doctor (Sidney Poitier, underused). There are a host of issues--the lovebirds have only known each other two weeks and he’s over 10 years her senior--but because this is 1967, race is the main problem the Draytons are forced to chew on. Because of its topicality, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner was a smash success, earning a spot in the Box Office Top 10 and two Oscar wins.

Throughout the movie, Tracy and Hepburn show the intimacy that nine films and 20 years of collaboration can generate between two actors. Matt and Christina Drayton have a completely real relationship for a fictional couple.

During Woman of the Year, Kate and Spencer's best moments happened between the dialog, and two decades later it remained true. The unconsciously familiar way he touches her shoulder and the way she fiddles with his buttonhole speak to years of playful familiarity that are difficult to replicate onscreen. Though William Rose’s script won a Best Screenplay Academy Award, Tracy and Hepburn’s chemistry sparks strongest when they react to each other, not the script. Some things don't change, even after decades.

Much has been written of Spencer Tracy’s final speech and Katharine Hepburn’s teary-eyed reception, but the last scene they actually filmed together was more poignant: the Drayton's trip to the drive-thru. As Spencer, looking significantly older than his 67 years, attempts to order ice cream, talk turns quickly from their daughter to a idle memories. Then, Christina gives the last speech Kate will say to Spencer onscreen:

You know for us it’s all been great, but… you  know what was the best time of all? It was in the beginning when everything was a struggle and you were working too hard and worried, and sometimes frightened. And there were times when I felt… when I really knew, that I was a help to you. That was the very best time of all for me.

This film, and that speech, solidified what would become the Legend of Tracy and Hepburn: each time he fell, she picked him up, he struggled but she was strong enough for both. The East Coast Snob and the Blue Collar Irishman, living together outside conventional society for two decades.

Conventional society caught up to them, though. After 33 years, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner won Kate her second Oscar. Tracy posthumously lost to Rod Steiger in In The Heat Of The Night, a braver look at American racism, while Kate beat two iconic performances (Faye Dunaway and Anne Bancroft) and two solid ones (Audrey Hepburn and Edith Evans). It seems to me that Kate actually did share this win Spencer, as she later insisted. On their own, neither Kate's performance nor Spencer's is particularly noteworthy. Together, they're good. It was the Academy’s celebration of Tracy and Hepburn's decades-long partnership onscreen.

How do you feel about Spencer and Kate's last film together? Does Guess Who's Coming To Dinner deserve its Oscars? Post below! 

 

Previous Week: Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962) - In which Katharine Hepburn enters the golden age of her career.

Next Week: The Lion in Winter (1968) - In which if there’s only one Katharine Hepburn film you see, make it this one.

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Reader Comments (25)

The oscar should have gone to Bancroft or Dunaway - both sizzling performances...

August 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMark

1) I have seen this movie at least five times, even though I'm not particularly fond of it, because I always feel compelled to watch the scenes with Beah Richards, Roy Glenn and Isabel Sanford (playing Poitier's parents and the Draytons' maid, respectively). There is so much going on there beyond the script and the story. What the four capable leads are given to do either bores me or makes me cringe for the most part, and I felt that way the first time I saw the film ages ago.

3) "...In which if there’s only one Katharine Hepburn film you see, make it this one." To the bitter end, I will contend that Desert Island Kate ("pick three films") has to be The Philadelphia Story, Holiday and Long Day's Journey Into Night. If pressed to pick one: The Philadelphia Story.

August 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Ugh, this movie now feels like a placeholder between two of her very best performances. It's so dated and none of the performances are knockouts, although that last speech of Tracy's is beautiful and Beah Richards does wonders with her small role. This is Kate's Grace Kelly win. An award for an acceptable performance that beat a truly outstanding, deserving one. In this case she beat two of those, Anne Bancroft and Faye Dunaway, though I favor Bancroft's.

The film has its moments but is hampered by the vapid Katharine Houghton as their daughter. Initially Samantha Eggar was approached but was unavailable which is too bad she surely would have brought more to the part and film.

August 27, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I don't know if Lion in Winter is the only one of her films to see if you were only to see one, I'd go with Holiday for that choice, but it is essential and I'm anxious to read your post on it Anne Marie.

August 27, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I saw this for the 1st time 2 weeks ago,i do like her in this but it does feel like a career reward,little did they know what would happen the year after.

August 27, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermark

I wonder how many of those insisting the Oscar should have been won by either Bancroft or Dunnaway for their admittedly iconic performances, have actually saw The Whisperers. Not as important and timely a film as The Graduate or Bonny and Clyde, but as far as pure acting goes, no one was better than Edith Evans that year. And not unlike Hepburn in LDJIN, an amazing against type, revelatory performance which makes a distinctive powerhouse persona (and if ever an actor had one, it was Evans) totally disappear and allow the truth of the character to be fully explored. A mesmerizing performance.

August 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterUA

Paul Outlaw -- If this series wasn't devoted to Katharine Hepburn, I would have liked to talk about Richards, Glenn, and Sanford, because they're acting in a completely different film than Hepburn, Houghton, and Tracy. Also, that is a fantastic Desert Island Kate List.

joel6 -- "Grace Kelly win" is my new favorite description for unearned awards.

August 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Edith Evans was solid in 'The Whisperers'? Solid? Merely solid?

No, I whole-heartedly agree with UA: She was great and should have won the Oscar that year, beating out even the iconic Mrs. Robinson.

August 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMrW

I have seen The Whisperers and Edith Evans is indeed extraordinary in it. I've also seen Wait Until Dark and Audrey was phenomenal in that too but I would still give the award to Bancroft.

Any of the other nominees would actually have been a worthy winner so of course the academy had to give it to the least deserving of that year's performances!

August 27, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

"It's not that I don't want to know you, Hilary - although I don't - it's just that I'm afraid we're not really the sort of people that you can afford to be associated with."

That moment is an all-time highlight of screen bitchery for me. Start your motor.

August 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHayden W

I have seen Edith Evans in The Whisperers. It's a performance that I respect tremendously, but I really love Anne Bancroft's Mrs. Robinson the most out of the 1967 roster (though she was really supporting, I think, so I suppose she should have won there and Evans in lead).

August 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike M.

I'm secretly happy that Kate won the Oscar for this award because if she hadn't, she surely would have won the award the next year fair and square and then Barbra would not have that Oscar, and there would be no living with her in that case! :-)

PS I'm one of the few people who are underwhelmed with The Lion In Winter. Not with Kate of course, but just the movie as a whole. Blasphemy I know.

I find Guess to be a boring slog. Nothing particularly bad about it, but nothing great either. And yet, I'm awfully glad it exists as a final summation of Hepburn & Tracy, but even more importantly as a "was it really like that?!" kind of social statement.

Am I the only one who is shocked that Sidney Poitier didn't get a nomination for this or In The Heat of the Night or, maybe especially, To Sir With Love?

August 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

I had to watch this for a college class, and I remember being blown away by how little I cared about the four central characters. I agree that the movie Richards, Glenn, and Sanford were acting in was the one I would have preferred to be watching. Our Kate sure is watchable, though.

I cannot WAIT for The Lion in Winter. My desert island Kate list, if limited to a top three, would miss it, but hooooo is it fun listening to Anne Marie talk about it. Can't wait to see what you've got to say next week!

August 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

I love Edith Evans in The Whisperers too. Tremendous performance. But I'm not sure who I would have voted for that year because Faye & Anne sure are formidable, too.

Kate is really likeable in this movie (which I agree is a dated dud... as so many "message movies" become) especially the scene Hayden suggests, but it's a weird win. And I'm always alarmed by "career wins" going to people who already have Oscars. Why? She's not remotely on the level of the other nominees, primarily I suppose because she doesn't have half as good a role to play.

August 27, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Hmm...do you really think this was a career win?

I've always assumed it was a result of vote-splitting between Bancroft, Dunaway, and Evans.

August 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

Haven't seen Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, but I totally agree with UA and others - Edith Evans is way better in The Whisperers than just 'solid'.

August 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJan

I always remember two strange scenes from this movie: the one that you mention with kate and spencer buying ice-cream, but specifically him 'reacting' to the kid (?) waitress. the other is one where poitier sort of flirts the young maid, and his girlfriend is perfectly fine with it (I wanna say she thinks it's amusing). what's up with that?

(maybe I'm exaggerating those scenes, I haven't seen this in some time)

August 27, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermarcelo

I agreed w the many comments: GWCtD? is not only the weakest of the 5 nominees, it is also the weakest of Kate's 4 wins (yes even weaker than Mourning Glory), Wait! I tink its also the weakest of all her 12 noms....

The only reason I tink she took up this secondary, bland supportive wife/mother role is to 1) be close and take care of Tracy on set, 2) bankrolled this movie as Tracy was uninsurable, Kate actualy put her fees on hold (together w Kramer) to make sure Tracy get the part & 3) returned the favour to Kramer as she had turned down the Vivien Leigh's role in his prev feature, Ship o Fools.

The problem with GWCtD? is that it dated v badly, sure it might be a "shocking" & "daring" movie when it was 1st released, but watchin it now really make u cringe, in a bad way. Hepburn & Poitier & Houghton are all underused. Tracy barely cut the mustard. Audiences flocked to it bcos this is the last pic o Tracy & bcos they missed Hepburn dearly, who was absent for more than 5 yrs. In fact, the academy missed her so much, they can't wait to give the oscar to her (juz in case she disappeared for ano 5 yrs). The oscar was a tribute to the legacy o Tracy/Hepburn. So Kate was rite when she said her win is for both o them.

The Academy shld have given a special award to Hepburn (like they do to Garbo & Stanwyck) to recognise all her past works, instead o best actress. Poor Dame Edith! she was actually the hot fav to win (not Bancroft or Dunaway), and the dark horse was Bancroft or Dunaway. Evans had won ALL the precursor awards (including Berlin) leading up to the big night. Imagine her disapptm! Had she won, at 80yo, she would have been the oldest winner then.

Any of the 4 nominees deserves it more than Kate, but IMO, Evans shld have won. Its a pity The Whisperer is almost forgotten today

August 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

Danny Peary in his "Alternate Oscars" book has an even more intriguing argument: that had Audrey Hepburn been nominated for her stellar--and very adult-- comedic AND dramatic work in "Two For The Road," she and not Kate might have taken the Oscar. As it was, it was easy to vote for Kate over Audrey, since "Guess" was "more important," the "Spencer factor," and Hepburn hadn't won in 30-some years. And as many have pointed out, Hepburn is great in this movie--just not as great as she was in "Long Day's Journey" or would be the following year in "The Lion In Winter."

I do think Faye Dunaway's performance in "Bonnie and Clyde" is sensational, and would've been another "acceptable" alternate winner. I think Anne Bancroft does wonders with Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate"--watch again the scene where Elaine finds out about the affair, and the devastation on Bancroft's face--but I always feel that the film is a little unfair to Mrs. Robinson in a kind of sexist way in the way it turns her into an evil bitch-harridan, whereas Benjamin basically gets off scot-free (and gets Elaine to boot). Then again, I was also repulsed when Anne Bancroft died, and SO MANY Baby Boomer journalists completely ignored her long, brilliant career and her seminal performance as Annie Sullivan (Tony and Oscar winner). No, it was all: "Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson--coo coo ca choo!" Way to reduce a brilliant actress to a two-dimensional sex bomb.

August 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDback

In my alternative Oscars, Hepburn wld've won for Little Women (1933), Alice Adams (1935), The Philadelphia Story (1940) & The Lion in Winter (1968). I wld pick Summertime (1955) too if it doesn't so greedy! lol

& She wld've been nominated for Holiday (1938) & Adam's Rib (1949), instead of GWCtD.

August 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

I love all of the theories and opinions on the 1967 Oscars that are being put forward here. Deserved or no, the film and the award stand as a sweet capstone to Kate's partnership with Spencer. We've spent nine weeks with Spencer, and Kate spent a third of his lifetime with him, and so getting one final film to mourn him and say goodbye was, I hope, cathartic. It may not be the best performance by either of them, but how often do partnerships get this kind of chance to celebrate and say goodbye? Plus, so soon after Spencer's death, with Kate unable to attend his funeral or grieve publicly, this feels like a silent acknowledgement of the pair. For that I am grateful.

August 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Dback -- I co-sign your second paragraph.

I'm more comfortable with this Oscar than most of you. I guess it's one of the few times I don't mind the fact that it has more to do with the narrative than the actual performance.

August 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

dback - I agree with you completely about Anne Bancroft and love your shout out to Audrey Hepburn in "Two For the Road".

Anne Marie - Once again we are totally in sync, on merit the Oscar probably should have gone to another, ie: Faye Dunaway for a truly iconic performance or Edith Evans...
But emotionally I find this win is.nice acknowledgement of a great duo lasting decades. "GWCtD" may be dated now, but I remember my parents really loving this film back in the day. Sometimes when Oscar voters go with their heart it isn't such a bad thing.

August 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

If you take out Kate, this is a spectacular lineup. For me, Anne is the clear winner. The scene where he forces her to open up about her college years--that's one for the ages. And Mrs. Robinson isn't a supporting role. Yes, she disappears for the last 40 minutes of the movie, but her character drives the entire story. Even when she's not there, her presence is felt in the narrative and informs the characters' behavior.

I agree that if Audrey had been nominated for her other great movie that year--Two For the Road--she would have had a better shot at winning. What a year she had before she retired for nine years.

GWCTD is such a relic, it's unintentionally amusing at times. When the maid's daughter breaks out into that groovy dance when the delivery guy comes over with the transistor radio on his shoulder. That's a riot.

I do agree with everyone who said she won because of both her and Spencer's legacy together. Still, it's just a really odd role to win for.

And how did Sidney not get nominated for Best Actor when he had three hit movies that year, two that were up for Best Picture? If I had to, I would take out Tracy and put him in instead--for In the Heat of the Night.

August 28, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I thoroughly agree about the dynamic between the two of them in the film. It really is the spark that carries me through the saccharine.

Kate's teary reaction to Spencer is one of the single best moments of her entire career on screen, and that's because she can't help but let down her guard or the character. (something I think she did few people but obviously Spence.)

September 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDrew C

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