Episode 35 of 52: In 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.