By Gail Moore Woltkamp
Have you ever sat down and watched Spencer Tracy’s final speech at the end of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”? You should. As late to the party as it sounds, everyone should see this movie. Add to Tracy’s eloquence and thought-provoking dialogue the fact that the actor was dying throughout the entire making of the film, and the message becomes even that much more meaningful.
I was two years old when Stanley Kramer’s classic premiered on the big screen and a youngster during the Civil Rights Movement. Such an important time in our nation’s history and all I had to do was ride my trike and play with dolls. Others were doing the dirty work of paving paths of equal rights and tearing down racial barriers.
Watching Kramer’s film today not only reveals to me who we were during that period in our American History, but also sheds light on some family dynamics of my own…
Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn as Matt and Christina Drayton remind me of my own mom and dad. Not in how they miserably fail in hiding their surprise of their only daughter’s engagement to an African American doctor, but more in how they communicate with candor and humor as they grapple with their own surprise at themselves.
Joanna Drayton, portrayed beautifully by Katherine Houghton, was raised in a special environment. Maybe because I’m an only child, and was close to both of my parents, I feel a connection to fictional “Joey.” It’s clear she was raised to think for herself, make up her own mind, regardless of outside influences.
My mom and dad, now both deceased, were not as wealthy as the fictional Drayton’s. My dad, a small town barber, and my mom, a secretary for a pipeline company, both were successful, hard-working, kind, generous, independent and accepting. At a very young age, I felt as though I had a voice as important decisions were made about our home, our family and livelihood.
My parent’s values in how to treat and accept others made a lifetime impact on me. My dad would often say about my mom that she was a “Women’s Libber” before anyone talked about it. Just like Matt and Christina Drayton, they were accepting of other people’s races and religions without wearing it on their sleeves or giving it a second thought.
It has been documented that Tracy was frequently absent during the filming of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” He passed away just seventeen days after production wrapped. I would guess the public and even some closest to him never knew the extent of his illness. It compels me to consider his performance and wonder if it was perhaps driven by his own state of health.
I think of those final scenes where Tracy’s character is questioning himself as he unravels the events of the day in an effort to arrive at a thoughtful position regarding his daughter’s future.
While some critics believe the movie is now outdated and even a little hokey, (most recently I’ve seen a movie critic discuss his disdain for the plot), I tend to disagree. Because I believe the story is ultimately about love, I stand by the film’s message as it continues to reveal to us where we are with universal attitudes on relationships and marriage.
I loved the San Francisco backdrop, the 1960s fashions and of course, Sydney Poitier. But what I continue to admire most about the film are the realistic portrayals of Hepburn and Tracy as their characters react and ultimately transform over the course of a given day.
To so many like my mom and dad who worked and lived by example in paving incredibly important paths of human rights and equal justice–Guess whose generation truly gets it! My teenage son said it best after watching the first ten minutes of the film: “So that’s the plot?” “They wanna get married?” “Who cares?” 💛