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Published March 31, 2020

THE VIEW FROM MY SEAT

Guess who’s coming to dinner – again

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

While searching for a good movie during my coronavirus self-isolation, I stumbled across one of my favorites, “Guess Who is Coming to Dinner.”

I first saw the movie in 1967 in an exclusive engagement at the famous Graumann’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles. It wasn’t the theater’s Walk of Fame that I remember, it was the audience reaction to the movie.

Let me set the stage for you.

The movie, starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier was one of the first movies to picture interracial marriage in a positive manner.

As hard as it is to believe today, interracial marriages were historically illegal in this country and, at the time of the filming, 17 states banned such marriages. Coincidentally, anti-miscegenation laws were struck down by the Supreme Court just weeks before the film was released.

The plot revolves around the struggles of two sets of parents - one black and one white - as they try to accept the fact their white daughter and black son have fallen in love and plan on getting married.
Tracy and Hepburn play a liberal San Francisco couple who must now show the courage of their convictions.

The movie explores all viewpoints and is filled with memorable dialogue.

There’s Poitier, the son and a noted physician, explaining to his father the difference in their generations: “You think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.”

There’s Tracy’s character, Matt Drayton, calling his friend the priest “a pontificating old poop.”
And the climactic speech by Tracy in which he tells the couple that the wedding has his blessing, but warns of challenges ahead: “You will just have to cling tight to each other and say ‘screw all those people’.”

After those words, the capacity crowd stood, applauded and cheered, not just for seconds but for minutes.

Despite the fact the country was being torn apart by the Vietnam War and civil rights struggles, I left the theater feeling better about the country than when I went in. The movie inspired me and the audience response heartened me. This teenager felt his generation was going to change things for the better.

I had enjoyed watching the movie several times since and each time I remembered that night at Graumann’s.

This time, however, my reaction was different. I felt sad and wondered why.

Surely, the depressing pandemic news contributed to my reaction. But it was more than that.

I couldn’t watch the movie now without thinking of neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville or the hate-filled massacre in El Paso.

And the day I watched the movie, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that this country had a “crisis of hate and extremism” that threatened our democracy. And federal investigation documents revealed that white supremacists were considering weaponizing the coronavirus.

I felt optimistic after seeing the movie in 1967, but now, despite all the progress in the more than 50 years since, I couldn’t help but think the country was backsliding. Had my generation fulfilled its promise?

Of course, there was also a sad backstory to the movie that I didn’t know about in 1967. As I age, the backstory takes on greater poignancy.

The movie was the ninth and final on-screen pairing of Hepburn and Tracy. The couple had carried on a two-decade love affair. With Tracy’s health deteriorating in the ‘60s, Hepburn put her career on hold for five years to help care for him.

Tracy was seriously ill during the filming of “Guess Who is Coming to Dinner.”

In the emotional scene at the end of the movie, the camera focuses on the faces of Tracy and Hepburn. Hepburn’s character never speaks as her husband blesses the marriage, but you can tell Hepburn wasn’t just acting. She knew this would be their final scene together.

Tracy died 17 days after filming ended. Hepburn never watched the movie, saying it was too painful.
I will probably watch it again one day, but not when I am feeling like a “pontificating old poop.”

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)