NEW YORK (AP) — Fifty years ago, Katharine Houghton found herself on her first big movie set making something that made plenty of people deeply worried.
Houghton and co-star Sidney Poitier were playing lovers in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” a romantic comedy directed by Stanley Kramer. Shooting had begun in San Francisco when word came that the movie was canceled.
It was an insurance problem, the studio explained. The timing seemed suspicious to the actors.
“Columbia Pictures, when they found out what the film was about, they didn’t want to do it. And they did everything they could to stop filming,” recalls Houghton. “They kept saying, ‘Nobody’s going to ever come and see this film. We’re going to lose millions of dollars on this film.'”
The studio was wrong. The movie made more money for Columbia than any film before it, earned 10 Oscar nominations — winning two — and landed among the 100 greatest movies selected by the American Film Institute.
The film, with its radical-for-its-time interracial romance, marked the first time a white actress and a black actor kissed in a major motion picture. Some movie theaters in the South refused to show it.
Fifty years later, some cheer its legacy while others look back and wince. Fans see its effects in modern films, like Jordan Peele’s new hit, “Get Out,” and in commercials for Cheerios and Chase Bank celebrating interracial couples. Critics think it didn’t go far enough to confront racism.
Houghton sees both sides but views the movie as revolutionary. “I think the film really was a kind of a thunderbolt,” she said. “A lot of very chic critics today say, ‘Oh, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was way behind the times. All those problems were already solved and we didn’t need a movie like that.’ I think we did need a movie like that.”
Houghton played a young white woman studying in Hawaii who brings home an accomplished African-American doctor and informs her parents — played by Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy — that she intends to marry him. Chaos ensues as her liberal parents grapple with the concept of interracial marriage.
The film, re-released this spring in a Blu-ray edition , served as a challenge to liberals, a sort of modern-day fable made palatable with comedy. Most parents would be supportive of their daughter’s involvement with Poitier’s character — a handsome, charming, well-educated doctor on his way to work with the World Health Organization. Only his race could be a sticking point.
The social backdrop was far different in 1967. While the film was being shot, more than a dozen states had laws against miscegenation. The same year it came out, Secretary of State Dean Rusk offered to resign after his daughter married a black man. Interracial romance was such an explosive topic that Beah Richards, who played Poitier’s mother in the film, couldn’t see it in her hometown of Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Critics said it was ultimately a cautious movie without much bite. Yes, there was a kiss but Poitier and Houghton locked lips only once, captured in a rearview mirror in the back of a cab. Detractors said Poitier’s character was too perfect — and a man who in one scene seemed to imply he was post-race — and Houghton’s character was a rich and pretty girl who wasn’t his equal.
“Any criticism of the film was really for the left, for it not being daring enough,” said David Schwartz, chief curator at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. “A lot of times with Hollywood, the movies are reflecting changes that are happening anyway. The film just captured a change that was starting to take place.”
Columbia Pictures wanted to shut down the production, arguing it couldn’t get insurance for Tracy, who was gravely ill (he would die just days after shooting wrapped). Hepburn and Kramer agreed to put their salaries in escrow in case Tracy couldn’t finish and another actor needed to be hired.
Houghton, Hepburn’s niece, was frustrated that a scene in which she confronted her parents was cut but noted with pleasure another one in which her character was asked what would happen to their biracial children.
In the film, she says they will grow up to “be president of the United States and they’ll all have colorful administrations.” Years later, the biracial Barack Obama, whose parents met in Hawaii, would become president. “I thought, ‘Wow that was kind of prophetic.'”
More Hollywood attempts to tackle interracial relationships would follow, including Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever,” Anthony Drazan’s “Zebrahead,” ”Something New” with Sanaa Lathan, “Guess Who” with Bernie Mac and “Loving” starring Ruth Negga. A stage version of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” has been mounted — most recently in Boston starring Malcolm-Jamal Warner.
Interracial couples are now used in Madison Avenue-made commercials, indicating a growing acceptance. The U.S. Census Bureau reports interracial opposite-sex married couple households grew by 28 percent over the decade from 7 percent in 2000 to 10 percent in 2010.
Houghton takes no credit for any of it, saying she’s just an actress. When asked if the film pushed the needle of change, she pauses.
“There’s no question that art is a very powerful medium — television and film, in particular,” she said. “But, let me put it this way, ‘Why do we still have so much racism? Why? Why do we need to have Black Lives Matter?’ Of course, black lives matter. All lives matter. All lives deserve the opportunity.”
Monica White Ndounou, a professor at Tufts and author of “Shaping the Future of African American Film,” said “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” could have done a better job of forcing liberal audiences to confront their prejudices and of reaching out to black audiences. But she respects the attempt.
“If anything, we can take what we’ve learned from this film, whether it’s the failure or accomplishment of it, and we can continue to work toward telling more stories about the humanity of people and the ways in which they love each other,” she said. “To me, that’s the message.”
Follow Mark Kennedy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits
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