Karen Sharpe Kramer remembers the opening night of her husband's film, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.
It was December 1967, about six months after the Supreme Court legalized interracial marriage – the very topic of director Stanley Kramer's groundbreaking movie starring Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracey and Katharine Hepburn.
With the issue of interracial marriage still taboo, the film, Kramer said, “touched a lot of nerves.’’
When Guess Who's Coming to Dinner premiered at a small theatre in Westwood, Calif., Kramer was stunned by the reception.
“The minute those doors opened,’’ she said, “there were lines around the block. People never stopped coming. As many people didn’t like it, there were a lot of people who did like it. It really shook people up.’’
The pivotal movie, which eventually scored two Oscars, is still one of history’s most popular films. In 1998, the American Film Institute named it one of the 100 greatest movies of the past 100 years.
To celebrate the film’s 40th anniversary, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment recently released the movie as part of the Stanley Kramer Film Collection. The set also includes the movies Ship of Fools, The Wild One, Member of the Wedding and the 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.
The Academy Award-winning film maker, who passed away in 2001 at 87, left a legacy of using movies to tackle social issues.
“He certainly represented change,’’ said Kramer, a former actress and model who married Stanley Kramer in 1966. “I'm proud of that legacy. He never wanted to beat his own drum, but I beat it for him now.’’
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner tells the story of a young, white woman who brings home her black fiancé to meet her wealthy, liberal parents, played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.
Sidney Poitier played the role of the fiancé: a handsome, educated, African-American doctor.
Kramer said her husband created Poitier's character as a seemingly perfect catch so that the only drawback for the girl’s parents would be his race.
“He was perfect in every way,’’ Kramer said of Poitier’s character. “He wasn’t a shoeshine boy or a waiter. He was this educated doctor. He certainly had a lot of money. He didn’t need a white girl to better himself. He was every bit as equal. So why wouldn’t any family want their daughter marrying this man?’’
One of Kramer’s favorite lines of the movie was when Poitier’s character asked his fiancée, played by
Katharine Houghton, what would become of their biracial children.
Houghton’s character ans-wered that they would one day become the president of the United States.
“They could have been talking about Barack Obama,’’ said Kramer, referring to the Illinois senator, son of a black man and white woman who is a candidate for the Democratic nomination in this year's presidential election.
“That’s the irony of this film,’’ she said. “It’s still very relevant today.’’
Stanley Kramer’s vision was ahead of his time. While the film was being made, interracial marriage was illegal in 17 states. Kramer remembers asking her husband if it was too risky to make a movie that couldn’t be shown in many parts of the country.
“He said, ‘We're going to make it anyway,’’’ Kramer recalled.
Production of the movie was initially canceled due to Tracy’s failing health. The actor was so ill during the film’s production that insurance companies wouldn’t provide coverage for him. Stanley Kramer and
Hepburn put up their salaries as collateral so the movie could proceed. Tracy died of heart failure 17 days after the film was completed.
Kramer said she thinks Columbia Pictures was trying to back out of making the film due to its controversial subject.
“They were scared to death,’’ she said. “I can't say that I blame them from their point of view.’’
But it was a movie that needed to be seen, whether society was ready for it or not, Kramer said.
“Stanley used this film as a tool to fight against bigotry and discrimination,’’ Kramer said. “And he certainly challenged the system. He really was a leader.’’