The picture of the year!
Between 1942 and 1967, Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy co-starred in nine films together. It’s certainly easy to see why audiences loved seeing the pair join forces: their chemistry was undeniable, with Hepburn’s firecracker energy playing beautifully against Tracy’s naturalistic calm. The long run began with George Stevens’ 1942 film Woman of the Year, which established a template the pair would return to regularly: both Hepburn and Tracy play well-regarded careerists who clash on a professional level while exploring romance on a personal level.
Sam Craig (Tracy) and Tess Harding (Hepburn) are both journalists for the New York Chronicle, though they cover very different fields: Sam is one of the paper’s top sportswriters, while Tess is a brilliant political affairs columnist who has traveled the world and speaks several languages. One day, Tess does a radio interview in which she casually mocks America’s obsession with baseball, which inspires Sam to write an angry rebuttal in the newspaper. The two journalists engage in a war of words in their respective columns for a few weeks, and in the process, they come to admire each other’s wit and intelligence. After their employer demands a truce, Sam and Tess continue seeing each other outside of work. Eventually, they marry.
Ah, but that’s not the end of the story. In fact, the real drama is just beginning. It turns out that maintaining a successful marriage and maintaining a successful career is a tricky balancing act, and pressure begins to grow as Sam and Tess struggle to find areas where they can compromise (the heart of the conflict is that Sam wants Tess to spend more time at home, and Tess doesn’t want to miss out on of the big journalistic opportunities that keep coming her way). Will these two ever find a way to make it work, or is the marriage doomed to fail?
I tend to be wary of examining films made many decades ago through a modern set of cultural standards: expecting a movie made in 1942 to feel sufficiently woke in 2017 is more than a little unreasonable. That being said, it’s hard to shake off the deep-rooted sexism of Woman of the Year, which flat-out betrays the Hepburn character in order to generate cheap laughs and give an unearned upper hand to the Tracy character. 90% of the time, you see, Tess is the smartest person in the room. She has a nuanced understanding of impossibly complicated political situations, can converse fluently with people from every corner of the globe and has a real nose for a good story. The other 10% of the time – when the film needs to make a point about how career-obsessed and out-of-touch with “ordinary life” she is – she becomes the world’s dumbest human being.
The most striking example of this comes during the film’s climactic comic setpiece, as Tess attempts to make Sam a nice breakfast. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have any idea how to do anything in the kitchen – not even make coffee! – so the kitchen quickly begins to look like a war zone as a result of her astounding incompetence. It’s the sort of routine that might have worked well for, say, a bumbling Buster Keaton character, but doesn’t work well at all for the character here. In that scene (and a few others), Hepburn is required to display an empty-headed ditziness that feels completely out-of-sync with the rest of the movie. As a self-contained sequence, Tess’ kitchen misadventure is hilarious, inventive and well-directed. In the larger context of Woman of the Year, it’s dumb and irritating.
The film’s fairly standard-issue rom-com idea is that both parties need to compromise a little in order to make a relationship work. In the early scenes – when Hepburn and Tracy get to showcase their sparkling chemistry with a enjoyable mix of flirtation and bickering – the film’s exploration of this notion is a whole lot of fun. But the more serious-minded relationship drama that overwhelms the film’s midsection (interrupted, but not quite rescued, by stray comic moments) sucks the air of the movie, and the Tracy character starts to become a drag. While Tess struggles to resist the temptation to keep chasing assignments that will keep her away from home, Sam merely descends into sulkiness. Essentially, he spends a large portion of the movie pouting until he gets his way, which kind of undercuts the film’s “people should meet halfway!” ultimatum.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that the film very nearly avoided its chief failures. The original cut of the movie contained a very different ending, which found the Tracy character making a real effort (!) to change his ways and work towards a successful compromise with Tess. However, test audiences responded negatively to the ending, and the filmmakers replaced it with the kitchen sequence (which focuses exclusively on cutting Tess down to size while Tracy watches condescendingly). Hepburn reportedly disliked the changes and protested them, but to no avail. “She had to get her comeuppance for being too strong in a man’s world,” co-writer Ring Lardner, Jr. admitted.
To be sure, there’s plenty to enjoy here. The dialogue often sparkles, Hepburn is almost always a joy to watch, Tracy’s weary exasperation is perfect (until it curdles, anyway), director George Stevens does some impressively creative work and Franz Waxman delivers an excellent score. The movie certainly has its ardent admirers (it’s now in the Criterion Collection, after all, and the AFI has included it on a couple of best-of lists), but for all of its pleasures, I find it a frustrating, deeply compromised experience that ultimately fails its characters.
Woman of the Year (Blu-ray) Criterion benefits from a terrific 1080p/full frame transfer. Detail is superb, depth is strong, black levels are impressive, there’s a warm layer of natural grain left intact and there are no prominent scratches or flecks. The LPCM 1.0 Mono track is crisp and clean, offering healthy-sounding dialogue and a robust presentation of the Waxman score. Supplements include a pair of feature-length documentaries on director George Stevens and actor Spencer Tracy, new interviews with George Stevens, Jr., film historian Marilyn Ann Moss, author Claudia Roth, an archival interview with George Stevens and a leaflet featuring an essay by Stephanie Zacharek.
Woman of the Year certainly has some dazzling moments, but its considerable creative compromises undercut it virtues.