By Todd Hill
Few movies would be more appropriate for a remake in this #MeToo era than “Woman of the Year,” that classic from 1942 starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn (I only mention Tracy first because he always insisted on top billing in the nine films he and Hepburn made together).
“Woman of the Year” was the first pairing of Hepburn and Tracy, and their evident chemistry lights up the screen here. They share a number of lingering kisses, more than they would in any of their other films. It’s a comic love story, one in which opposites attract, she a diplomat’s daughter who writes a high-toned political newspaper column while apparently speaking every language on the planet fluently, he a salt-of-the-earth sportswriter at the same newspaper, speaking only English and that only so-so.
It should be noted that “Woman of the Year” was made during the golden age of newspapers, as well as the golden age of baseball. Were the film to be remade today, some thought would have to be given to what this is the golden age of. But there’s no question that the picture is ripe for revisiting.
Opposites may indeed attract much of the time, and clearly Hepburn and Tracy found a personal connection of their own making this film, but all the same, their on-screen relationship here strains credulity from the beginning. Their characters, Sam and Tess, don’t seem at all compatible, and even though they eventually get married, at no point is the marriage anything less than rocky.
Director George Stevens attempted to end “Woman of the Year” with an extended scene designed to push Sam Craig and Tess Harding back together again — more on that later — but I didn’t walk away from the picture thinking this marriage was likely to be saved. The challenge for a woman of balancing a career and a relationship was evidently no easier for Tess Harding in 1942 than it is for women today.
Hepburn came to “Woman of the Year” fresh off the success of 1940’s “The Philadelphia Story,” the picture credited with ending her run as box-office poison in the 1930’s. She was intent that “Woman of the Year” soften her image, with a wardrobe that features high skirts and a script featuring some physical humor. Hepburn looks exquisite in the film, but pratfalls were never her forte, and as long as she shared the screen with Spencer Tracy he would always be the softer one.
All the same, “Woman of the Year” was a big hit, and a smashing success for Hepburn, who received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (Greer Garson won for “Mrs. Miniver”). The screenplay for “Woman of the Year” was penned by Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin, who did receive Academy Awards for their efforts.
At the time of the movie’s release, America’s involvement in World War II was still relatively fresh; while the war forced many U.S. women out of the home and into the workplace to either aid the war effort or take the place of the men who were serving their country overseas, this was not yet a phenomenon when the film was shot in 1941.
And as soon as the war was won, American women of course went right back home, to raise their children and fix the family dinner. Real-life women like the fictional Tess Harding were few and far between until TV characters like Mary Tyler Moore’s Mary Richards arrived 30 years later, exceptions like Eleanor Roosevelt notwithstanding.
Unfortunately, “Woman of the Year” wasn’t so much ahead of its time as a rejoinder that, no, women can’t have it all. Tess Harding merely tries to.
Although it’s a source of much of the picture’s humor, Tess’s inability to put aside her career as an international correspondent serves as a detriment to her marriage to Sam time and again — a Yugoslav diplomat, newly escaped from the Nazis, crashes their wedding night, and so on. Sam doesn’t really take it in stride; in short order he moves out.
“Woman of the Year” threatens to go off the rails when Tess adopts a little Greek orphan boy, without consulting Sam in advance. The boy soon ends up back in the orphanage, as it’s heavily emphasized that Tess has no maternal instincts, presumably because her career is her priority.
After Tess attends a friend’s wedding and has an epiphany, she comes crawling back to surprise Sam with breakfast in bed. Of course, she hasn’t the first clue about cooking — she puts yeast in the waffles — but the gesture appears to have the desired effect. A woman’s place is in the home, and Tess promises Sam she’ll quit her job. Roll the credits.
Well, I hope she didn’t. But if today’s #MeToo movement exemplifies anything, it’s that many of us have yet to reach a consensus on how women, since they’re clearly in the workplace to stay, should be treated there. “Woman of the Year” merely dances around the issue, largely by accident.
It’s hard to imagine anyone today stepping into Hepburn and Tracy’s shoes, but this is surely an apt moment to address the issue head-on. “Man of the Year” could make a good title.
Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.