Woman of the Year May 9, 2015
“Women should be kept clean, like canaries,” secondary character Phil Whittaker (Roscoe Karns) muses at a baseball game. Also in attendance are sportswriter Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy) and his date Tess Harding (Katharine Hepburn), a foreign correspondent. See, the twosome's sitting in the coveted section of the arena set for journalists; while the other writers are attempting to get a story from the day’s event, the loud Tess, wearing a large hat that blocks the view of hungry onlookers, interrupts the tension by asking questions any non-sports fan would be curious about. It annoys everyone around her, except for the enchanted Sam. So Phil’s (jokingly?) sexist comment is well-timed but funny, as we’re aware that Tess is a ball of fire that just won’t be constrained like some clean canary.
The first forty-five minutes of Woman of the Year are a romantic comedy dream, a battle-of-the-sexes marital satire that wonders aloud if a tough guy like Spencer Tracy can handle having a wife who wears the pants of the relationship and brings home most of the bacon, while he, a mere sportswriter, sits around, waiting to be loved. But once those forty-five minutes are up, things sour, turning into a feminist nightmare. The film decides to turn against its titular Woman of the Year, critical that she likes to work hard and be an individual, ultimately wishing she become a dream spouse, a full-time wife.
Woman of the Year is, famously, the first pairing of Hepburn and Tracy, who endured a relationship lasting until his death in 1967. Unlike many of the other onscreen/offscreen couples of the era (Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward), the two were never married, and Hepburn seemed to dominate the relationship, with her trouser-wearing, exercise-loving, pronouncedly outspoken persona. Tracy, in the meantime, was her foil, the guy who kept her from saying things like “I’m a personality as well as a star” for most of her career. They were and are a dynamite pair. And yet Woman of the Year depletes what made them so charismatic, putting them in roles which attempt to turn them into that old, cute married couple upstairs in which there's no gender equality whatsoever.
But it doesn't always seem that way in Woman of the Year. When Tess and Sam first hear of each other, fireworks hardly set off, for instance. Sam hears Tess dismiss the sports industry on the radio, and this prompts him to write an article criticizing her sensible ideas. Tess writes back, deflating his ego, and so on, and so on. They become rivals — until their very first meeting. Sam is struck by her intelligent and sexy poise; Tess is attracted to Sam’s gentlemanly instincts. They court, ultimately marrying. But what was once magnetic to Sam is getting old. Tess is so in love with her job that he can hardly count on her to greet him at home after a long day of work. Can she be the woman of the year and the wife of the year, too?
According to the film, no. There isn’t anything wrong with an old-fashioned martial drama per se, but Woman of the Year initially promises that we’re going to get a brainy farce only to devolve into theatrics with seldom comedy and not enough romance. Tess and Sam spend more time in the film in turmoil than in love, and laughs exist only in the first and final acts. Anything between's embittered. So much of the time is used up with Tracy pouting about Hepburn’s chronic busyness, and the film irritatingly agrees with his wanting her to housewife herself. And that's a bore. I'd much prefer a story in which Tess maybe brought Sam along with her on her many international adventures, turning him into an odd-man-out while showcasing pleasing comedic situations.
But most of the time, Woman of the Year stays serious, and that's disappointing considering how funny it can be. The ending, which sees Tess trying to be the perfect hausfrau by making Sam breakfast in bed, rings with potential hilarity. Hepburn is game, and her timing is flawless. But it is also lined with a sort of wasted energy; why couldn’t more of Woman of the Year had scenes like this? While the film’s many failures are not the fault of Hepburn and Tracy (Hepburn, in an Oscar nominated performance, slides through comedic, dramatic, and romantic scenes like a grizzled veteran, and Tracy, always an appealing lead, manages to keep Sam from going down too harsh of a path), we nonetheless are put off by characters that oppose so much of what we like about them in the first place.
Woman of the Year might have been better as a screwball comedy, or a romantic drama without Tracy that saw career woman Hepburn flying around the globe, using men along the way, and perhaps falling in love accidentally. But the film, aged in its gender politics and indecisive as to what kind of movie it wants to be, is