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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Review: Woman of the Year (1942)

* *

Director: George Stevens
Starring: Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

I should start by stating that I have mixed feelings about this movie. There are parts of it that are so good and other parts that are so frustrating. This is the first film in which Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy starred together and the chemistry between them is immediately apparent. Watching them together is a delight - it’s the story that drags it down. The beginning is great, the ending is fine, but the middle is incredibly problematic.

Sam Craig (Tracy) is a sports writer who finds himself in a war of words with fellow columnist Tess Harding (Hepburn) after she makes some disparaging remarks about sports. When the two finally meet in person, the spark is instant. After a quick courtship they marry, but Tess’ way of life proves incompatible with Sam’s and soon the marriage is suffering under the strain. Just as Tess is named Woman of the Year for her professional achievements, her personal life collapses from underneath her and she must find a way to prove to Sam that what they have is worth saving.

From the beginning, there are signs that the relationship between Sam and Tess is going to be troubled. For one thing, Sam doesn’t really fit in with Tess’ high class friends. For another, Tess is always busy, running around from place to place as a foreign affairs correspondent with barely a moment for Sam. Once they marry, their problems are exacerbated by the fact that Tess’ busy schedule tends to marginalize Sam and, for lack of a better term, turns him into the “wife” in the marriage. Later, and without consulting Sam, Tess adopts a Greek refuge named Chris, mostly in an effort to further inflate her Everywoman image. The way that Tess relates to both Sam and Chris prompts Sam to declare that she’s “no kind of woman” and leave her.

I’m in no way going to argue that Tess isn’t a selfish and inconsiderate character, because she most certainly is (especially during the Chris subplot). However, the film goes out of its way to suggest that these character defects are a symptom of her feminist leanings, and that’s where the film begins to lose me. Tess is intelligent and driven and ambitious. I think these are all admirable traits but the film, obviously, does not – at least as far as women are concerned. Tess’ aunt (Fay Bainter) is a famous and celebrated suffragette but when she finally gets married, she tells Tess that she would have traded it all for a traditional life. Feminism as depicted here is selfish and empty.

In her attempt to win Sam back, Tess tries to get in touch with her womanly “roots” by making him breakfast. This sequence, which I liked in spite of myself, accidentally reveals the real problem with Tess. Only a person who has lived a privileged life survives well into their thirties without having learned how to make themselves a simple cup of coffee and an even simpler piece of toast (hell, I know how to make coffee and I don’t even drink coffee). The problem with Tess isn’t that she`s a feminist; it's that she’s a spoiled brat.

The breakfast sequence won me over a little, but then quickly lost me again. Sam tells Tess that he doesn’t want her to be just “Mrs. Craig,” he just wants there to be room for him in Tess Harding’s life. That’s fine (it’s great, in fact, albeit as another example of how Sam is always right and Tess is always wrong), but the film itself consistently tells us that to be a Tess Harding is a bad thing, something which can only lead to unhappiness. By having Sam tell Tess that he doesn’t want her to change, the film is trying to have it both ways and that just doesn’t work.

Woman of the Year isn’t a bad movie, but it’s a movie that frustrated me enough that I can’t quite bring myself to call it good. It did give me cause to reflect, though, on how Hepburn is often held up as a kind of feminist icon despite the fact that she consistently played strong women who get put in their “place.”

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