Last week I shared some of the movies I didn’t understand when I was younger. Add Woman of the Year to that list. I’ve seen this Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn romantic comedy more times than I can count. Every time it dawns on me that this entire movie is all about sex. There is also a World War II subplot centered around a concentration camp escapee. But it gets brushed over in favor of sex. The things you don’t catch on to as a preteen.
In their first screen pairing, Tracy and Hepburn play rival newspaper columnists Sam Craig and Tess Harding. He’s a sports writer; she’s a political pundit. After getting into a heated (printed) argument, they meet, fall in love, and get married, all in a matter of weeks. Trouble hits the marriage almost immediately. Tess is too committed to her work to be the doting wife and partner Sam desires. It is still 1942 after all and Tess is paving the way for career women everywhere.
At the end of the film, Tess tries her darndest to be a traditional wife by cooking Sam breakfast in bed. It’s a disaster with a side of slapstick. In the end, she resolves to be Tess Craig-Harding. Who knows if this saves her marriage but it brings our beloved Tracy and Hepburn back together.
Woman of the Year is an infinitely sexy movie that is dependent on the physical and intellectual attraction between Sam and Tess. After exchanging words in their respective columns, the first look Sam gets at Tess is of her legs. He’s instantly smitten by her when they go to a baseball game. This scene wonderfully captures the charm of these two actors, hilarious comedy, and the strength of Woman of the Year‘s dialogue.
What I appreciate most about Woman of the Year is that it gets at how quickly an attraction can be strained. Marriage and a woman’s role in a marriage is a serious here. Tess fears marriage.
By today’s standards, Woman of the Year is somewhat problematic in it’s portrayal of a woman’s place in society. Tess is the one at fault because she struggles to maintain a successful career and a healthy marriage. She’s more dedicated to her job, her speeches, and her humanitarian causes than she is to noticing Sam’s new hat. To be fair, I’ve never understood how their faltering marriage is all Tess’ fault. It drives Sam away. Sam should have known who he married in the first place.)
But Tess Harding is never really pushed into the role of the traditional wife. The joke is that this intelligent woman and celebrated feminist thinks that giving it all up to make her husband breakfast will win Sam back. Except she’s terrible at it. Terrible. Fortunately reading his mother’s cookbook was never what Sam expected from Tess. He finally tells it to her straight and she finally gets it:
Sam: I don’t want to be married to Tess Harding any more than I want you to be just Mrs Sam Craig. Why can’t you be Tess Harding Craig?
Tess: I think it’s a wonderful name.
Yes, it simplifies the problems at hand. But you’re left with a sense that they’ll make it work. Seven other movies proved they did.