“Woman of the Year” is one of those classics you’re always hearing about. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy began their twenty-seven-year love affair on the set, and the sexual attraction between the two stars is what gives this picture its buzz. Here are Tess and Sam at a baseball game. Can’t you tell they’re already in love?
In other ways, though, the film is like Mr. Potato Head: so many parts that don’t entirely cohere. Start with the ending, where Tess makes a fool of herself in the kitchen, trying to be a good housewife. Apparently the studio tacked it on to amuse the women in the audience—and back in 1942 it did satisfy New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who considered it Hepburn’s best scene. What’s she doing, writing newspaper articles about the war, following events in Europe, hosting refugees in her apartment? For goodness sake, writes Crowther, “Tracy’s character, a plain, old-fashioned fellow, can’t be sure whether he is married to her or General De Gaulle.”
Still, I like Crowther’s description of the film: “As warming as a Manhattan cocktail and as juicy as a porterhouse steak.” Juicy for sure: Hepburn’s character is actually kittenish. But for all Tracy’s character’s plain, old-fashioned charm, Sam manages to get in a few zingers at his wife’s expense. “The outstanding woman of the year isn’t a woman at all,” he announces as Tess leaves to accept the award. Ouch! I thought this was supposed to be a romantic comedy.
And Sam’s good old American lack of worldliness does make one wince at moments, like when he calls an turbaned Indian diplomat a “towel head” at one of Tess’s international gatherings, all in good fun, of course.
But admitting the film’s limitations, it is endearing. Not only do the two lead actors deliver outstanding performances, but the supporting characters are delightful as well, from Sam’s newspaper cronies and drinking buddies to Hepburn’s father and aunt, not to mention those stray refugees who keep showing up in her apartment at inopportune moments. Enjoy the Manhattan and the steak in the spirit of New York, circa 1942.
(22 April 2011)