Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 2, 2017)
One of the all-time great screen couples, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy paired for the very first time with 1942’s Woman of the Year. Both Tess Harding (Hepburn) and Sam Craig (Tracy) write for the New York Chronicle, but they occupy different spheres of influence. Tess enjoys immense fame and popularity as a progressive political journalist, while Sam works for the sports section.
With all these differences, Tess and Sam don’t much like each other – for a while, at least. Eventually they fall in love and marry, a life change that comes to weigh on Sam when he lives in his famous wife’s shadow.
Spoiler alert: Tess sacrifices some of her independence to become closer to Sam’s idea of what a woman should be. Does this surprise me? No, but it disappoints me, as I’d hoped Woman would manage a little stronger “progressive” agenda than that.
Granted, it’s unfair to view the film’s attitudes through modern lenses. What qualified as forward-thinking in 1942 can look practically barbaric to modern eyes, so it becomes incumbent on the viewer to accept these differing attitudes.
Which I do – and yet, I still think Woman comes up short. It strikes me as a film that believes it boasts a progressive mindset but actually ends up with a fairly traditional POV. Though Woman does attempt a compromise of sorts, it still feels backwards anyway.
Even without my disappointment related to the way the film ultimately treats Tess, Woman leaves me cold. This occurs mainly because the movie never makes Tess and/or Sam especially interesting characters. It gives them various personality traits but fails to coalesce these into actual living, breathing people.
It probably doesn’t help that we see so much of the story from Sam’s point of view, and he’s easily the less compelling of the two leads. I suspect the filmmakers did this because he comes across as more of an “everyman” than overachieving Tess, but it still turns into a mistake because Sam seems like something of a jerk.
Which becomes almost shocking given the actor involved. With his warm, rumpled façade, Tracy oozed likability, so the off-putting manner in which Sam comes to us surprises me. I don’t think Tracy tried to make his character such a jerk, but that’s the end impression.
I do blame the script for most of these failings, as Trscy finds himself stuck with some genuinely unpleasant moments. He’s forced to declaim misogynistic tripe such as “the ‘Outstanding Woman of the Year’ isn’t a woman at all!” and he even gets stuck with a scene where he gratuitously attacks a man of foreign descent.
That bit may offer the film’s low point. At a party, Sam encounters a man in a turban who doesn’t speak English. The movie plays this guy’s non-comprehension for mocking laughs and has Sam call the man a “silly little jerk”.
Why? Because he’s foreign, I guess. The guy seems perfectly cheerful and pleasant – he just doesn’t know English. That makes him a jerk?
Perhaps that attitude feels more logical given the movie’s cusp-of-World War II production schedule, but it still is ugly and pointless. The turbaned character’s only sin is his status as a foreigner so attacks on him seem cruel and pointless.
As noted earlier, I can semi-forgive these moments due to cultural aspects of their era – and I also suspect they’d bother me less if I actually enjoyed the movie. Unfortunately, Woman mainly feels like a more comedic, less tragic Star Is Born.
And a dull one at that. As noted, the characters fail to becomes especially interesting, and the paper-thin story proceeds at a slow pace. Some scenes – such as one in which Tess attempts to cook breakfast – go on forever with little payoff.
All of this adds up to a disappointing film. With Tracy, Hepburn and legendary director George Stevens along for the ride, one expects greatness from Woman of the Year, but the final product seems mediocre at best.