Tuesday, September 07, 2010
Movie Time: Rewind: Woman of the Year
Every month (okay, okay I missed some time but I'm working on it!) I like to turn on the Wayback Machine and do a movie review of a film made before the year I was born, 1976. The last few columns have been about some of the great female actresses of Hollywood's Golden Age, and I thought for this column I should turn the spotlight on the actress many people would have considered the Queen of the Silver Screen of the Era, Katherine Hepburn. The film I picked to highlight was the first film she made with her most famous leading man, Spencer Tracy, called Woman of the Year.
Hepburn was a Hollywood maverick in the 1930's, an established box office draw in the early parts of the 1930's had already netted her two Oscar nods (she would net 12 total nominations with 4 wins over her career!), with one victory in 1933 for the film Morning Glory. She came from a wealthy and aristocratic family and often imbued her roles with the same sense of culture and breeding. Despite her upbringing though, she was very progressive in her personal beliefs and was very active physically. She was often a trendsetter for female empowerment,expressing her own opinions even when it wasn't a popular one and had a very prickly relationship with her fans and with the media, who could find her arrogant and off putting. This attitude eventually led to her problems in the latter part of the decade as the negative press led to a series of theatrical flops and the label of "box office poison." After severing with her former studio, RKO, Hepburn signed with MGM. She relaunched her career with the hot film Philadelphia Story with co-stars Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, landing herself another Oscar nod in the process. Signing with MGM also eventually led her to her partnership with Tracy, both professionally and personally.
Spencer Tracy was also a huge hit in the 1930's under contract with MGM. He had won back to back Oscars in 1937 and 1938 for Captains Courageous and Boys Town. Whereas Hepburn excelled in her own style, Tracy was known for his diversify and range. From prickly grumps to tormented souls, to love struck fools, Tracy excelled in any theatrical medium. Both he and Hepburn had long wanted to make a film together and when the chance arrived to make Woman of the Year, the chemistry between the two was so palpable, they started a secret off screen romance that lasted for over 2 decades until Tracy's death in 1967. This film also launched one of the most lauded acting duo's of all time, Hepburn and Tracy. The pair would go on to star in 9 films all together, the first of which was this months Rewind pick.
Released in 1942, the films stars Hepburn as Tess Harding and Tracy as Sam Craig. Both are journalists at a New York newspaper, Hepburn is the daughter of a diplomat and immersed in international political affairs and has studied abroad. Tracy is a blue collar sportswriter who has worked his way up in the paper. The two begin to clash in their respective columns, specifically over baseball, but as Tracy educates Hepburn on the rules of baseball, a romance blossoms, which quickly leads to an engagement and marriage, despite their wildly different backgrounds. They quickly find a disagreement in the marriage though over having children. Tracy is ecstatic at the concept of having a biological child, and is crestfallen when he discovers that Hepburn isn't pregnant, but rather has adopted a young Greek orphan, who Tracy can't communicate with due to the language barrier..
On the night that Hepburn is to be awarded the prestigious Woman of the Year award, the couple has an argument. Hepburn wants Tracy to accompany her to the dinner and she insensitively insists that the bellboy can look in on the young orphan in their care. Tracy decides to stay with the boy, mortifying Hepburn who is afraid of what people will say when her husband doesn't attend the event with her. She leaves for the banquet, and Tracy decides to return the boy to the orphanage and walks out on the marriage.
The couple are estranged until Hepburn's father and her aunt (who had raised her) announce they are getting married after years of ignoring their feelings and making the same mistakes. The words at the ceremony ring true to Hepburn and she returns to Tracy's home in a last ditch effort to prove that she can be good wife, and a good journalist, at the same time.
On the surface Woman of the Year is very much a romantic comedy that has been told many times over. Star crossed lovers from different worlds meet and fall in love, have hardships, and reconcile. It's not so much the story that matters, but the chemistry. Hepburn and Tracy have a dynamic rapport between them, and the story of Woman of the Year has an echo even in their real life romance. Tracy was a devout Catholic and believed that divorce was not an option, despite being estranged from his wife. Though just like in the film, both Tracy and Hepburn came from completely different walks of life, Hepburn's blue-blooded aristocratic upbringing, Tracy very much the blue collar workman. Despite their different backgrounds though, Woman of the Year launched a 20 year romance that both a known relationship in Hollywood and teh media, yet never commented on by either actor due to Tracy's beliefs. Even at Tracy's funeral in 1967, Hepburn did not attend out of respect for his family. It was a strange and dynamic relationship, but the love each actor had for each other could be felt through the screen.
Woman of the Year is but one of nine pictures the duo made together. Some would argue that the pair made better films, like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, or Adam's Rib, but I'd argue that none was more important. Tracy brought Hepburn down to Earth, and Hepburn made Tracy bigger than life. The two fed off each other in such a way that each film that made was better because of the sum of the parts, they had the ability to elevate a script beyond the standard trappings of convention and find a deeper chemistry. Woman of the Year is a wonderful light romantic comedy powered by two incredible performances. It's the film that proved Hepburn was still a viable box office threat by giving her a third Oscar nod, and its a film that continued to build on Tracy's reputation as an actor who could hold his own in any circumstance, even against the formidable Katherine Hepburn.
Woman of the Year is fun, light, and deeply enjoyable. I encourage you to check it out sometime, either on TCM or via a rental. It's a classic romantic comedy by two actors just coming into the prime of their game. Hepburn is light and serious, straddling a line of aristocrat and fool, deeply in love, yet unsure of how to really be in love. Tracy is a mixture of exacerbated romantic and realist, also deeply in love, but unsure of how to stay married to such a strong willed woman. It's the very definition of compromise, and the very definition of romance. The film is very much a blend of light hearted fun and quality script writing and acting. It's a thoroughly enjoyable picture, check it out. Woman of the Year, with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, from MGM in 1942 and one of the studios biggest box office success. It indelibly holds up today and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
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