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Woman of the Year
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by Jay Seaver

"Unforunately for her, that year is 1942."
3 stars

I wonder, idly, what I'd think of "Woman of the Year" if I saw it as part of a program of Spencer Tracy films as opposed to one focused on Katharine Hepburn. In the context of Hepburn's work, it comes after three all-time classic films with Cary Grant ("Bringing Up Baby", "Holiday", and "The Philadelphia Story") and almost seems to serve as a rebuke to them, knocking the independent and intelligent Hepburn down a peg. On the other hand, it probably seemed to loosen Tracy up - a harbinger of a relationship that would prove fruitful both on-screen and off.

Sam Craig (Tracy) and Tess Harding (Hepburn) are columnists for the same newspaper, with Sam covering sports and Tess world affairs. A comment by Tess on a radio program describing sports as unimportant kicks off a feud, though they eventually bury the hatchet at a baseball game, falling for each other and even marrying. Of course, neither of them has really changed during this whirlwind courtship, so Sam's old-fashioned values and Tess's imperious nature will inevitably lead them to clash again.

Hepburn and Tracy would later go on to have a long-running relationship, but this is where they met, and the on-screen chemistry, at least, is visible from the start. Like all good movie newspapermen (and women), they're never at a loss for well-chosen words, but they still miss a step when they first meet, and a sequence of Tess attending her first baseball game does a nice job of putting the initial conflict to rest and letting the audience see her as potentially more than an all-business grump.

As great as that scene is - and it is a great one - it does have a tendency to highlight how unbalanced the film can seem in its treatment of its leads. Tess's characterization goes from independent to inconsiderate as the movie goes on, with things coming to a head in a subplot about an adopted Greek orphan (George Kezas) that really does neither lead character any favors, though Tess gets the shorter end of the stick. Look close enough and things become perhaps a little less slanted - while the movie is mostly about Tess learning to be more accommodating and feminine (by some standards), Sam also has to learn to assert himself as a man should. Of course, Sam is never made to seem "unmanly" to the extent that Tess is "unwomanly", and sixty years on, that seems more than a little skewed. It's not as bad as it may appear, but it is a little unfair, and there's a mean-spiritedness to the last scene that drains the fun out of some well-staged slapstick.

Looked at as a product of its time, though, Woman of the Year is a quite capable romantic comedy. Tracy and Hepburn are both great fits for their roles; with Tracy doing a very fine job of making Sam look somewhat at sea in Tess's world of international politics and high culture without seeming like a lummox and Hepburn able to make Tess brilliant and passionate but not a terrible snob. Both are entertaining in and out of their element, with fun supporting characters to bounce off of (most notably Fay Bainter and Minor Watson as the aunt and father who made Tess the woman she is).

Even without having to consider its era, "Woman of the Year" has its problems; it's more reliant on smart people doing dumb things than it should be and doesn't quite play fair with its leads. It's still got a fair number of bits that work, though, and the chemistry between Hepburn and Tracy can't be denied.

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originally posted: 11/30/11 01:37:39
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  DVD: 19-Sep-2000


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