“Woman of the Year” is a great Hepburn/Tracy film with a terrible ending

woman-of-the-year-katharine-hepburn

“Woman of the Year” is a bit of a strange film for Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy to fall in love on. The 1942 romantic comedy-drama was the first of nine collaborations between one of cinema’s greatest duos, who would be life partners until Tracy’s death a quarter of a century later.

That chemistry is all over the screen in the first half of George Stevens’ “Woman,” now out in a new Blu-ray edition from the Criterion Collection. Tracy is Sam, a rumpled man-of-the-people sportswriter, who likes meeting and writing about “unimportant” people. Hepburn is Tess, a jet-setting celebrity journalist who seemingly only hobnobs with important people – both Churchill and FDR seek her counsel.

They work for the same paper, but are a world away from each other. But when Tess says something dismissive about sports in a radio interview, the two embark on a newsprint feud, trading columns throwing shade at each other. It’s war, and courtship, and you can see how maddening and exhilarating it makes both Tess and Sam.

So far so great – “Woman of the Year” is a sparkling comedy about two opposites slowly coming together, without either losing their love of the game. Hepburn and Tracy have a spark on-screen that goes beyond Sam and Tess. But here’s the strange thing – one expects the couple will finally come together in the end with a big wedding.

Instead, the wedding comes in the middle of the film. And the second half of the film is a surprising “what happens after happily ever after” tale of how hard it is for two opposites to actually live with each other. Sam wants a normal life, but he travels in Tess’ wake. At one point, exhausted at the end of the week, the couple discovers that they had both been in Chicago at the same time and didn’t even know it.

“Woman of the Year’ is a film that cries out to be remade for this era of overscheduled lives and shared, crowded Google Calendars. It also should be remade to correct some of the gender politics of the era that haven’t aged well. In the second half, Tess is presented as thoughtless, almost cruel at times – in one moment that beggars belief, she adopts a Greek refugee as a political statement, then leaves the tyke in Sam’s care while she jets off to the next party.

Hepburn’s vivacious performance goes a long way towards making Tess’ less admirable actions forgivable, but you can feel the film turning against her, seeking her comeuppance in a way that’s, frankly, icky. “The outstanding Woman of the Year isn’t a woman at all,” sneers an exasperated Sam, a rather ugly summation of the general view of a free-thinking, independent woman in 1942.

This leads to one of the worst endings a great movie ever had, a strained comic setpiece in which Tess tries and fails to make breakfast for Sam, pledging to become the doting domestic wife that the times expected of a woman. With the toast flying and the coffee overflowing, it could be a scene out of any ‘50s sitcom.

Critic Stephanie Zacharek writes about the ending in her essay included with the Criterion edition, which both actors and writers weren’t happy with. Blame a test audience with being unable to accept the original ending, in which the two opposites find a way to meet in the middle.

Still, “Woman of the Year” is a charming and vivacious film, and the spark between Tracy and Hepburn is palpable. Maybe they can just dust off that original ending for the remake.

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