49 woman

#49 — Woman of the Year (George Stevens, 1942)

Woman of the Year came out a mere four years after Katharine Hepburn’s career was at such a low ebb that she was famously included on a list of actors headed “Box Office Poison” that had been compiled by the Independent Theatre Owners of America. That’s especially notable because Woman of the Year was forceful proof of how completely Hepburn had turned around her fortunes. Not only was she now considered among the most bankable stars, her clout was so enormous after shepherding her own comeback vehicle, The Philadelphia Story, to smashing success on both the stage and screen that Hepburn was able to shape projects almost entirely. Woman of the Year was brought by Hepburn to the studio as an outline (she says the concept came from Garson Kanin, who’d considered exactly what qualities served the actress best on screen), and she decided it should be George Stevens (who she’d previously worked with on Alice Adams) who would direct. Most importantly, as it turns out, she named her own co-star, pursuing an actor she’d sought for a role in the screen version of The Philadelphia Story. It was Hepburn’s idea — her insistence, really — that she be paired for the first time with Spencer Tracy.

When Kanin drew out the equation for the Hepburn template, he knew what he was doing. Woman of the Year fits comfortably alongside Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story, casting Hepburn as Tess Harding, a headstrong woman who gets her gentle comeuppance on the way to enduring romance. The earlier characters were spoiled heiresses, but Woman of the Year provided Hepburn the chance to play a capable, professional adult. Tess is a worldly columnist for a New York newspaper. When she winds up engaged in a squabble in print with the same paper’s chief sports columnist, an attempt at establishing a truce instead quickly blossoms into a love affair and a marriage. The bulk of the film, somewhat uniquely, is not about a tumultuous, hesitant courtship, but instead the equally tricky process faced by a committed couple trying to balance their identities as both an united pair and independent operators. That’s fraught enough now. Pitch it back to the very different social mores of the early nineteen-forties. Hardly revolutionary in its feminist politics, Woman of the Year does still put forward the notion that Tess deserves to maintain her elevated stature outside of the home rather than dutifully acquiesce to the needs and fragile ego of her man, an admirably progressive outlook for the era.

There is plenty to celebrate in Woman of the Year — the sharp screenplay credited to Ring Lardner, Jr. and Michael Kanin, the deft direction of Stevens — but the main appeal is of course watching Hepburn and Tracy settle into one of the great screen partnerships in the history of American film. The chemistry between the two is immediate and riveting, the banter tuned to a relaxed amble rather that a spirited jabber. They are two people who wear their comfort with one another like silken robes, gliding through scenes as if the cameras aren’t even there. The twosome would occupy eight more films together over the course of the following twenty-five years, never without a least a bit of the initial twinkle captured here. They belonged together. Woman of the Year has the quiet assurance of a film that is simply putting the inevitable properly in place.

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