George Stevens’ Woman of the Year is one of the famous Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn double-acts, but there’s no question who was the real star. Discounting a brief glimpse of her character’s newspaper byline, there is much talk of star reporter Tess Harding (Hepburn) before her delayed reveal. In a scene that would make Laura Mulvey‘s head spin, the first time we finally spy Hepburn, the camera travels up her leg as she adjusts her stocking in her editor’s office. Was she flirting with her editor? Is any practical explanation necessary to justify a 1940s starlet showing a little leg? It’s hard to imagine Hepburn as a sexpot. He intellect and sass are undoubtedly sexy, but not in a way I would imagine would appeal to a 1942 everyman. Her face and figure are made up entirely out of angles, drawn by protractor and calculated by slide rule.
Even decades later, the rumor persists that one of or both Tracy & Hepburn were gay, and their marriage served as each other’s beards. I don’t bring this up to perpetuate the gossip, but rather to segue into the primary theme of Woman of the Year: a battle of the sexes, or at least, their perceived gender roles. In the tradition of Hollywood’s best bedroom farces, two opposites attract into a marriage, and it’s not long before the barbs are flying (some of which really smart). Sam Craig (Tracy) is a true man’s man, who covers sports for the paper and hangs out in the pub. But the question of the movie is, how much of a woman is Tess? She is witty, urbane, educated, and globetrotting. But she is deserving of blame for impulsively adopting a war orphan without being conscious of the responsibilities. But the movie seems to equate this serious fault with her inability to make pancakes. And I don’t think it’s merely a fact of the 1942 gender politics or this blogger’s modern sensibilities, for the end of the film is genuinely confusing, sending mixed signals about what exactly Sam wants of Tess: does he really want her to relinquish her independence and be his breakfast chef, and does she really want to acquiesce?