I watched the 1942 classic film “Woman of the Year” starring Spencer Tracy and Kate Hepburn last night with some mixed feelings. It was worth watching it from the Classic Films List. But I don’t think Hitchcock would have liked the film. The “McGuffin” is too boring —
geeky high achiever gets lonely without love.
Ho hum. I also wonder what Oscar Wilde would have thought of the story (one might compare the film with his play about self-loving over achievers, An Ideal Husband, filmed in 1999 and on the Classic Film List).
Of course, one should consider the film in its historical context. Back in 1942, putting a female in the high achiever role must have had some novelty. And this is refreshing. But by the end of the film, this proud specimen of womanhood has to descend from Olympus to re-connect with her average Joe. Her intellectual lightening bolts do not help her as she secretly tries (and fails) to make breakfast in order to woo her estranged husband back. BTW, I wonder how she knew he wanted breakfast. The delightful comedic moments in the last kitchen scene cannot mask the moral of the story that even high flying females must dance to the tunes of earth bound men. Degrading? Of course. The generally held view of the proper role of wives in those days? Most likely.
The film is only saved if we really, really, really like Tracy. Then the tragedy of Hepburn’s myopia about people gets interesting, and the ending a bit more palatable. I liked Tracy well enough as “every man” (see below). But he did not get me very interested in him as a successful sports writer (actually, he seems a bit grumpy at work). And while married, he acts like the bore at the party you run away from after a first bewildering encounter. Indeed, he gets a lot more interesting as a character only after he rejects Hepburn. So to my regret, too much of the film is like flat champagne.
But it is champagne of a sort. The depiction of the “magic of success” is still fun. Only certain character types give off this sort of magic, allowing the audience to luxuriate in their special world. Hepburn pulls this off pretty well, clearly in love with herself, and puzzled perhaps by her affection for Tracy. This got me thinking about romantic stories involving other magic characters. Setting aside Wilde’s Lord Goring, I was reminded of Rex Harrison as Lord Charles Frinton in The Yellow Rolls Royce who encounters serious romantic heartburn. And then there is Steve Martin in Roxanne. who must cope with unrequited love and a nose that could be used as a yard stick. And there is the aging Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief who must dance on rooftops to prove he is innocent of crime and worthy of love. These are not everyday sorts of characters, but are people who can and must do amazing things (without supernatural powers) to meet correspondingly difficult challenges. Of course, Hepburn never really does anything amazing and her challenge is not so difficult (she just has to calm down a bit). But you still get the sense that aside from dealing with Tracy, she swims in deep waters. That is fun.
I also liked Tracy’s defense of “every man”. This is classic Tracy and a theme that Hollywood dabbled in quite a lot in those days (as in It’s a Wonderful Life, Meet John Doe, Sergeant York and so on). I may not have been thrilled about Tracy as a sports writer or as a lover, but Tracy is very good at honestly showing and accepting his disappintment as his romance failed. Thus his decision to get on with life is interesting (though not very nice). This celebration of understated strength of character is something we don’t see much in films these days. Down home. Simple. Strong. It is that something special that Cary Grant as C. K. Dexter Havens learned from his divorce in The Philadelphia Story. And I suppose that this attitude merits self-love too (as long as it doesn’t get too snarky).
So at the end of the film when a self-satisfied Tracy returns to the kitchen with a broken bottle, smiles at Hepburn, and triumphantly says “I just launched Gerald” you feel only moderately sorry for poor old Gerald. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder who would launch the battleship at 8:30. After all, there was a war on.
FOLLOW - Above all, Woman of the Year is about partnering. These days (2009) partnering may be coming back into vogue. Check out the NYT article on Nora Ephron’s new film Julie and Julia. What makes the story work? Two very strong partnering relationships. Tracy and Hepburn would be glad to hear it.