Released in 1942 and directed by George Stevens, Woman of the Year is the first on-screen pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and it initiated their off-screen relationship, as well. The film stars Hepburn as Tess Harding, a hard-hitting, successful, and masculine journalist. Spencer Tracy plays her love interest, Sam Craig. He is a sports journalist, but he has not achieved anywhere near her level of fame and acclaim, is rather a homebody, and is exceptionally feminine. Woman of the Year brilliantly flips and subverts gender roles. The character of Tess and Hepburn’s portrayal of her are examined extensively to substantiate the film’s worth and message. Tess and Sam get married, but she works constantly and is never home, causing their relationship to deteriorate. Tess must compromise to make the marriage work, but she never sacrifices her dignity to do it. It is a very empowering film, both in the context of 1940s American society and today, that also reflects aspects of Hepburn’s personal life as a strong and fiercely independent woman, as well as her relationship with Spencer Tracy.
When the boss finishes with them, Tess leaves the office first, but Sam eagerly chases after her. Aware of his presence behind her, Tess reaches in her pocket for a cigarette and looks up knowingly with a bemused expression. She stops on the staircase, and Sam runs right into her. He stutters like an inexperienced teenager, but her voice remains steady, almost mocking. Clearly, Tess is in control, perfectly articulated by Hepburn’s body language and speech. She ascends the stairs forcefully while he timidly walks backwards, like an animal advancing on its prey. When he invites her to a baseball game, she responds with a casual, yet drawn out, “Okay.” However, Hepburn raises her eyebrows and widens her eyes just enough to make her response sound charitable, like she is doing him a favor. Tess leaves Sam standing on the stairs reeling from this encounter. A goofy grin plastered across his face, Sam looks longingly after Tess and relishes his victory. However, this scene, depicting his infatuation and her coy indifference, indicates the reversal of gender roles, with Tess clearly emerging as masculine.
As Sam grows increasingly dissatisfied with their marriage, Tess continues to make it worse. One morning, she surprises Sam in bed with breakfast, and he wonders what she wants. She mentions having children, and he absolutely lights up, typical of his feminine nature. It turns out, though, that Tess has brought home a Greek refugee named Chris. Just after this revelation, Tess learns that she has been named “America’s Outstanding Woman of the Year.” On the night of the banquet, Tess gets ready in front of a mirror. Sam lovingly rubs his face on her hair, carefully styled, and she cringes. She calls him “darling” in admonishment, and Hepburn’s voice and body language express Tess’s distance and annoyance. As Sam leaves the room, he asks, “They won’t ask me to make a speech, will they?” Tess callously replies, “I don’t see why.” However, she is too self-absorbed to recognize the cruelty of this remark. Displaying no maternal instincts whatsoever, Tess plans to leave Chris alone for the evening. So far, Tess has been extremely masculine. In this case, being masculine means placing career above family. This is a sad, yet true, interpretation. But, Tess soon undergoes a drastic change.
Desperate to fix their marriage, Tess drives to Sam’s home. She arrives early in the morning and decides to surprise him with breakfast, even though she has displayed no domestic inclinations thus far. In a masterful sequence completely dependent on Hepburn’s body language, expression, gestures, and comedic skill, Tess begins her daunting task. Determined and clueless, Tess fumbles with the stove and cannot figure out how to light it. She squares her shoulders when she reads the recipe for waffles, ready to tackle anything. Tess knocks things over and squirms when she makes too much noise. As Tess adds the baking powder to the mix, Hepburn pauses ever so slightly before dumping in the third capful, highlighting her uncertainty. Since the page of the cookbook flipped accidentally, Tess now reads the wrong recipe and adds yeast. Basically, nothing goes right, especially when she tries to separate the eggs. Hepburn expertly twists her body and jerks as the eggs slide away from her. At this point, she notices Sam watching her. Her eyes sparkling with tears and her voice breathy, Tess kneels before Sam, looking up at him in adoration. She boldly tells him, “I’m going to give up my job.” When he refuses to believe her, she asserts, “I’m going to be your wife.” Then she tries to prove it.
Angry and frustrated, Tess returns to the kitchen to finish making breakfast. However, everything that can possibly go wrong does so. The toast pops out unexpectedly, the coffee boils over, and her disastrous waffle batter rises and bubbles. Out of the corner of her eye, Tess notices the waffle batter, and her eyes widen in horror. Hepburn races back and forth as Tess’s panic grows. Finally, she gives up, and Sam declares, “I don’t want to be married to Tess Harding any more than I want you to be just Mrs. Sam Craig. Why can’t you be Tess Harding-Craig?” Even though her voice is still shaky, Tess answers, “I think it’s a wonderful name.” Sam does not want her to abandon her career. Together, the couple has reached a compromise.
For most of the film, Tess was portrayed as a strong and assertive career woman. After Sam leaves her, she realizes that she has made mistakes, and she wants to change, although it takes some time. She reevaluates her priorities and decides that having a successful career alone cannot sustain her. In order to make things right, she performs a moving gesture by making breakfast. Even though she fails, she still made the effort, and that counts for something. Some people dismiss this ending, saying that “Woman of the Year sees Tess as a disruptive element that needs to be brought into line” (Leaming 394). These same people feel that Tess ultimately becomes weak, when quite the opposite occurs. Tess becomes stronger as a result of her transformation. She sheds the selfishness that plagued her as a career-obsessed woman. Even though she tells Sam she will give up her career, she eventually sees the beauty in the idea of being Tess Harding-Craig and blending both parts of her life, professional and personal. Her emotional epiphany allows her to become a real person, as she never was before, even though her strength seemed inspiring on the surface. During the course of the film, Tess Harding evolves from a powerful, masculine career woman into a stronger and more complete human being.
Like Tess, Hepburn also focused on her career almost exclusively for a long time, even sacrificing her personal relationships to further it. She married Ludlow Ogden Smith, but her career came first, just like Tess with Sam. “And Luddy – all he wanted was me, and of course all I wanted was to be a great big hit star in the movies” (Hepburn 152). Indeed, Hepburn longed for stardom and was determined to become a successful, respected actress. From her first stage and film roles, she immediately stood out. “The cut-through nasal voice, the proud posture, the self-possession, along with a ‘beguiling femininity,’ became Kate’s trademarks. She thought for herself” (Edwards 17). Even though she enjoyed tremendous success and an early Academy Award, audiences and executives proved to be fickle, and “the Independent Theatre Owners Association published the names of performers who were ‘box office poison.’ Kate’s name led the list…” (Edwards 163). As she often did, Hepburn took control of her own destiny and carefully selected projects to elevate her status. She even displayed business savvy in purchasing the rights to some highly coveted films, which allowed her to negotiate her own terms and have more control over the films. “Kate had spent a year on Broadway in The Philadelphia Story…Her shrewd decision to tie up the motion-picture rights (actually Howard Hughes’s idea) and her dealings with Louis B. Mayer were already legend” (Leaming 385). She proved that a woman could succeed in a man’s world, just like Tess Harding, and she never gave up.
When it comes to Katharine Hepburn, her twenty-five year devotion to Spencer Tracy remains one of the most intriguing and perplexing aspects of her life. They met when they worked together for the first time in Woman of the Year, and sparks flew instantly. That kind of intense chemistry could not be manufactured, and the film reflects their obvious mutual attraction. Tracy remained married to his wife up until the day he died, but she did not interfere with their relationship. In order to respect his wife, the affair was kept quiet, which benefited Hepburn and Tracy. They were able to focus entirely on themselves and live in their own world. “When Tracy met Kate, he seemed to sense her readiness to focus on him and his problems to the exclusion of all else” (Leaming 396). Many critics question her unwavering devotion to a man seemingly so unworthy of her. He drank heavily, criticized her, and despised the qualities that made her unique. “John Ford, in love with Kate, wouldn’t have changed a single thing about her; as far as Spencer Tracy was concerned, she could do nothing right...According to Tracy, she talked too loudly, too quickly, and too much” (Leaming 401). But no matter what, Hepburn supported Tracy.
In addition to taking care of him, Hepburn also sacrificed her own life and career for him. All that mattered was making Tracy happy, which seemed to conflict with her personality. “To watch them together was to wonder why this fierce, independent woman had so totally subordinated herself to Tracy’s will” (Leaming 400). In Woman of the Year, Tess Harding echoes Hepburn’s own fierce independence, but in the end, she figures out what real love involves. For Tess, love means combining her career and marriage into one harmonious whole. Unlike Tess, however, Hepburn’s definition of love went far beyond that. “It really implies total devotion. And total is all-encompassing – the good of you, the bad of you” (Hepburn 389). For her, love meant everything, and it made her happy to take care of Tracy and attend to his needs. “It seems to me I discovered what ‘I love you’ really means. It means I put you and your interests and your comfort ahead of my own interests and my own comfort because I love you” (Hepburn 389). Her love for Tracy did not make her weak, just like compromising does not make Tess Harding weak. In fact, Hepburn emerges as even more admirable because of it. “As with her father in the aftermath of Tom’s suicide, Kate may have seemed the weaker partner; yet her decision to care for Tracy attested to great inner strength…Spencer was weak, Kate was strong; she would try to protect him at whatever cost to herself” (Leaming 403). Indeed, Hepburn remained Tracy’s rock until the day he died, and she never regretted it for one minute.