Home Video Hovel: Woman of the Year, by David Bax
Woman of the Year is most notable for being the first onscreen pairing of Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, who would go on to make eight more movies together over the next 25 years. The best I can say about that is at least they had nowhere to go but up. This time around, they’re matched up with director George Stevens, best known for 1956’s Giant. You can tell the two movies apart by noting that Giant is the one that’s actually three and a half hours long. Woman of the Year just feels like it.
Hepburn’s Tess Harding and Tracy’s Sam Craig are columnists at the same New York newspaper. She covers the movers and shakers of international politics; he covers sports. They meet cute in print during a war of words over the importance of baseball during wartime. Then they meet in person, get drunk together (in a scene that takes its tortured time, like someone as inebriated as our leads trying to walk a straight line) and, before you know it, they’re getting married. That’s only after, at the end of that boozy night, Sam gentlemanly refuses Tess’s unequivocal sex invite in a moment that, in retrospect, should have been the first major clue that Woman of the Year’s sexual politics and morality don’t hold water today.
Of course, I know that context matters and I oughtn’t judge a 1942 film by modern day standards. But firstly, I doubt everyone was on board with the movie’s patronizing message (which we’ll get to) even at the time and secondly, it hardly matters because it’s a bad movie in plenty of other ways too. Given the cast, premise and era, you’d kind of expect this to be a screwball comedy and, early on, that is what it seems to be going for. But it would be damned hard to make any sort of comedy at Stevens’ glacial pace. The movie seems to amble, almost begrudgingly, to its punchlines. One such reveal—that an unconscious man has been slumped in the corner of the room during an entire conversation between Tess and Sam—is so delayed that I felt a moment of confusion before realizing what the joke was supposed to have been.
Woman of the Year’s dramatic conflict comes from the fact that Sam, who fell in love with an ambitious and strong-willed career woman, is crushed and disheartened when she doesn’t immediately turn into a demure housewife post-nuptials. And we’re apparently meant to sympathize with him. I felt more like telling the big baby to grow up. But no, Tess’s accomplishments and interests aren’t just incompatible with Sam’s; we’re lead to believe they are antithetical to womanhood itself. The film’s title, you see, is meant to be ironic. Tess does, at one point, win such an award but her character arc isn’t complete until, having finally decided to give up her career and stay home to cook meals for Sam, she declares, “This time, I want to be the prize myself.” Well, no matter who or what the prize is, the audience loses.
Criterion’s transfer is a 2K one from a fine grain. It’s clean and sharp; if dirt removal was done, it was done well. The audio, if possible, is even better, almost completely free of pops or hisses.
Special features include a new interview with George Stevens Jr., a 1967 audio interview with George Stevens, a new interviewer with the director’s biographer, a new interview with Claudio Roth Pierpont on the subject of Hepburn, a 1984 feature length documentary about George Stevens, a 1986 feature length documentary about Tracy and an essay from the great Stephanie Zacharek. Honestly, the features are so stellar in this case that it’s almost worth recommending buying this dreary movie.