not in our stars, but in ourselves
For some or many or all of you, I’m sure that Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn were conspicuous by their absence in my rundown of screen couples. Well, there’s a very simple and very shameful reason for that: I had yet to see any of their movies. Oops. And because they were so lovely and private, they weren’t in-your-face to the extent that, say, Burton and Taylor were. However, they did make quite a number of films together – and the first of them, Woman of the Year (1942), is just so sweet and cute and that I’m not sure I can stand it.
It’s the story of Sam Craig (Tracy) and Tess Harding (Hepburn). As the back of my DVD very aptly put it: he’s earthy, she’s erudite; he’s lumpy, she’s angular. (Can you believe someone was paid to write that, and here I sit, churning out gold for free? Oy gevalt.) Sam is a salty sportswriter, and Tess is a diplomat’s daughter. Both write daily columns for the New York Chronicle. After hearing Tess make a disparaging remark about that most American pastime, baseball, on her radio show, the two engage in a brief war of words in their columns…until they meet. Sam is instantly smitten, and Tess realizes that perhaps he’s not quite so dull after all.
They go on a date to a baseball game, she invites him to a nightmare of a party, and he decides that he has to make an honest woman of her: she breezily agrees to marry him, they have a quickie wedding the next day, and she continues to carry on as she had before. She has every diplomat from every nation visit her at all hours. She keeps all her various do-gooder commitments. She adopts a refugee child without even considering whether or not Sam might dislike the idea. Sam loves her very much – but he also finds their life together awfully trying.
One thing that struck me about Woman of the Year was that it could almost – almost! – pass for a Pre-Code film. Consider: it’s not so much a battle of the sexes as a situation where a woman is exactly as powerful as a man. Tess and Sam are both influential, intelligent, well-liked writers.
Tess is not that tired old hag, the modern career woman; she takes a genuine interest, based on informed opinions, in the world at large.
Sam is not some sort of macho manchild; he absolutely adores Tess and wants only to be happy with her – without a parade of consulates and bureaucrats and refugees tramping through their bedroom.
Their sexual desire is as clearly expressed as any onscreen desire from any film era. They love, want, and respect each other – a partnership that’s rare in movies even now, and perhaps even more rare in real life. It was pretty common before the enforcement of the Code, however, and it’s refreshing to see here all the way in 1942.
It’s hard not to weigh in on the real, rather tragic relationship between Tracy and Hepburn when writing about their first screen partnership. The chemistry is extraordinary. The way they look at each other, the shining eyes and barely suppressed grins, the tenderness in the way they hold each other – it is gorgeous. For a flimsy little romantic comedy, there is true love on view here. Oh, I’m sure I’m just buying into every fantasy MGM is trying to push on me, but I think I can tell the difference between actors who are acting, and actors who are falling head over heels for each other. Tracy and Hepburn are, in Woman of the Year, so visibly the latter. When it feels like the camera is intruding on a private moment, when it feels indecent to keep watching, when it ceases to be a dream in your own head and a real act you’re witnessing from the outside – that’s when you know your stars are really crazy about each other. There are moments of that intruder feeling in collaborations between the Oliviers and the Burtons and other screen couples. With Tracy and Hepburn, that feeling sustains itself throughout the whole film.
I’m sorry I waited so long to poke my head in. For their blatant admiration of each other, for their love of each other’s strengths, for their intelligence and delight in the differences between their temperaments, I very much wish I’d seen Woman of the Year about 27 years ago. Perhaps I’d have a much better idea of what a great love affair really is.