Op-ed: 100 Years…100 Passions- ‘Woman of the Year’ (#74)
I will be watching and reviewing all of the films included on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions list. The list contains the 100 greatest love stories in American cinema and I plan to consider how our views on romance and social issues have changed over the years as well as judge whether the romances in these films actually made me swoon. As a fan of the romance genre, I expect to love each and every one of the nominees but I also don’t know if I would consider all of them romantic.
When we talk about Woman of the Year, we all end up thinking about the final scene. Instead of being the light, fluffy romantic comedy that it was intended to be when it was released in 1942 it has become a major talking point among feminist film critics. Part of the reason for this is that it could have been a feminist classic that presents an ideal world in which a flawed woman can balance her responsibilities and have a happy marriage and a thriving career. Katharine Hepburn was the ultimate strong, independent heroine in this era and played the sort of complicated, intelligent career gals that women liked to see on screen. Unfortunately, there was a dissonance between the energy that Hepburn brought to her films and the scripts that she worked with as they often felt the need to punish her for being strong and confident. Almost everything went wrong when it came to Woman of the Year and it ends up feeling like the sort of propaganda that is cooked up by conservative politicians to warn women against the dangers of taking on jobs.
It is all about foreign affairs reporter Tess Harding, Katharine Hepburn, who is internationally respected and has political connections, but she comes into conflict with sportswriter Sam Craig, Spencer Tracy, when she suggests that baseball not be played during World War II. When the two meet, sparks fly and they are quickly married but married life with Harding is not what Craig expected and he discovers that she is inconsiderate and does not listen to him. He breaks up with her because he believes she will never change, and she is shocked by this development as she had thought that the two of them had the perfect marriage. She resolves to win him back by cooking breakfast for him but her attempt to make waffles is disastrous and she breaks down. She tells Craig she will quit her job to be with him and he agrees to take her back.
I don’t have any problems with the basic concept of this film as this is the rare romantic comedy that deals with marriage and not the early period of a relationship. It tries to be about the difficulties that married couples face when they rush into a marriage too quickly and discover that they aren’t ready to deal with the sacrifices that come with this decision. Harding is often cruel to her husband and the way that she forces him to take on so many responsibilities is unfair. I don’t support her poor treatment of her husband throughout most of the film and I thought this set up a fascinating situation. This could have been a story about a difficult woman learning that she has deep character flaws and we could have had several finely observed scenes in which she comes to grips with the fact that she must go through the onerous process of making significant changes to her lifestyle in order to accommodate for this relationship. This would have been a fine message to send to the audience as we can all relate to the feeling of trying to become a kinder, more patient person for the one we love. Instead of sending that message the film goes entirely too far and tells women that they have to give up everything just to be with their significant other. Their only responsibility in life should be taking care of their man and doing whatever he directs them to do. They will apparently experience bliss when they let go of silly interests like politics because women just aren’t smart enough to really be accepted in the political sphere.
The scene that establishes the fact that Harding should give up everything for Craig involves her cooking breakfast for him. As described in the plot description she fails as she has no background in simple domestic tasks because of her background as a wealthy reporter who has always relied on others to perform the tasks that housewives would typically take care of during this era. She does this in an effort to prove to Craig that she can be the caring, stay at home wife that he wants and he responds to her actions positively. When she says that she will give up her job he is enthusiastic about this decision and we are meant to believe that this is the fairy tale ending that every woman should want. There is a very careful use of language in the scene as Harding states “I’m going to give up my job, I’m going to be your wife” which implies that the two things are mutually exclusive and Harding must give up her job to be his wife. She affirms the fact that she will give up his job to her wife and then Craig expresses further displeasure at the idea of her work life bleeding into her personal life. Instead of accepting the fact that she has friends and colleagues who will naturally be a part of their life he decides to beat up her assistant when he arrives at their house. This represents him physically trying to remove every trace of her life as a career woman from their new life and it is very disturbing.
This is all very disappointing because the original ending of the film presented a more balanced view of the changes that would need to be made in this marriage. Craig would go missing and Harding would decide to try to win him back by going to a boxing gym to gain knowledge about sports so she could write an article for him. He would also try to become the man that he thought she wanted him to be by going to a school where he would be taught foreign languages that would allow him to move in her social circles. He reads the article she wrote for him and they reconcile at a boxing match where he assures her that she does not have to give up her career in order to be with him. The film was shown to audiences at test screenings, but audience members did not respond to this ending well. This may have been because the ending went against the typical Hepburn formula at this time. This formula involved her playing highfalutin, rather arrogant types who were humiliated and embarrassed before softening for love and adopting more traditionally feminine traits. She wouldn’t have been overtly humbled in Woman of the Year and men and women in the audience, who bought into the idea that conforming to traditional gender roles was positive, probably would have bristled at the idea of a woman who got away with doing things that were unthinkable. The ending was changed because of the influence of Louis B. Mayer, who likely knew that people liked seeing an ignominious Hepburn, and screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. had to go along with these demands.
His description of the new ending was negative as he said, “She had to get her comeuppance for being too strong in a man’s world so they wrote a scene where she tries to fix breakfast…and gets everything wrong.” Hepburn allegedly called this new ending “The worst bunch of shit I’ve ever read.” Even though there was all of this pushback they had to go ahead with filming this new ending and the message of the story was fundamentally changed. Audiences ended up eating this film up and the strong box office returns encouraged studios to continue pairing Hepburn and Tracy together in similar romantic comedies. It is discomforting to realize that they loved it because it reinforced the retrograde views that they already held and that means that this does not hold up.
Beyond my issues with the messages about a woman’s role in society that this film tries to send, I don’t think that it is funny or romantic. The script is deficient as the bare bones of the story are appealing but Craig is written as a smug, sanctimonious chauvinist who also happens to be a salt of the earth fella that we are meant to fall in love with. I didn’t like him for a moment and because this story was largely told from his perspective it was important that I either rooted for him or had some interest in his actions or responses to the choices that his wife makes. It is hard to care about him but he is also infuriating in moments when he should be endearing. This is partly because of Tracy’s performance as he chooses to sport a self-satisfied grin during the infamous final scene and it only makes you hate him more when you understand why he is so elated. The screenplay is very into the idea that he is a man of integrity who sees through all of her fancy-schmancy crap and doesn’t respect her for knowing philosophers and receiving prestigious awards. This anti-intellectualism is a turn-off and I question whether the screenwriters would have used the same approach if Harding had been a man and his wife had been the righteous sports reporter.
I believe that this is the first comedy that I have reviewed and I am stymied as I am almost always at a loss for words when it comes to explaining why I found something funny. I laugh and I often don’t know why. It is much easier to pick something apart when you don’t find it funny as you have time to dissect the scene in the moments when you would have otherwise been laughing. Most of the comedy in this film either revolves around Tracy’s confused reaction shots or slapstick scenes that involved food. The screenwriters seemingly thought that Tracy had a million different facial expressions in his arsenal so they wrote plenty of lines that would allow him to display his array of countenances. These lines are usually based around Hepburn doing something ridiculous or knowing something that Tracy has no frame of reference for. He also has to make these faces when Hepburn throws an orphan at him or tells him that she is going to be partying all night. The hilarity is meant to be derived from the fact that Tracy has such a rubbery, expressive face but he was not the Jim Carrey of his era and you can tell that he had to make these faces about five times before he could reach the right level of intensity. He looks rather haggard even when he is supposed to be bamboozled and energetic and it is hard to laugh at something when you can see that somebody has put so much work into making you laugh. The food slapstick just angered me as Hepburn messes up the most basic aspects of cooking and George Stevens asks us to titter while we witness waffle batter seeping out of a waffle maker. Where are the laughs meant to come in? Hepburn is stressed out and she has a lot of different responsibilities to balance but none of her reactions to her failures are all that funny.
As a romance, this should have delivered by presenting marriage as the romantic ideal even though it is something that people have to work very hard to maintain. We don’t typically think of marriage when we think of romance. Usually, the tension in these films is derived from whether two single people will end up getting married or whether two married people will step outside of their existing relationship and have an affair. Marriage is seen as the ultimate goal in the first case but married life is too dull to take up a whole film and we are asked to enjoy the fighting and flirty banter that can only exist before marriage in the eyes of certain filmmakers. In affair-based romances, we see marriage as something that is restrictive and suffocating and the spouses of the adulterers are either monsters who deserve to be cheated on or hopelessly unattractive but tragic figures. Woman of the Year aims to hit back against the traditional narrative by mostly focusing on the trials and tribulations that people face when they are married as well as capturing the subtle joys of day-to-day life in a committed relationship.
It is so emblematic of its era in the way that it deals with marriage. I have already touched on sexism and gender roles but I kept feeling like Woman of the Year was awkwardly sandwiched between two different eras and couldn’t figure out which template it wanted to follow. On one hand, you have the screwball comedies of the 1930s in which you could have perfect marriage. The Kerbys in Topper (1937) are inseparable and spend all of their time trading witty barbs, getting drunk, and singing show tunes at nightclubs. They both seem to find pleasure in the small benefits that they derive from being together and even find time to perform good deeds. They are the perfect couple but they are untouched by the problems that ordinary people face as they are extremely rich and neither of them have to work or worry about responsibilities outside of their marriage. Woman of the Year wants to have the witty barbs as it goes to great pains to illustrate the fact that Craig and Harding are opposites and therefore they have occasional fights in which they surreptitiously flirt with one another. It also wants to tell its audience that marriage can be a positive thing but, as stated before, it goes about making this point in the wrong way. It comes up short in wanting to be realistic as it tries to impart a serious message about marriage and has some interest in giving the audience insight into the lives of reporters. It can’t blend daffy comedy with heavy doses of realism and it ends up not delivering the yuks or the hard-hitting truths.
On the other hand, it wants to be a glossy soap opera from the 1950s in which we get to indulge in seeing women behaving badly before being punished in the last thirty minutes. Soap operas from the 1950s could be seen as a forerunner to exploitation films from the 1970s as they are chock full of sadism and violence but feel the need to mask their dirtiness by moralizing to the audience about Christian values. Woman of the Year doesn’t involve sadism but it does want to turn two wild, reckless people into ordinary folk who act just like everybody else. The production values might have been at home in something like Peyton Place (1957) and the office space setting is fitting as it allows gossip to spread. It falls behind in featuring black and white cinematography as Cinemascope and glorious Technicolor would become prerequisites in this genre in the following decade. It also isn’t naughty enough to really get the audience going as the sins that Harding commits are not shocking enough to make anybody gasp and announce “Well, I never!”
The 1950s were also the decade in which the ideal marriage on screen was one that involved a non-speaking wife letting her husband go to work without asking any questions or it was a hell that men wanted to escape from at any cost. The Seven Year Itch (1955) deals with a mid-life crisis that a man experiences as he gets older and becomes dissatisfied with his henpecking wife. He desperately wants to get rid of her and run into the arms of the sexy Marilyn Monroe who stands around in skimpy outfits and doesn’t ask him to be held accountable for his actions as a wife would. Woman of the Year doesn’t fall prey to these clichés and Craig isn’t tempted to cheat by some good-looking floozy but it also doesn’t manage to make any progressive statements on marriage and it doesn’t recapture the magic of the 1930s comedies that seemingly inspired it.
If you couldn’t figure it out already then I am hear to tell you that I don’t think this is a successful romantic comedy. I am almost offended by the fact that it made this list and I have to assume that it happened because the partnership between Tracy and Hepburn is legendary and this is possibly their most famous collaboration. This is another case where I assume they selected this film based on reputation alone rather than putting themselves through it and realizing how shockingly unfunny it is.