Before Katharine Hepburn ever met Spencer Tracy, she wanted him as her costar in this film. George Stevens’s Woman of the Year, conceived to build on the smashing comeback Hepburn had made in The Philadelphia Story, is the story of rival newspaper reporters who wed only to find that their careers aren’t so compatible, and in it the pair forged a fresh and realistic vision of what marriage could be. The freewheeling but pinpoint-sharp screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin won an Academy Award, and Hepburn was nominated for best actress. Woman of the Year marks the beginning of the personal and professional union between Hepburn and Tracy, who would go on to make eight more films together, and it stands as a dazzling, funny, and sometimes rueful observation of what it takes for men and women to get along—both in the workplace and out of it.
When Katherine Hepburn first met Spencer Tracy on the MGM lot just prior to shooting Woman of the Year in 1941, she was wearing high heels. Embarrassed about her height, Hepburn remarked off-handedly to Tracy, "I'm a little tall for you, aren't I?" But before Tracy could respond, the film's producer, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who was standing with them, slyly quipped, "Don't worry, Kate, he'll cut you down to size."
And so began one of the greatest partnerships in motion picture history, spanning nine films over 25 years and spawning a legendary love affair that lasted until Tracy's death in 1967. Tracy did indeed cut the confident, somewhat haughty Hepburn down to size, but did so almost invisibly by tempering her manic energy, diffusing her airs, and using his quiet strength and natural warmth to soften and humanize her. As the years went on, they became a comfortable screen couple, kind of like a pair of old shoes, but in Woman of the Year, their first film together, a crackling sexual chemistry ignites many of their scenes and smolders throughout the movie. The attraction is irresistibly fresh and doubly exciting because it's both physical and intellectual. Tracy and Hepburn aren't two crazy kids in love; they're two mature adults with fully formed attitudes and ideals. She's smart and worldly, he's humble and proud, and together they forge a stimulating, relatable relationship.
Yet without director George Stevens, the two stars might never have clicked at all. Stevens is the unsung hero who showcases Tracy and Hepburn in the best possible light and elevates Woman of the Year beyond the realm of basic romantic comedy by favoring character over plot and focusing on the broader social context of the story...without sacrificing laughs. The Oscar-winning screenplay by Ring Lardner, Jr. and Michael Kanin (older brother of Garson) is packed with funny situations, but an underlying human truth fuels and enhances them. And Stevens masterfully exploits that truth in an unobtrusive manner. By employing priceless reaction shots and zeroing in on little amusing morsels, he captures the essence of comedy, and his deceptively simple technique belies the meticulous artistry that pervades both this picture and all of his work.
Tess Harding (Hepburn) is brilliant, beautiful, driven, and passionate about political and social causes. She's also a piece of work - self-centered, arrogant, dismissive, and often oblivious and insensitive to the feelings and needs of others. Like Tracy Lord, she's artificial and unattainable, but unlike the heroine in The Philadelphia Story, she's a role model and icon. Her outspoken column in a top New York newspaper tackles critical global issues, and her tireless activism champions persecuted political figures and America's burgeoning feminist movement.
Tess really doesn't have time for romance, but Sam Craig (Tracy), a regular-Joe sportswriter at her paper, is dazzled by her wit, charm, glamour, worldliness - in short, her perfection - and relentlessly pursues her. The flattered Tess takes the bait and seems all too willing to initiate a torrid affair, but Sam respects her too much for a random roll in the hay. He wants more. For him - a simple, traditional, principled man - only marriage will do. But in an era when women had to make choices, can Tess handle the demands of both a career and domestic life? And in an era when men reigned supreme, will Sam play second fiddle to his high-profile wife? Just like the countries on the international stage angling for supremacy during World War II, Sam and Tess need to find common ground, but neither is very good at diplomacy.
Woman of the Year is one of the first films to both lampoon and reverse sexual roles. The macho Sam is the one who wants marriage, children, companionship, and - most importantly - attention. Tess is too busy to put much effort into such things; she has more important items on her agenda and believes Sam, whose work she perceives to be frivolous, should respect that and sacrifice his needs for hers. He willingly plays along at first, but soon her imperious, selfish nature begins to rankle him and makes him question his love for her.
Two scenes in the picture are comic classics. In the first, Sam invites Tess to sit in the press box and watch him cover a Yankee game, yet she doesn't know the first thing about baseball. As Sam tries ever so patiently to explain the rules to her and field her frightfully ignorant questions ("Which one is the pitcher?"), his hard-boiled colleagues' pained cringes are hilarious. So, too, are Sam's subtle yet stunned reactions later in the film when Tess attempts to cook breakfast...with disastrous results. (Imagine a war zone in a kitchen.) The scene has no dialogue, yet is one of the most perfectly choreographed comedy sequences of the 1940s.
It's impossible to imagine anyone other than Tracy and Hepburn in the lead roles. Both stars terrifically embody their characters, and that classic chemistry remains oh so potent 'lo these many decades later. Hepburn received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her portrayal, yet Tracy is equally good in a marvelously understated and earnest performance. Fay Bainter, Reginald Owen, and William Bendix (in only his third film) also shine, but no one can eclipse Kate and Spence.
Woman of the Year may be 75 years old, but it remains a timeless battle-of-the-sexes comedy that perceptively explores the differences between men and women and how we struggle to coexist in an ever-evolving society. Add the magic of Tracy and Hepburn and the impeccable direction of George Stevens, and you've got a memorable, stimulating, and always entertaining motion picture.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Woman of the Year arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard Criterion case. A 12-page booklet featuring an essay by Time magazine film critic Stephanie Zacharek, cast and crew listings, transfer notes, and a handful of beautifully reproduced black-and-white photos of Tracy and Hepburn is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is LPCM mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
According to the liner notes, "this new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution...from a 35 mm fine-grain master positive made from the 35 mm original camera negative." Presented here in a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode, the restoration breathes new, vibrant life into this 75-year-old film. Though a few faint vertical lines occasionally dot the image, the print is otherwise clean as a whistle and gloriously vibrant. The natural grain structure maintains the feel of celluloid, and excellent contrast and gray scale variance produce a beautifully balanced picture that brims with detail and depth. Black levels are rich and deep, whites are crisp, and the busy patterns that often grace Hepburn's wardrobe remain rock solid and resist shimmering. Silhouettes are perfectly defined, shadow delineation is quite good, and razor sharp close-ups allows us to drink in Hepburn's trademark cheekbones and alabaster complexion. Cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg won the Oscar the very same year for Mrs. Miniver, but his work here - though largely unheralded - is equally good, and this terrific transfer, at last, gives it the showcase it has always deserved.
Woman of the Year is a very quiet film. Dialogue reigns supreme, effects are minimal, and the music score only makes sporadic appearances, but Criterion's LPCM mono track, struck from the 35 mm original soundtrack negative, maximizes all the subtle elements and produces clear, well-modulated sound. A bit of surface noise occasionally can be detected during stretches of silence, but all the other traces of age have been meticulously erased. A wide dynamic scale allows Franz Waxman's romantic themes plenty of room to breathe, and all the clever banter and heated exchanges are (thankfully) easy to comprehend. Ambient crowd noise, footsteps, and all the whistles and bubbling that dominate the classic breakfast scene are nicely conveyed, and no distortion creeps into the mix. This is a simple track, but it's been well restored, so it seamlessly complements the on-screen action.
About four hours of supplements, including two feature-length documentaries, enhance this stellar Criterion release. It's a shame there's no audio commentary, but that's the only regrettable omission.
Interview with George Stevens, Jr. (HD, 6 minutes) - The son of director George Stevens, and an accomplished producer in his own right, shares some personal memories of his father, and talks about how Stevens respected the audience's intelligence, recognized the importance of a good screenplay, and allowed humor to emanate not from funny lines or broad gags, but from his characters' authenticity. Stevens Jr. always speaks reverently about his dad, and it's a shame this classy interview is so brief.
Audio Interview with George Stevens (17 minutes) - Recorded in 1967, this lively interview excerpt mainly focuses on Katherine Hepburn, whom Stevens calls "the most inspiring person I've ever met in my entire life," and Woman of the Year. With great animation, Stevens discusses how he became involved in the project; how Hepburn really pulled the movie together (he believes she should have gotten a producer credit); his confrontations with the MGM brass; and how the film's ending was revamped after preview audiences expressed displeasure with it.
Interview with Marilyn Ann Moss (HD, 14 minutes) - George Stevens' biographer dubs the director "the Walt Whitman of American film," and lauds his versatility, insights, and sensitivity. Moss chronicles Stevens' early years as a silent film cameraman and director (Laurel and Hardy greatly influenced his perception of comedy), looks at his career at RKO in the 1930s (where he first worked with Hepburn on what would become his first major success, Alice Adams), and examines his fine rapport with a number of actresses in several women's pictures produced prior to World War II. She also mentions his dislike of MGM (because it catered to producers, not directors) and looks at the broad-based topicality of Woman of the Year.
"Katherine Hepburn: Woman of the Century" (HD, 20 minutes) - Writer Claudia Roth Pierpont analyzes both Hepburn and Woman of the Year, putting them both in their proper historical context. She cites Hepburn's individuality in an era that adhered to rigid sexual roles ("She's no ordinary ingenue," Pierpont says. "She's herself."), and talks at length about Hepburn's commitment to portraying strong women and constant need to reinvent herself to maintain her viability as an actress. Pierpont also reveals Woman of the Year mirrored the life of reporter Dorothy Thompson, and discusses two reasons why the film's ending was ultimately changed. A few scene stills from the original ending survive and illustrate Pierpont's remarks.
Feature-Length Documentary: George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey (HD, 111 minutes) – One of the finest film documentaries ever made, George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey honors one of Hollywood's preeminent craftsmen with grace, warmth, and a rare intimacy that immerses us in the director's life and work. Produced by his son, George Stevens Jr., and featuring reminiscences from such esteemed colleagues as Frank Capra, John Huston, Fred Zinnemann, Joseph Mankiewicz, Katharine Hepburn, Warren Beatty, and Fred Astaire, this feature-length 1985 profile celebrates the man behind Giant, A Place in the Sun, Shane, The Diary of Anne Frank, and many more classic movies (including, of course, Woman of the Year). Film clips abound, but the insights and anecdotes of those interviewed and Stevens' off-screen achievements (development of new technology, esteemed service as a World War II documentarian, and outspoken opponent of McCarthyism) allow us to appreciate the human side of this renowned director and learn how his experiences shaped and influenced his most acclaimed motion pictures. Anyone who appreciates classic film will be transfixed by this moving and insightful tribute that salutes both a superb director and a great man. (Note: This fantastic documentary is also included in the James Dean: Ultimate Collector's Edition box set from Warner Home Video, but this is the first time the film has been presented in high definition, which is big news indeed for classic film fans.)
Feature-Length Documentary: The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute by Katharine Hepburn (HD, 86 minutes) - This intimate, celebratory 1986 documentary follows Tracy's legendary career from his first film to his last, featuring lengthy clips from some of his best known performances, including Captains Courageous, Boys Town, Bad Day at Black Rock, Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Hosted by the indomitable Hepburn, who likens Tracy to - of all things - a baked potato ("pure, of the earth, and dependable"), the absorbing profile quotes from Tracy's personal diary, touches upon his drinking problem, honors his commitment to charitable causes, and includes rare photos and home movie snippets. Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Burt Reynolds, Richard Widmark, Joan Bennett, daughter Susie Tracy, Robert Wagner, Angela Lansbury, Lee Marvin, Garson Kanin, Sidney Poitier, Joanne Woodward, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and Stanley Kramer all salute Tracy's work ethic, commitment to his craft, incredible modesty, and warm spirit. Hepburn describes their memorable first meeting, but doesn't divulge too many details about their long-standing romantic relationship, preferring instead to focus on Tracy's work. However, she ends this marvelous documentary by reading a recent letter she wrote to her deceased companion and co-star, and it movingly encapsulates the tortured character of a great actor who was so accessible on screen, but such an enigma off it.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2 minutes) - Only a portion of the film's original preview exists (the beginning seems to be cut off), and sadly, it's in pretty poor condition.
The first pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn is arguably their best. Woman of the Year brilliantly showcases both iconic actors and the incomparable chemistry that produced one of the most popular and enduring screen teams in cinema history. In a tailor-made part, Hepburn portrays an ultra-sophisticated, self-centered columnist who finds romance with Tracy's down-to-earth sportswriter, inciting a rollicking battle of the sexes that turns the traditional roles of men and women upside down. George Stevens' accomplished direction, an Oscar-winning script, and the pitch-perfect performances of Tracy and Hepburn make Woman of the Year a sparkling and substantive romantic comedy that still resonates 75 years after its initial release. Excellent video and audio transfers and a massive supplemental package that includes two marvelous feature-length documentaries distinguish Criterion's first-class Blu-ray presentation. It doesn't get much better than Tracy and Hepburn - or director George Stevens, for that matter - which is why this Golden Age gem is most certainly a must own release.