Three weeks ago I was at the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival where of the eight movies I saw that weekend, six: ( “The Sound of Music” “The Smiling Lieutenant” “My Man Godfrey” “Don’t Bet On Women” “Calamity Jane“ and “Adam’s Rib“ ) dealt with the relationship between men and women ( how to get a man…how to keep a man ). Ye Olde Battle of the Sexes, as ye used to call it. So I’ll keep up that glorious subject for a just a little while longer. Since I end with “Adam’s Rib” guess I’ll pick up on where these two meet:
SHE worked well with Cary Grant in four films, was the “It Actress” in Hollywood in the early 30’s, and then labelled “Box Office Poison” as the 30’s closed. HE worked well with a number of well-known 1930’s leading ladies and was considered a fine young dramatic actor. I guess it was fate that they had to meet. ( Or more like working at the same studio ). 1942 introduces audiences to the first of several pairings of what is to become one of Hollywood’s great screen teams: Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. I admit I go back ‘n forth with my admiration for “WOMAN OF THE YEAR” depending on where I am in my own life. I get my back up over that falling strap in her outfit, while making those damned waffles. ( I’m a French toast gal myself. ) But the last time I saw the movie I was amazingly calm about its last ten minutes because some thing just clicked within me re: the first two-thirds of the film. I got a different slant on things this last time.
You see, I’m usually an- noyed by the ‘feminiza-tion’ of the ‘Tess Har-ding’ character. I’m not happy with her having to subjugate her ambi- tion to keep her husband feeling secure. It pains me to see her acquiesce her position as role model to hundreds of new generation of WW II women; gals hitting the job market to make a meaningful and fulfilling contribution to the world and not just idly sit under the apple tree waiting for Johnny to come marching home. ( Oooh, did I mix my World War metaphors or what? )
Oy vey! What am I talkin’ about? Don’t worry, I’ve climbed off of that high horse. I was seeing the glass half-empty when it was actually half-full.
Nevermind their honeymoon was interrupted, or that Tess can’t sit still with Sam for five minutes without dealing with some earth-shattering, world-shaking news a la Eleanor Roosevelt. The full-on schism between the couple concerns the adoption of a little Greek war orphan Hepburn wants, without consulting Tracy. She walks out into the night, alone, losing that battle not only to Tracy, but to the little orphaned boy himself. ( Ahhhh…he knows what he wants even if Hepburn doesn’t. ) That’s one of my favorite shots of Hepburn of all her movies, coming out into the night with slacks and long camel-haired coat, pulling up her collar and walking into the darkness. She’s been independent for so long, she forgets she’s not in this marriage thing alone, making all the decisions.
I love seeing Tracy & Hepburn battle, crossing swords, stand toe-to-toe with each other as man and woman, and as actors. Hepburn is confident, competent as Tess Harding, in a role that fits her like a glove. I think she understand this wo-man. I think she lived this woman. Tracy as sportswriter Sam Craig is meat and potatoes, doesn’t sweat anybody. He comes in, does his thing, hits a home-run and goes home. For me their chemistry is not sexual, but I get off on their mutual respect for each other.
For two-thirds of “Woman of the Year” I get to see Hepburn in ALL her glory…in full command; in charge, juggling, organizing – not giving advice to the love-lorn or being a Suzy Homemaker, but being a mover and a shaker on the world stage as a journalist. But if I’m being honest – ( with some gentle coaxing from a friend ) – what I saw for two-thirds of the movie is a woman who is uncompromising, who wants it all on her terms…her way. I liked the soft gender identity switch between them, where Tracy takes on the more “feminine posture” (“You didn’t notice my new hat,”) while Kate gets to “act like a man” (my-way-or-the- highway….your-work’s-not-as-important-as-mine). What I used to think was assertiveness on Hepburn’s part, was moreso unfair steam-rolling. ( Ok, KM-P? ) She learns a thing or ten from her mentor: the wonderful Fay Bainter.
The impact finally dawned on me in what he tells her at the end of the movie before the happy fade-out. He wants her to be Tess Harding Craig. ( “Craig’s Wife” as it were – L0L! – but I’ll speak about Rosalind Russell next week. ) He’s not giving her an “either/or” choice. He is telling her to be both wife and partner.
And he is not giving her HIS permission. He is assuring her that she could give HERSELF permission to be all that she could be. And I’m really at peace with that; even if it does kind of sort of re-works “The Taming of the Shrew” with a little romantic spin. Hepburn hits it out of the park. Tracy hits it out of the park, and director George Stevens adds another classic notch to his belt.
The battle continues NEXT WEEK with “HIS GIRL FRIDAY.”
( H O M E )