Review: George Stevens’ “Woman of the Year,” Starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy

Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in
Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in "Woman of the Year"

At a time when gender roles were incredibly rigid, Katharine Hepburn refused to adhere to societal expectations of what a woman and an actress should be. When women were expected to be subservient, Hepburn was unapologetic, bold, and pioneering. In a 1981 interview, Hepburn told Barbara Walters, “I’ve just done what I damn well wanted to.”1 Hepburn often incorporated her trailblazing qualities into her on-screen characters, which was certainly the case with her film Woman of the Year.

Woman of the Year follows Tess Harding (Hepburn), a high-flying international affairs columnist for the New York Chronicle, and Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy), an all-American sports reporter for the same paper. When Craig hears Harding on the radio say that sports should be banned during the war, Craig responds in print, and they continue to duke it out in their respective columns. But when their editor calls a meeting to put an end to their feud, the two find that they have an unexpected affinity for one another. In a classic case of opposites attract, the two fall in love and wind up married. But Craig finds himself playing second fiddle to Harding’s work, which adds undue tension to their precarious relationship, a situation made worse when Harding is awarded the title of “America’s Outstanding Woman of the Year.”

The plot is progressive for its time. It features an unapologetically ambitious and incredibly successful woman who refuses to let her career take a backseat to her love life. But at certain moments, that modern sentiment is undercut by the fact that Harding is often painted as the villain. Much of the film focuses on Craig, who is displaced and belittled by Harding, which aligns the viewer with Craig’s point of view.

But nonetheless, the film’s frank discussion of gender is impressive for the time, thanks in large part to Hepburn, who was heavily involved in the development of the film. Her tenacity secured her a deal in which she was able to choose her director and co-star. For the former, Hepburn chose George Stevens, who she previously worked with on Alice Adams and Quality Street, and for the latter she chose Spencer Tracy, who she greatly respected and admired as an actor.

An early scene between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in "Woman of the Year"
An early scene between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in “Woman of the Year”

In Woman of the Year, the first film Hepburn and Tracy appear in together, the duo exudes chemistry. This is unsurprising considering that during filming, the two fell in love and began an affair that lasted until Tracy’s death in 1967. Woman of the Year was the first of nine films Hepburn and Tracy made together, including Adam’s Rib, another classic battle-of-the-sexes tale that tackles the issue of gender in a modern way. Although similar to Woman of the Year, Adam’s Rib takes on the topic in a more thought-provoking, nuanced, and hilarious way. Both Tracy and Hepburn often played characters with personalities similar to their own, Hepburn as an outspoken, trailblazing woman, and Tracy as a salt of the earth, no-nonsense irishmen. In all cases, Tracy’s naturalism complemented Hepburn’s fervor well.

Woman of the Year, which was a critical and commercial success, earned Hepburn a Best Actress nomination at the Academy Awards, while Michael Kanin and Ring Lardner, Jr. won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. But the ending that Kanin and Lardner originally scripted was changed after early screenings left audiences dissatisfied. The lukewarm reception was chalked up to Harding’s seeming infallibility, especially in the eyes of female audience members. Hepburn, who was heavily involved in the development of the script, was furious at the new ending, which was designed to make Harding more relatable.

The new final scene features Harding cluelessly and comedically attempting to cook Craig breakfast to win him back and prove that she can be a good wife. Harding’s embarrassment essentially serves as a warning to women who gain too much power. Hepburn would call the new scene, “the worst bunch of shit I’ve ever read.”2 But interestingly, when Craig eventually puts an end to the trainwreck, he tells Harding, “I don’t want to be married to Tess Harding any more than I want you to be just Mrs. Sam Craig. Why can’t you be Tess Harding Craig?” The message is much less harmful. While the new scene tells women they can’t have it all, Craig’s lines say something different: women can work and be a wife, and having an equal partner makes the balance far easier to achieve.

Woman of the Year is an entertaining and important film that discusses gender in nuanced way, thanks to the efforts of the Katharine Hepburn. Although her ultimate vision was undermined, the fact that a character like Tess Harding could exist on screen at that time is a testament to Hepburn’s tenacity as a woman and an actress.

Where to Watch

Buy it on DVD

Rent it on iTunes / Amazon / Google Play

For More on Woman of the Year

Read our feature on the production of the film

Read the review in The New York Times

Read the review in Variety

Watch the Trailer

References   [ + ]

1. Katharine Hepburn, interview by Barbara Walters, 20/20, ABC, June 2, 1981.
2. Anne Edwards, Katharine Hepburn: A Remarkable Woman (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 204