George Stevens’s 1942 Woman of the Year is a picture anchored not just by two marvelous performances but also by a small, stubborn miracle: that of love growing roots before our eyes, like a plant staking its claim in the desert. This was Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn’s first film together; the duo would go on to make eight more pictures and were also life partners until Tracy’s death in 1967. Their union is one of Hollywood’s best love stories, not because it was perfect but because it succeeded against all odds: Tracy’s on-again, off-again drinking could make him irascible. And although he and Hepburn built a life together, he never divorced his wife, Louise, whom he’d married in 1923.
Woman of the Year was the beginning of all this, and it too bears marks of conflict—chiefly, a reconstituted ending that neither the film’s writers nor, it seems, its actors were happy with. But then, movies, like the human beings who make them, are imperfect creatures. If the secret to happiness is finding joy in the corners, there’s plenty to be found in Woman of the Year, particularly in the way Tracy and Hepburn negotiate its language. It’s as if, even in these early days of their relationship, they pared the necessities of happiness down to the essentials, a list beginning—and perhaps also ending—with laughter.
At the time of the film’s casting, both actors were huge MGM stars. Tracy, who’d spent his early working years at Fox, where he honed his earthy, naturalistic style, finally found his footing with audiences after signing with MGM in 1935: he won back-to-back Oscars, in 1938 and 1939, for Captains Courageous and Boys Town. Hepburn’s career had taken a more wriggly trajectory: her popularity soared in the early to mid-thirties (she won an Academy Award for her third picture, 1933’s Morning Glory) but flagged toward the end of the decade. She retreated to the stage, where she’d begun her career.
Among the plays in which she appeared during that period was Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story. She was prescient enough to option the film rights to it, and that calculated risk paid off. The 1940 movie version of The Philadelphia Story reignited Hepburn’s reputation, allowing her to help develop, as her next project, Woman of the Year, a prime property that had been conceived by her friend and sometime paramour writer-producer-director Garson Kanin. This story about a competing sportswriter and news reporter who fall in love was pitched by Kanin to screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. like this: “They clash in print about something; meet; clash in person; both wrong, both right—not bad!”
The story’s bones are simple and perfect: Tracy’s Sam Craig and Hepburn’s Tess Harding are two hardheaded newspeople who rush into marriage, only to learn they’re seemingly incapable of adjusting to one another. Kanin had modeled the character that would later become Tess on journalist Dorothy Thompson, then considered one of the two most influential women in the country, according to Time magazine (Eleanor Roosevelt was the other). Kanin and Lardner further sketched out the premise just before Kanin, who’d been drafted into the army, headed off to basic training; he left the project in the care of his older brother, Michael, and Lardner. Hepburn loved the completed script and talked it up to Louis B. Mayer, having involved Philadelphia Story producer Joe Mankiewicz along the way. She also knew which director she wanted, favoring her old friend (and, at one time, lover) George Stevens over another old friend and frequent collaborator, George Cukor: “I thought this picture had to be directed by a very male man, and that’s George Stevens,” she said.
Hepburn also had clear ideas about her costar. She’d first seen Tracy years earlier, onstage in The Last Mile, and had also loved him in pictures like Captains Courageous. But their initial meeting didn’t bode well. They ran into each other outside the MGM commissary. Hepburn was alone; Tracy was with Mankiewicz, who was at that point trying to sell him on the picture. Tracy didn’t care for pants on women, not even the trouser suit Hepburn was wearing at the time, custom-made for her elegant, stick-insect body. He also thought her fingernails were dirty. She, it turns out, was nervous about meeting Tracy and didn’t quite know what to say. She took his hand and shook it, he later said, “like a stevedore.”
Yet—pretty much following the film’s blueprint—as the picture took shape, they took to each other. Woman of the Year soars on that energy, and the steady-as-she-goes guidance of the unflappable Stevens helped keep it aloft. Stevens had directed Hepburn in films like the tender, wrenching 1935 drama Alice Adams (which netted Hepburn an Oscar nomination) and knew how to soften some of her harsher edges without diluting her sparkle. He had also been in love with her, and may still have been at the time Woman of the Year commenced filming.
But it quickly became clear to Stevens, as it was to just about everyone on the set, that Hepburn and Tracy were an extraordinary equation. As Hepburn plays her, Tess is a dazzler, thinking and moving every minute. She and Tracy’s sarcastic, plain-speaking sportswriter Sam both work for the same New York City daily, but their paths have never crossed. She says something stupid and insulting about baseball in a radio broadcast; he responds by writing a prickly column about it. They needle each other publicly until their editor calls them into his office for a truce, and there’s Tess leaning against a desk as she adjusts a stocking, her leg stretched out like a trip wire. Sam sees her as he steps through the door. Just a moment earlier, he was apoplectic. Now he’s agog, defused, undone. The look on his face is one of utter delight, and of being completely lost.
Tess alights from the desk like a springbok, though her eyes are as bright as a tiger’s. You couldn’t make the attraction between them more obvious if you drew cartoon lightning bolts around it. Man and woman shake hands, and it’s the beginning of the end of the beginning. Mankiewicz later recounted what it was like to watch these two stellar actors warm to each other. “Early on in the filming, I noticed that Spencer was sounding sort of highbrow and Kate’s very distinctive, metallic-sounding voice was much lower, her delivery slower,” he said. “Then it hit me. My God, they were unconsciously imitating each other!”
That mutual mimicry spiraled into something explosive. Both Hepburn and Tracy knew just what to do with the movie’s dialogue, racing around one another like nut-mad squirrels. Even some of Tracy’s characteristic gruffness seems to have been knocked out of him: he’s boyishly flirtatious and disarming. But one of the movie’s best moments relies little on dialogue. After Tess has contrived to have Sam escort her to the airport, she tells him she has done so in the hopes that he’ll kiss her. He obliges, and the moment is erotic, electrified, intensely private (you could think of it as the forerunner of the discreet yet nakedly intimate kiss Stevens would stage about a decade later between Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun). Stevens shoots the kiss so we can’t see Tracy’s face at all, and Hepburn’s is visible only in a fleeting quarter view. It should be unsatisfying, as movie kisses go, but somehow it gives us all we’d ever dare to ask of two characters—and two actors—who are falling deeply in love before our eyes.
That’s the white magic of Woman of the Year, but there’s some black magic in it too. Hepburn’s Tess is sharp and bright and alluring. She’s also carelessly self-absorbed. She and Sam marry, impulsively, and things go from bad to worse. She adopts a Greek orphan—he stands there, stolid and unblinking, in his little sailor suit—without telling Sam. Then she’s so busy with work and social engagements that she neglects the kid. Sam, kindly and principled, steps in. He also realizes it’s time to cut his losses with Tess.
These are terrible things Tess does. No character could get away with them, and almost no actress could get away with portraying them. Yet Hepburn ensures that we never give up on Tess, even when she practically pushes us, along with Sam, to our limits. We all know what Hepburn was about, on paper: Yankee toughness, and the kind of bone structure that doesn’t invite cuddling. But her greatness as an actor actually lies in her generosity and softness, doled out only in small quantities, like sweets on a pioneer child’s Christmas morning. You have to wait for them, but when they come, you can hardly believe their wonder, or your own luck.
Those revelatory moments of guilelessness—as when Tess listens to another couple’s wedding vows and realizes she’s been missing the point all along—are what make Hepburn’s performance in Woman of the Year so bracing and believable. They’re also what make the film’s ending seem like a failure of nerve. In that ending, Tess realizes how selfish she’s been—nothing wrong with that—and decides to surprise her estranged husband by making breakfast for him; nothing wrong with that, either. It all goes very badly, slapstick-style. Bread slices fly out of the toaster like nutty birds; the coffee percolating on the stove is ready to blow at any moment. Sam watches the proceedings silently, less amused than puzzled. The dumb conventionality of all this could be forgiven, until Tess, after failing miserably at breakfast prep, announces in a breathless rush that she’s finally ready to quit her job and devote herself to making a comfortable, wonderful life for Sam.
Until that final scene, the modernity of Woman of the Year is breathtaking, exhilarating, almost too bold to be believed in the way it outlines a path toward equality, and some modicum of peace, between the sexes. But that modernity, it turns out, was an elastic pulled too far. It had to snap back. Michael Kanin and Lardner had originally written a different ending, one that was actually filmed. In that ending, Sam and Tess, separated and missing each other, both find a way to reach halfway across the chasm between them. Audiences at an early test screening seemed to like the film well enough—except for that ending, which baffled them, or perhaps just didn’t give them enough. Mankiewicz and Mayer, sensing imminent disaster, enlisted screenwriter John Lee Mahin to come up with some new dialogue.
Studio executives had also learned something from the success of The Philadelphia Story: Audiences needed to see a confident, capable Katharine Hepburn character being taken down a peg. Stevens recalled his actors—Tracy had already begun work on his next film, Tortilla Flat—and shot the new ending, which he’d helped conceive, drawing on his background filming two-reel comedies. And while there may be some who genuinely like the ending of Woman of the Year, or at least find themselves able to mount a tepid defense of it, it certainly feels imported from a much less progressive, and less hard-nosed, movie.
Yet perhaps it’s better that this ending feels so obviously contrived and forced. That it doesn’t blend easily only reinforces the power of the rest of the film, and the fact that, in all other ways, Woman of the Year is a spirited, honest picture. This is one of the least frenetic screwball comedies of the late thirties and early forties, and for at least seven-eighths of its duration, it’s one of the most enjoyable.
Things have changed so much since 1942, or at least we’d like to hope so. While we cling to movies we love, treating them as permanent, comforting objects, the context around them is always shifting. Audiences then weren’t ready to deal with a woman character they didn’t find soft enough, approachable enough, likable enough—and today, too, a woman with Tess’s confidence and expertise is often seen as a threat. But that doesn’t diminish Tess Harding’s intelligence and drive. The ending of Woman of the Year isn’t an end in itself. Instead, maybe, it’s an invocation to write our own, better one—one that we ourselves can live.
Stephanie Zacharek is the chief film critic for Time magazine. She was formerly the film critic at Salon and at the Village Voice, and in 2015 was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for criticism.