The Ending of Woman of the Year: Analyzing the two endings of Woman of the Year, 80 years after the event took place
The Ending of Woman of the Year
- Starring: Spencer Tracy; Katharine Hepburn; F…
- Screenplay by: Ring Lardner Jr. Michael Kanin
- Running time: 114 minutes
If the opening of a movie frames your expectations for what’s to come, then the ending of a movie serves to reinterpret what you’ve already seen in the course of the movie. The film Woman of the Year, starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, had two different endings: the intended conclusion, which was deleted after it received a negative reception from audiences, and the alternate ending, which was used instead.
This second and final ending had a significant impact on the meaning of the film, as well as how it addressed and “fixed” Hepburn’s magnificently flawed protagonist, Tess Harding, in the process of making the film.
Tess is a self-sufficient lady who views Sam and her marriage to be an afterthought, which contributes to their marital disconnection. To explain it another way, Tess is Important, and it’s difficult for her to recognize the value in anyone or anything who isn’t also Important to her. Because Sam is unimportant, she does not see any reason to alter her lifestyle in order to accommodate their union in any way.
In order to avoid having to change addresses, she refuses to move with Sam to a new location because it would be inconvenient for her to do so. She also ignores him on their wedding night due to the awkwardly comedic escape of a statesman from the Nazis, and she does not invite his mother to their hastily planned wedding. The Important always takes precedence over the Unimportant in Tess’s eyes, which is why Sam moves into her apartment, Sam has a conversation with the statesman on his wedding night, and Sam lives on the periphery of her life rather than within it. It doesn’t really work, but it also doesn’t break—at least not until Tess’s carelessness leads to her doing the exact worst thing she could have done: adopting a child refugee without informing Sam or adjusting her life in any way in order to raise a child.
Tenacious political affairs columnist Tess Harding entertains visitors in her home and is fluent in a dozen languages. She also plays the piano and hosts dignitaries at her home. When she gets into a heated debate with sports reporter Sam Craig about whether baseball should be canceled during the war (Tess is in favor, Sam is against), sparks erupt. They rush into marriage, and it becomes immediately evident that Tess, who has spent her entire life on her alone, does not know how to create room in her life for her new husband, who is a complete stranger to her. Tamara and Sam’s worlds are incompatible, and Sam is perplexed by the fact that Tess is already doing much of what he had anticipated doing in the marriage.
Despite the fact that we have already witnessed issues in the marriage, Sam believes Tess’ abandonment of the child and failure to meet the child’s needs is the final straw. In the midst of her rushing Sam out the door so that the two of them can attend the gala where she will be named Woman of the Year, Sam notices that the housekeeper is nowhere to be found. The housekeeper will be attending the gala instead of babysitting the youngster, and Sam decides to accompany him instead of going to the gala with her. The situation annoys Tess, and when he asks her to make explanations for him, she responds, “Who would believe that you would have anything important enough to do?”
A sharp, painful, and unambiguous moment has been experienced in this situation. While we have seen the small problems that have arisen as a result of Tess’s dismissive attitude toward the “unimportant” aspects of her life, the bigger picture is never quite as evident. However, it isn’t just Sam that she is dismissive of.
Anyone who would consider remaining at home with their child instead of attending a banquet in her honor is beyond her comprehension, she explains. While at the height of his argument, Sam wonders what the world would say if they found out that, contrary to popular belief, “the exceptional Woman of the Year isn’t really a woman at all.” That statement has always struck me as confusing in some way. What does Sam mean when he says “woman”? The meaning, on the other hand, changes depending on which ending we take into consideration.
TESS is unquestionably responsible for the majority of difficulties in Sam and Tesses’ relationship; but, how the film labels and then tackles what is wrong with her behavior varies from one ending to the next. In the final version of the film, Sam decides to permanently abandon Tess following a disagreement about the child, and he takes the child back to the orphanage. Following several weeks of haggling, Tess manages to get into Sam’s new apartment and declares that she will give up everything to become a stay-at-home mother. After that, she heads out to attempt to prepare breakfast. With waffles growing inexplicably and burnt toast rocketing into the air, the entire project devolves into a series of sloppily handled kitchen mayhem gags.
Tess is rapidly overwhelmed by the din of the kitchen appliances and collapses, begging Sam to come and assist her. He unplugs a machine and switches off a burner to complete the task. Sam coos quietly, saying that he doesn’t want Tess to give up her profession, that she’s being too extreme, and that he doesn’t want her to be either Tess Harding or Tess Craig, but rather that she should be Tess Harding Craig instead. After Sam attacks the ship’s assistant with the champagne bottle to remind Tess that she needs to launch the ship, Tess and Sam embrace in the middle of the ship’s launch. A disappointing conclusion, one that carries elements of meanness and mistrust of Tess’s motivation and where she might be coming from. While it does not appear to be addressing Tess explicitly, it does appear to be expressing something about womanhood and how womanhood is supposed to look.
According to Hepburn and screenwriters Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin, the film’s original ending portrays Tess coming to a different kind of agreement than the one they had originally planned. Even though he’s meant to be covering a major fight (in fact, he’s taking a French course to help him blend in a little better with Tess’ world), Sam goes missing when he returns the youngster to the orphanage where he was raised. As a substitute for him, Tess goes to the gym and writes Sam’s article so that she may continue to be a “nice wife.” Sam responds with the same phrase, stating that he does not require her to be Tess Craig, but would prefer her to be Tess Harding Craig instead of Tess Craig.
When we take a look at these two alternative conclusions, we are given with two different justifications. As an example, the re-filmed finale portrays Tess Harding as the only problem, before devolving into a commentary on what should happen to women like Tess Harding, who can’t even cook breakfast for her husband. It puts her out of her comfort zone and paints her as a failure since she is unable to complete even the most basic of duties with ease.
Tess must be willing to completely give up her professional life in order to be redeemed and worthy of love and marriage. But, maybe even more disturbing, Tess remains entirely mute at the conclusion of the movie. He calmly and logically instructs her on what to do and how to live her life when she experiences a nervous breakdown. Afterwards, Sam (in a macho manner) beats the personification of Tess’ professional life into submission. Sam has found a solution to Tess’s professional dilemma, and he returns to a stunned and thankful Tess, who embraces him as the film comes to a close with a bear hug.
Tess is the only one who has an issue in this situation. She needs to be fixed, and she needs to be mended by her wiser, more sensible, and more grounded husband, who is the only one who can do it. She is depicted as powerless and despairing, and she relies on Sam to guide her in the right direction. Tess compromises in the original text, but that sacrifice does not imply that she must give up everything that is essential to her in the process. Actually, she is only able to effectively fill Sam’s shoes because of her own personality. As a result, the compromise is putting her own interests aside in order to serve the interests of someone else, for something “unimportant.”
It is selfless, yet it does not result in self-immolation. Perhaps more importantly, in the original conclusion, Sam attempts to reach a compromise as well, portraying the solution to their marital difficulties as something that must be completed as a team.
Let’s go back to Sam’s comment about Tess “not being a lady at all,” and consider how the meaning of that statement varies depending on whatever conclusion you choose. Together with the final ending, in which Tess wishes to quit her job in order to keep her husband, the line appears to be saying that Tess does not have the characteristics of a “proper” woman, that she has failed because she is unable to do the things that women are supposed to be able to do, and that she should change in order to become more like the other women. In other words, the film appears to be addressing the question: What is the value of a woman who can write a political column but can’t cook a simple sandwich? While I admire Tess for her efforts, I’ve never seen a toaster quite like the one she’s attempting to wrestle with.
When the original ending of the film is taken into consideration, the meaning of the sentence changes. It is not Sam’s statement about Tess being a “woman” that comes across as a statement about womanhood and femininity, or even about gender norms, but rather as a statement about the humanity that Tess loses when she places too much emphasis on the “important.”
There is no value judgment about what Tess is capable of or should be capable of “as a woman” in this story. Instead, the film focuses on the destruction she causes when she loses sight of what is truly important in her life. That is the distinction that exists between these two different ends and the stories that they tell about each other. Instead of a story about two people fighting to adapt to a marriage that neither of them had completely planned, the alternative ending relates the story of a woman who has flown too near to the sun and must be brought back down to earth before she can be welcomed.
According to Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Woman of the Year marked the beginning of a 26-year romantic relationship as well as their illustrious on-screen collaboration. They would go on to star in an additional eight films together, and their chemistry was always remarkable due to the balanced weight of their characters’ wills, skills, and abilities in each film.