Show biz has its share of “official” teams: Laurel & Hardy. Martin & Lewis. Sonny & Cher.
Then there’s Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn. From 1942 until Tracy’s death in 1967, they were an “unofficial” team in nine movies, and a devoted couple after hours. Maybe that’s why so many fans adore T&H’s joint projects the most, thanks to their conspicuous chemistry on screen and their legendary love story off it, which began with Woman of the Year.
You’ve probably heard the “Oh snap!” tale of their first meeting. It happened when Hepburn ran into Tracy and Woman producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz outside the MGM commissary prior to the start of shooting. Hepburn said, “Mr. Tracy, I believe I am too tall for you.” Mankiewicz quipped, “Don’t worry, Kate. He’ll cut you down to size.”
At the time, Tracy was 41 and Hepburn was 34. Hepburn was just coming off her triumphant comeback in The Philadelphia Story, and had hand-picked Tracy as her Woman co-star; Tracy, winner of back-to-back Oscars for Captains Courageous and Boys Town, was an A-List star at MGM, appearing opposite box-office catnip like Clark Gable and Lana Turner.
Writer Garson Kanin, who concocted the idea for the rom-com, later said that Tracy & Hepburn “met like two heads of state who had just established diplomatic relations. It was a tense, but also an exciting day all over the studio. Everyone was talking about the new project.” The next year, when the film was released, audiences would do the same.
On the surface, Tracy & Hepburn had little in common, beyond being natural redheads with exceptional acting talent. She was fiercely independent, outspoken, athletic, but with an aristocratic air; he was down-to-earth, moody, with a no-fuss performing style, yet battling inner demons (primarily alcohol). Perhaps it was precisely those differences that made their partnership work. Hepburn had always seemed to overpower her male co-stars. With Tracy, it was different. She was different. He brought out the vulnerability and sexuality in Hepburn that was sorely lacking in previous roles.
Check out the moment they meet in Woman: Tracy is Sam, a sportswriter and Hepburn is Tess, an international affairs columnist at the same newspaper. They spar in print, but in person? Sam walks into an office just as Tess is adjusting her hosiery on a very shapely leg. He’s speechless, smitten at first sight. She eyes him up and down like a search light. Or as writer Stephanie Zacharek puts it, “You couldn’t make the attraction between them more obvious if you drew cartoon lighting bolts around it.”
Zacharek adds that producer Mankiewicz observed something else when the two screen titans played off one another: “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. Then it hit me. My God, they were unconsciously imitating each other!”
Much as I love the picture, I hate the ending, reshot after the original one tanked in previews. Throughout the movie, Tess is a force of nature...until her marriage is on the ropes, and she botches making breakfast for Sam, a domestic disaster that gives Tess her comeuppance. Hepburn slammed the new finale as “the worst bunch of sh*t I’ve ever read.” Preach, sista! But don’t let that scare you off from savoring the magic of watching Tracy & Hepburn fall in love...in “reel” and real time.