Sometime this past summer, while in Muscatine having lunch during a bike ride, Neighbor Tim asked me who my favorite actor was. I immediately said Spencer Tracy. He seemed genuinely surprised. I don't think he was talking old school, but a bit more current than a guy who won his first Oscar in 1937. He went on to say his favorite was Tom Hanks and he thought I would say him as well. Who can argue with Hanks? If you are still unsure after Philadelphia and Saving Private Ryan, catch the last 10 minutes of Captain Phillips for perhaps the best acting I have ever seen. Nope. Can't argue with Hanks.
But there is something about Tracy, too. I have liked him for years and years. Tried to name Kenzie Spencer but was overruled. About 5 years ago I got a gift certificate from Barnes and Noble. I was aware of James Curtis's Spencer Tracy A Biography that had just been published a year before. It seemed only natural that I'd buy this and keep it on the shelf in eager anticipation. I decided to take it to my cabin in the woods in Emerald City to read and, coincidentally, I started reading it from the first night on my first visit and wrapped it up a couple days before my last stay there.
At just a page or two over 900 pages, this was no short reading experience. It was, like one might expect from a biography, chronological, to a fault. Starting with his birth from a middle class Catholic family in Milwaukee, it traced Tracy's life through his stock acting days, through each movie and his convoluted, and life-long marriage with Louise and 30 year affair with Katherine Hepburn, to his last film, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner in 1967.
That film along with Boys Town, both Edison pictures, Bad Day at Black Rock, State of the Union, Adam's Rib, Judgement at Nuremburg, The Last Hurrah and Inherit The Wind and I think we have a film compendium that exceeds Hanks. Add Fury, The Old Man and the Sea, Captains Courageous, Father of the Bride, Tortilla Flats and many many others, and you have a full body of work. Two Oscars and nine nominations ranks him at the top for acting performances.
But what was Tracy like when he wasn't acting. Frankly, he was often a mess. An alcoholic binge drinker he was a problem for the studios and they usually assigned an employee to be with him so he wouldn't start drinking. He could go years without anything then fall face-first into a week-long bender. He was insecure, riddled with guilt because his son was born deaf and he thought it a punishment from God. He had numerous Hollywood affairs. At one point late in life a friend brought him a picture of many stars seated in one spot. You might have seen this picture once, it was MGM's attempt to get everyone one in a single picture. All he could do when he saw it was move his finger from female star to the next mumbling "her", "her", "her".
And then he met Katherine Hepburn. Here we have a strange transformation. Kate was a progressive, strong, independent lady who whenever she was with Spence would completely change to submissive, adoring protector.
They called him the Pope. George M. Cohen called him the best actor he ever saw. Bogart, Gable, Crawford, Cagney, Ford and Widmark all claimed he was the best of their generation. There are several methods of acting, but Tracy developed his own. Lets call it the Tracy method. It was simply a natural style. Hume Cronyn said this. "His method seemed as simple as it is difficult to achieve. He appeared to do nothing. He listened, he felt, he said the words without forcing anything." It was listening and reacting skills. In truth he practised his lines and his reactions meticulously before each performance.
He died young but looked 20 years older. He was only 67. His heart was congested. He suffered other ailments and too many drunken binges took its toll and he died 17 days after completing Guess Who's Coming To Dinner.
I am still an admirer of Tracy. The book didn't change that, he was just like the rest of us - too this, too that. But those soliloquy's in his films, it's like writers tried to give him at least one long speech per film just so he could stretch his wings. Go watch the last 10 minutes of GWCTD, and then watch Hank's Captain Phillips. Two consummate pros at work.
The book was a thorough if often dry account of a mountain of information. Curtis doesn't spend much time in evaluating or examination: he simply included all the info. Would I recommend it? I wouldn't not recommend it: reading almost any biography is worthy of time. I'd like to tackle The Wright Brothers next. Do I know more about Tracy, yes. DO I really really really know Tracy now. Can't say that I do. The book neither enhanced him nor diminished him in my eyes.
The best line in the book concerned Kate Hepburn. When Tracy's daughter wanted to seek out Hepburn after Spence's death to get more insight on his Dad a relative said to her, "Watch out for Kate. She'll knock you down just so she can pick you up."
Postscript : some things I didn't know or learned.
1. In the early days when you signed on to a film it was your responsibilty to get your own clothes. The script would tip you off on all the different scenes and changes, but it was up to you to get them. Exceptions were made for costume dramas.
2. In all the films that called for a hat Tracy used the same one throughout his career.
3. Out of respect for his wife, Hepburn didn't go to Tracy's funeral.
4. His car for the last 10 years was a '58 Thunderbird.
Tracy with deaf son, John
5. The Tracy Clinic in Los Angeles was created by Louise Tracy, Spencer's wife, after their son John was born deaf. It was and still is a leading center for diagnostic, treatment and education for deaf children.
6. He fought his weight his whole life.