Throughout much of his career, Spencer Tracy was one of America’s most successful and beloved film stars. A poll published by Fortune in 1939 showed him to be America’s “favorite movie actor” (Clark Gable came in second). He received nine best-actor Oscar nominations and won in two consecutive years, a feat only one other performer, Tom Hanks, has since achieved.
But while a handful of Tracy’s 75 pictures continue to be shown on TV fairly often, most of them—including Captains Courageous and Boys Town, the films for which he won Oscars in 1937 and 1938—are all but unknown to contemporary audiences. He is probably best known as an appendage to Katharine Hepburn, with whom he made nine movies and conducted a more-or-less open affair from 1941 to his death in 1967. Indeed, the Tracy-Hepburn romance is the only thing that the average under-50 moviegoer knows about the man whom John Ford called “the best actor we ever had.”
Although Tracy is not the only star of his generation whose reputation has gone into eclipse, he may well be the one who has fallen farthest from grace. So it is surprising that he should now be the subject of a primary-source biography whose proportions are better suited to a head of state than a movie star. At 1,001 closely printed pages, James Curtis’s Spencer Tracy: A Biography (Knopf) is by far the longest book about a film actor that I have ever read or heard of. As is too often the case with biographies of such extreme length, it is also pedestrian in style and discursive to the point of occasional unreadability.
To be sure, anyone with enough patience to slog through this elephantine volume will come away knowing all there is to know about Tracy’s tempestuous private life, including the details of his relationship with Hepburn, which has long been the subject of uninformed gossip, no small amount of which has hitherto been passed off as scholarship by celebrity biographers. (Among other things, Curtis has established beyond reasonable doubt that neither Tracy nor Hepburn was homosexual or bisexual, as had been widely rumored in recent years.) But Curtis is as devoid of critical perspective as he is of a sense of proportion, and it is only between the lines of Spencer Tracy: A Biography that readers will learn the answer to this puzzling question: Why did so great a star vanish so quickly from the pantheon of American popular culture?
Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1900, Tracy went directly from Broadway to Hollywood without having first established himself as a stage star. Although he studied at New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts and spent eight years acting in stock companies and on Broadway, his theatrical career was for the most part undistinguished. When he began making films in 1930, it was as a supporting actor who was usually typecast in James Cagney-like “Irish mug” parts. Only two of his early films, William K. Howard’s The Power and the Glory and Frank Borzage’s Man’s Castle (both 1933), are memorable, and it was not until 1935, when he was signed by MGM, that he started to climb the ladder to stardom.
Stocky and unglamorous, with a voice that was attractively rough-grained but not sufficiently distinctive to be easily imitated, he was anything but a natural romantic lead. But MGM helped him to develop the on-screen persona with which he would forever after be identified, that of an unpretentious “regular guy,” who, while in no way humorless, took a fundamentally serious view of life.
In a stroke of genius, the studio cast him as a priest in San Francisco (1936) and Boys Town, thereby emphasizing the natural gravity of his personality. Though Tracy was adept at comic roles (especially when playing opposite Katharine Hepburn) and knew how to enliven dramatic parts with the twinkle of levity, he soon came to be seen as a reassuringly solid, almost fatherly character whose mere presence inspired confidence.
The underlying seriousness of Tracy’s on-screen characterizations reflected the deep-seated melancholy of his real-life personality. He was an Irish Catholic whom women found enormously attractive and who in turn found it impossible to be faithful to Louise, his wife. In 1924 he fathered a son who was congenitally deaf. Concluding that young John’s handicap was God’s punishment for his own sins, Tracy began drinking to numb his guilt. Within a few years he was a full-blown alcoholic who went on periodic, sometimes violent binges.
At the same time, he continued to engage in affairs, some of them highly publicized, and after he met Katharine Hepburn, he became permanently estranged from his wife—though neither Tracy nor Louise, who was also a Catholic, would agree to a civil divorce.
Hepburn was by all accounts besotted with Tracy. Their mutual attraction is evident on screen, especially in Pat and Mike (1952), the best of the half-dozen romantic comedies that they made together, in which he plays an English-mangling sports promoter and she an upper-class golfer whose leggy beauty inspires him to remark, “Not much meat on her, but what’s there is cherce!”
Tracy was briefly involved with various other women during their liaison, but he seems to have been genuinely devoted to Hepburn, and her steadfast love brightened his later years. He continued, though, to believe himself responsible for his son’s deafness, and there can be no doubt that these feelings of guilt were in large part responsible for the chronic alcoholism that ultimately shortened his life.
Tracy rarely let his drinking interfere with his work, and Spencer Tracy: A Biography is full of heartfelt tributes to his craftsmanship. But while his colleagues were awed by his skill, none of them was able to explain how he did what he did. Even an articulate actor like Hume Cronyn was at a loss to explain Tracy’s method, save in terms so vague as to be almost useless:
He appeared to do nothing. He listened, he felt, he said the words without forcing anything. There were no extraneous movements. Whatever was provoked in him emotionally was seen in his eyes.
Virtually everyone who worked with Tracy echoed Cronyn’s comments, speaking enviously of the expressiveness of his rock-steady, open-eyed gaze and of the way in which he avoided making superfluous physical movements, knowing that to do so would diminish the strength of his on-screen presence. As Winston Churchill said of Lord Cromer, the British diplomat: “He was never in a hurry, never anxious to make an effect or sensation. He sat still and men came to him.”
In addition, Tracy was a virtuoso of pacing. John Sturges, who directed him in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), was one of the few people to whom the actor is known to have spoken in any detail about his technique, and Sturges’s account of their conversations on the subject is uniquely revealing:
Perhaps most important of all from Spence’s standpoint, he said, was where he should come on and where he should lay back. You can’t hit all the time. You can’t overwhelm all the time. And Spence would lay away until those moments when he felt he should come on.
Except for these moments, Tracy always underplayed his scenes. (He raises his voice only once in Bad Day at Black Rock.) “The way that man underplays everybody keeps the audience listening for him to speak,” Claudette Colbert said. Even in key scenes, he relied on understatement to make his points. In the words of Vincente Minnelli, who directed him in Father of the Bride (1950), “He knew how to throw the unimportant things away, and he knew how to create the illusion of throwing the important things away, too, so that they were inscribed on your mind.”
To the end of his career, Tracy was regarded by his colleagues as a master of the subtle art of acting for the camera. Why, then, has so much of his oeuvre been forgotten? One reason is that his acting was so unmannered and lacking in idiosyncrasy that he left behind no iconic, personality-driven performances like those of Gable in Gone with the Wind or Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Even more important, though, is that he spent the whole of his career appearing in films of widely variable quality, almost all of which are second-rate or worse.
According to Curtis, Tracy made such movies at first because he was anxious to provide for his handicapped son and, later, to support the John Tracy Clinic, a school for the deaf that his wife founded in 1942. To earn as much money as possible, he took whatever roles came his way. But even after he became a star, he consistently passed up opportunities to do more serious work. Not only did the film versions of William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust and Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables slip through his fingers, but he was unsuccessfully approached by the Theatre Guild about returning to the stage in George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple and creating the role of Con Melody, the drunken antihero of Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet.
One inevitably suspects that Tracy’s reluctance to extend himself was to blame for the fact that none of these ventures came to pass. It is revealing that, after 1935, he made only two dramatic films of any consequence in which he worked with screen directors of the first rank, Fury (1936, Fritz Lang) and The Last Hurrah (1958, John Ford), both of which are fatally marred by flawed scripts.
Hepburn, who once suggested that Tracy could have played “Shylock, or Lear, or Macbeth,” appears to have believed that it was laziness that kept him from doing so. In the words of a mutual friend: “She’s off doing Shakespeare, Spence is sitting by the pool. She often would say, ‘Spence has never reached his potential, but it’s his fault.’”
But Tracy’s defective taste was surely as much to blame as his lack of ambition. Significantly, the only stage appearance he made after 1930 was in Robert Sherwood’s inconsequential The Rugged Path (1945). Such message-laden plays were his idea of serious theater, just as his decision to star in Sturges’s ponderous film version of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1958) is evidence of his liking for similarly earnest middlebrow screen vehicles.
It says everything about Tracy that all but one of the five major films that he made in the last seven years of his life were produced and directed by Stanley Kramer, who was as fond as his star of such high-minded, heavy-handed exercises in cinematic uplift as Inherit the Wind, the 1960 film version of the Jerome Lawrence–Robert E. Lee stage play about the Scopes trial, and Judgment at Nuremburg (1961), a three-hour-long fictionalization of the Nuremberg trials.
OF the movies Tracy made in the years of his ascendancy, only one aspires to and achieves the indisputably high quality of the best work of Bogart, James Stewart, John Wayne, and Cary Grant, the four permanent male icons of the studio-system era. That film is Bad Day at Black Rock, a wide-screen ensemble melodrama in which he plays a one-armed veteran who comes to a tiny desert town to investigate the mysterious death of a Japanese-American immigrant. Despite the screenwriter Millard Kaufman’s Popular Front–style moralizing, the film is a tautly wrought showcase for the sharply characterized acting of Ernest Borgnine, Walter Brennan, Lee Marvin, and Robert Ryan—and of Tracy, who effortlessly upstages them all.
For the rest, there is an endless stream of movies that are by turns undemandingly light and tediously sententious, and in which one is at all times aware that their star is better than his material. To be sure, Tracy was capable of making an impression in the worst of pictures, as he does in the seven-minute monologue that ends Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Kramer’s studiously liberal-minded 1967 “comedy” about a biracial marriage.
In that speech, an implicit declaration of love for Hepburn, his co-star, one sees exactly what he meant when he declared that his studies at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts had taught him “the value of simplicity and sincerity, unembellished and unintellectualized.”
But in the long run, even the biggest movie stars are known less for the quality of their individual performances than for the overall quality of the films in which they appear. That is why Spencer Tracy, for all his great gifts, has faded from the collective memory of American filmgoers and why he will likely be remembered, James Curtis notwithstanding, as a footnote to the history of Hollywood’s golden age. Even in the movie business, taste matters.