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Spencer Tracy: A Life

Straightforward portrait of a complicated man

How much do you want to know about the actor Spencer Tracy, who appeared in 75 movies, won two Academy Awards and carried on a 26-year affair with Katharine Hepburn that was Hollywood’s worst-kept secret? Would you like to overhear a page-and-a-half’s worth of witty banter between Tracy and his pal Clark Gable? Me, too. Do you want to read a long excerpt from a smarmy speech made about Tracy when he received an honorary college degree? I thought not. Though often smart and absorbing, Spencer Tracy: A Life by James Curtis can’t seem to distinguish among sharp insights, amusing asides and mind-numbing detail.

Born in 1900, Tracy was the product of a mixed marriage: Irish-Catholic father and Protestant mother. He grew up in Milwaukee, where he indulged his hambone early, as a child magician. Following a Jesuit high school education, he served in the Navy and spent a year at Wisconsin’s Ripon College, where he took up acting. He showed enough promise to get into the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, where his predecessors included Cecil B. DeMille, William Powell and Edward G. Robinson.

After a year at the academy, Tracy was on the move again, honing his craft in stock companies — groups in which the same deck of actors is shuffled from one play to the next. He married Louise Treadwell, a more experienced member of one such company, in 1923. Their marriage reached a crossroads a couple of years later when Louise discovered that their infant son, John, was deaf. She gave up her career to take care of the boy and, later, to improve the lot of deaf children and their parents.

Her husband poured his energy into his acting, which paired him with many beautiful young women (a fair number of whom he bedded). Though Tracy was haunted by the notion that his faithlessness had somehow caused John’s affliction, Curtis maintains that it was a simple case of unlucky inheritance: Both Spencer and Louise carried the same “mutated gene.”

Tracy went on drinking binges that rendered him insulting at best and violent at worst, but brother could he act! After becoming a star on Broadway, Tracy made a successful screen test in New York. He moved his family to Hollywood in 1930; five years later, with some 25 movies on his résumé, he signed a seven-year contract with M-G-M. In 1937 and 1938, he won consecutive best-actor Oscars, for Captains Courageous and Boys Town.

Tracy exuded such power that he dominated almost every scene in which he appeared. Not forcibly, though. For one thing, as Curtis notes, he was neither “textbook handsome nor bigger than life.” And Tracy was well aware of these limitations. When a theater manager fired him early in his career, the man had tried to soften the blow, saying he wouldn’t be surprised if “someday you became a great motion picture star.” “How the hell can I do that,” Tracy fired back, “if I don’t have any sex appeal?”

Spencer Tracy compensated by thoroughly inhabiting his every movie role. Seldom does the strained artifice resorted to by lesser actors mar a Tracy performance. He was widely praised as a “natural” talent — yet Curtis begs to differ. According to those who worked with Tracy, he devoted long hours to getting to know his character, mastering his lines and trying out gestures: Once the film rolled, little was left to chance. Even so, he liked to give his lines offbeat inflections—a quirk that director: “Eddie Dmytryk picked up on when he likened Tracy’s phrasings to those of a great jazz singer.”

For all his individual excellence, however, Tracy never made a great movie. Much of the blame falls on M-G-M, the glossiest of studios but also the most sentimental. Curtis sums up the typical M-G-M release as “festooned with balloons and good cheer and enveloped in a kind of candy apple coating.” Then, too, late in his career Tracy grew careless about his choice of roles: He played one too many lovable curmudgeons.

As for the Tracy-Hepburn relationship, in Curtis’s view it was surprisingly one-sided. Hepburn projected the image of a proto-feminist aristocrat, but she so adored Tracy that he got away with cheating on her (he even struck her on occasion). Tracy’s Catholic beliefs combined with Louise’s enjoyment of the privileges of being Mrs. Spencer Tracy to rule out a divorce. But it was Hepburn, not Louise, who was on hand when Tracy died of a heart attack in 1967. (The pair had just wrapped their final Tracy-Hepburn vehicle, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.)

Tracy loved dishy gossip, and he told a good story — among friends. With strangers, he tended to be shy and withdrawn. Unless he had been drinking, that is, in which case he quickly became unmanageable. From anyone not a member of his inner circle, the appropriate response to “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” would have been, “I hope it’s not Spencer Tracy.”

Dennis Drabelle, a contributing editor of The Washington Post Book World, writes frequently on film.