Monday, 17 October 2011
My review. Published Sunday Times, October 16, 2011
Spencer Tracy: A Biography, by James Curtis
Hutchinson, £25, 1001pp
Despite his prodigious screen talents, Spencer Tracy has never been accorded the iconic status of his contemporaries. He wasn’t dashing like Errol Flynn, heroic like John Wayne, smooth like Cary Grant.
Squat and square-faced, Tracy appeared older than his years, his latter days employed as Hollywood’s grumpy old man — white-hair, jaunty fedora, harrumphing about his daughter’s nuptials (Father Of The Bride, 1950) or his daughter’s miscegenous nuptials (Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?, 1967).
Nonetheless, in his time, Tracy was one of the[ital] biggest box office draws — Fox, then MGM, capitalising on his rugged, natural, everyman charm and seemingly effortless versatility. He was at home in drama (Inherit The Wind, 1960), comedy (Adam's Rib, 1949), in uniform (Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, 1944), or out (The Old Man And The Sea, 1958).
As someone who had toyed with joining the priesthood, he was not averse to a dog collar. As Father Flanagan in Boys Town, 1938, Tracy won the second of his back-to-back Best Actor Oscars, following Captains Courageous (1937), a feat of prize-bagging equalled only by Tom Hanks nearly sixty years later.
Unlike his friend Humphrey Bogart with Casablanca, it is perhaps Tracy’s lack of a signature role that has caused him to be defined instead by his relationship with Katharine Hepburn. Onscreen, they made a string of pictures together, starting with Woman Of The Year (1942). Offscreen, their liaison lasted till Tracy’s death in 1967. Though an open secret within showbiz, Tracy maintained his sham of a marriage to Louise Treadwell Tracy, forbidden by his Catholicism to divorce.
It was Hepburn who prompted this book, says Curtis. There are 25 serious biographies on her, nothing definitive on him[ital]. And so here we are, this great doorstop, an exhaustively researched work drawn from diaries, correspondence, studio archives, interviews and other records, largely curated by Tracy’s daughter, Susie.
If you’re in any doubt about the degree of scrutiny, check the irritable fifth day of April, 1938, Tracy’s 38th birthday, in which Curtis records that the actor “developed a mysterious itch” in the rectal area. This is an author who truly probes his subject.
Tracy seems tortured on every level. There was self-loathing over his own success, gained from a job meant for “sissies”. (Tracy never wore make-up. He conspired to have a hernia operation to avoid acceptance of his first Oscar. He resolutely refused to work after 4pm.) Moreover, he was racked with religious guilt over his son, John, born congenitally and profoundly deaf.
And the root of that guilt? An awful lot of sin. For, behind the Ordinary Joe act peddled to the public, Tracy goes down in Tinseltown lore as a serial womaniser and one of its most notorious drunks.
As a partisan biographer, Curtis sanitises the indiscretions, though in one amusing vignette, the older Tracy gazes misty-eyed at a commemorative photograph of the early MGM players, before stabbing a finger at the ranks of starlets to indicate, “Her, her, her and her.”
His conquests included Loretta Young, Gene Tierney, Ingrid Bergman, Hedy Lamarr and Joan Crawford. But no one was off limits (“Days of drinking had left him belligerent,” recalls Myrna Loy, casually. "He made his usual play for me”). Hepburn, convinced that Tracy was still carrying on with Bergman behind her[ital] back, stalked him round the grounds of the Beverly Hills Hotel with a loaded shotgun.
Curtis' book doesn’t ease up on the boozing. "He turned out to be a real bastard. When he drank he was mean," remembers Crawford. Whole pictures (like The Seventh Cross, 1944) would be shut down while Tracy embarked on one of his trademark benders, sometimes for days on end, only to be tracked down, comatose in some hotel room, brothel or drunk tank. "I don't now where the hell we were," Tracy remarks of an extended absence from Test Pilot (1938) in the company of Clark Gable. Though usually they were lone sessions, a pathetic Tracy lugging a suitcase full of scotch.
Today, Tracy’s alcoholism would treated as an illness. Certainly, Tracy wrestled its cruel grip, lasting twenty months on the wagon before noting in his diary of August 20, 1937, “Spoilt it all.” In May 1945, after an arrest in Manhattan for being drunk and disorderly, tumbling out of a cab in the company of a prostitute, MGM had him forcibly restrained and hospitalised. It didn’t work. For a while he was hooked on Benzedrine.
The biography unfolds like a movie. We first meet Tracy in 1923 en route to summer stock in New York state, where he espies the aspiring actress who would become his long-suffering wife. From there it's flashback to Milwaukee 1900 and Tracy’s birth into a family of railway workers, “lace curtain Irish”. Patriotically, he joined the navy at eighteen only to see out the fag end of World War One in a training station. College led to drama school. After that came theatre, then the movies, making his debut in John Ford’s Up The River (1930).
So mammoth is Curtis’ biography that Hepburn doesn’t enter the picture until after the intermission. “Spence” had been introduced to “Kath” at MGM by director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. The willowy actress apologised for wearing heels. “Don’t worry,” quipped Mankiewicz. “He’ll cut you down to size”. And he did. They were an odd couple, the working class Irish Midwesterner and the haughty New England blueblood. And if it wasn’t the most pacific of couplings, it stood the test of time. “I always liked bad eggs,” she said. “Always[ital].”
It is unthinkable today, of course, that Tracy and Hepburn could have kept the lid on it for so long. So untouchable were they that the columnists simply entered into a kind of omertà. Until — tellingly — a trip to London in 1954, when The People broke cover to “reveal” (thirteen years off the pace), “The secret romance of Spencer and Katie.”
Tracy was indulged for his manifold transgressions because, when the camera whirred, he always delivered. The book provides a wealth of information about his 78 films — his Cuban bar brawls with Hemingway; his coaxing of a performance out of even-more-of-a-drunk Montgomery Clift on Judgement At Nuremburg. On Bad Day At Black Rock, the Production Code censors were concerned that Tracy's character fought using an un-heroic, un-American karate chop. “What the hell?” spluttered producer Dore Schary. “The guy's got one arm.”
And then there is Tracy's valedictory performance in Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? on which he re-teamed with Hepburn. Uninsurable, riddled with heart disease and diabetes, lungs failing, Tracy delivers a closing eight-minute monologue, arguably his finest screen moment.
Tracy died sixteen days later, aged 67 (but looking 87). He was Oscar-nominated posthumously. Hepburn preserved the dignity of Mrs. Tracy by avoiding the funeral, though she telephoned later to wonder whether they could now be friends. "But I thought you were only a rumour," dismissed Louise.
Indeed, it is Louise Treadwell Tracy who emerges as the real star. Living separately for much of their marriage, tucked way on an Encino ranch while he whooped it up in Hollywood, she remained utterly loyal to her husband. "She respects my individuality," as he so gallantly put it. She achieved her own quiet distinction as a pioneering educator of deaf children.