Spencer Tracy – The Actor’s Actor
“Just know your lines and don’t bump into the furniture!” he said, with his tongue in cheek about the secret of good acting. He neither had the glamour of a Clark Gable nor the rugged sex appeal of an Errol Flynn.
And yet, Spencer Tracy outshone almost everybody else during his day, and ruled the movie land as perhaps the most natural actor ever to walk left to right along the film frame.
His methods were simple but the effect was spectacular. Give him any role – gangster, priest, sailor, lawyer, irate father – he did it naturally, brilliantly. No wonder Bette Davis, never free with praise, said of him, “Oh, he is the actor’s actor.” He was nominated nine times for the Best Actor Oscar, a record and won it twice in succession – equaled only by Tom Hanks more than 50 years later. That was the great star, a stalwart described as operating on “a plateau beyond greatness”- Spencer Tracy.
Spencer Bonaventure Tracy (April 5, 1900 – June 10, 1967) was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His father of Irish Catholic stock worked as a sales manager for a trucking company and wished that his son should qualify himself as a scholar and take up some ‘learned’ profession. The last thing he expected was his son to become an actor – a calling considered in those days fit enough only for punks, pimps, prostitutes and such poor specimens of humanity.
Tracy was no great shakes in school so when he was seventeen he abandoned it and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After a period of ‘moaning at the bar and at sea’ he got his discharge and joined Ripon College in Wisconsin. He had a vague ambition of becoming a plastic surgeon. But soon it evaporated into thin air. In college he took part in debates and found he had a fine carrying voice and a way with words. Some professors felt Tracy would do well on the stage and hinted that he should take a crack at Broadway. Tracy knew he was no Adonis, but the idea appealed to him, and he was willing to give it more than a mere try.
So in 1922 he took the train to New York, destination Broadway. No wonder his fond father was shocked by his son’s decision and as he gazed at his departing darling, his eyes were filled more with pity than anger and scorn.
Tracy took a test at the American Academy of Dramatics and was delighted when accepted. He threw himself heart and hat into his new vocation, learning the alpha and beta of acting, voice culture, emoting, posture and poise. Meanwhile he waited for roles to roll his way. Somewhat ironically for such a whale of a career, Tracy’s first role on the stage was a walk-on with no dialogue. Tracy eked out a precarious living doing ‘also-ran’ roles in road shows and stock companies for nearly three years. It was tough life indeed for Tracy; moving from town to town and sleeping in flea-rich, foul-smelling lodgings. During this period, he impressed a well-known stage actress, Selena Boyle who got Tracy the second male lead in ‘Yellow’ attracting considerable attention and in ‘Last Mile’ (1929) he hit the headlines as a villain.
By now movies had begun to talk and Tracy was drawn to the celluloid muse. He travelled to Hollywood and four major studios tested him for the screen with no good results. Disappointed and disillusioned, he almost quit when John Ford, the dean among celluloid poets happened to see one of Tracy’s stage performances. He could see the talent at once and persuaded film producer Win Sheehan to give Tracy a role in ‘Up the River’, a comedy about prison life making his début with another legend in the making – Humphrey Bogart.
‘Up the River’ (1930) was a success and Fox hurried to hook Tracy with a 5-year contract at $1000 a week. Fox cast him in mostly in bad guy roles which worried Tracy who had no intention of being typecast. But the front office Johnnies turned a deaf ear to his pleas. To them he was a saleable commodity as a villain, and they had no intention of bothering about an actor’s pet theories about his own ability.
In 1933, Tracy replaced the troublesome James Cagney in Warner’s melodrama ‘20,000 Years in Sing Sing’ enhanced his fame and received a further boost in ‘The Power and the Glory’ (1933). “Spencer Tracy’s railroad president is one of the fullest characterisations ever achieved on the screen,” wrote the leading film critic, William Troy.
Now Tracy gained fame and Fox increased his salary manifold but his domestic life was none too happy. Tracy married Louise Tredwell, a fellow stage actress in 1923 and fathered two sons. One of them, John was born deaf, and this mishap hit Tracy like a power-driven sledge-hammer. He developed a deep guilt complex which shook the foundations of his marriage. As a Catholic with divorce out of the question, he separated from his wife.
He drank heavily and came loaded to the set. His alcoholic binge, know-all stubbornness and sullen stares did not endear him to Fox folks and they fired him when he got arrested on a drinking spree. Tracy knocked on the MGM doors the same day. Hollywood Rajah,
Louis B. Mayer was not keen on taking on Tracy. ‘A problem star with no sex appeal’, Mayer said, but Irving Thalberg saw in Tracy the makings of a superstar and persuaded Mayer to rope in the ‘squat, no good, drinking actor!’ Within a year Tracy proved the far-seeing Thalberg right. In 1938 he was cast as the innocent victim of a kidnapping charge in a movie on anti-mob study.
Fritz Lang handled Tracy superbly and under his skilful direction Tracy blossomed forth beautifully. ‘Fury’ became a masterpiece as Tracy showed his class again in ‘San Francisco’ (1936) as a priest, pitted against the handsome superstar Clark Gable.
In 1937 he played a salty fisherman in ‘Captains Courageous’ directed by Victor Fleming. Tracy’s gestures, subdued yet strong, meaningful glances brought him an Oscar. He set a record when he won the Oscar for his brilliant acting as a soul-reforming priest in ‘Boy’s Town’ the following year. His name became box office magic.
Garson Kanin, the well-known screen-writer-director had been toying with the idea of pairing Tracy and the brilliant actress, Katharine Hepburn. The two were poles apart in every respect and it was a daring move indeed.
On being introduced, Kate Hepburn quipped, “Mr. Tracy. I am afraid I may be too tall for you.”
He shot back, “Don’t worry, Miss Hepburn, I’ll cut you down to my size!” Thus began their friendship which took strong roots as seasons rolled by.
Their very first film together, ‘Woman of the Year’ (1942) made the pair became a box-office draw. Till Tracy’s death did them apart, they worked together in eight more films like ‘State of the Union’ (1948) and ‘Adam’s Rib’ (1949).
As the Fifties dawned, Tracy soared higher. He did an irate father‘s role in ‘Father of the Bride’ (1950) along with Elizabeth Taylor.
His portrayal of a much harassed, much-creased father moved every forty plus male. Tracy realised he was no longer young and he had no illusions of remaining young! He learnt to age gracefully, and played middle-aged roles. In each movie he did a different type of characterisation each time showing his wide range, versatility and amazing talent.
In ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ (1955) he played a one-armed veteran looking for the father of a war hero. He developed a characteristic walk for this role – firm, fluid, with a shake of the head – a splendid touch that was imitated with great success by a prominent South Indian film idol! Not surprisingly Tracy won an award for his stunning performance at the Cannes Film Festival.
During the filming of a Western, ‘Tribute to a Badman’ (1956) Tracy and director Robert Wise did not see eye to eye on many points and a reconciliation could not be effected. Exasperated, MGM terminated his services – a move so bold that it rocked the movie Mecca hard!
Tracy seethed with rage, and worked for others, including Fox. Though he was at the height of his fame, his-health gave him more wrinkles and lines. He could not keep down his drinking and had to slow down the pace of his work.
When Hemingway’s Nobel Prize novel ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ (1958) was taken up for filming, Tracy was the foremost choice to play the lead role. In spite of Tracy’s wonderful portrayal it failed at the box office and was dubbed ‘The Old Man Into the Sea’.
During the Sixties he found himself in tune with producer-director, Stanley Kramer for whom he did quite a few films like ‘Inherit the Wind’ (1960), ‘Judgement at Nurembourg’ (1961) and that box office bonanza, ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World’ (1963) as a disillusioned, gritty police officer.
Tracy was now sicker than ever and went into fits of deep depression as Kate Hepburn looked after him, living in a guest house at a ranch owned by his friend, director George Cukor.
In 1967 Stanley Kramer took up a controversial theme – interracial love, and prevailed upon Tracy to play the role of the father of the white girl falling in love with a black man. Kate Hepburn played his wife while Sidney Poiter did the black man’s role.
Tracy put forth his best and essayed a difficult and unsympathetic role with rare artistry and ability. ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ (1967) fumed out to be a hit and Tracy’s performance received rave notices. But sadly Tracy did not live to see the success.
Soon after shooting was completed, Tracy suffered a massive heart attack and died on 10 June 1967, receiving a posthumous Oscar nomination for his last and lasting performance.
As an actor, Tracy had few equals. He lived every role he did with no hint of ‘hammlng’. As Cukor put it, “Spencer was creative but he did not do all this business of going into things and examining themselves which I think lets a lot of magic out.”
Spencer didn’t articulate his lines over and over because he knew it would kill all freshness and spontaneity. He had a sense of improvisation that great film acting has as he made every gesture eloquent. Often he drew out of his own experiences… He does not act… he does!”
Like most stars Tracy had his own share of ego, normally spelt in capitals but unlike most, he was no skirt chaser. Later his association with Kate Hepburn brought him solace and comfort and she stood by him strongly. Both never spoke out about their relationship and when Garson Kanin wrote a book about them, ‘Tracy and Hepburn’ Hepburn objected to the book calling it perverse and untrue. However her love for him was 24-carat real.
Like our very own Sanjiv Kumar, Spencer Tracy was one of the greatest actors of all times, the likes of whom would not be seen for a long time to come.