Which leaves us with books as the last item of mass culture that can be realisitcally reviewed by me. I wouldn’t call myself a voracious reader, but I believe I do get through more books than the average schmuck. Like a lot of people, internet bullshit has cut deeply into my reading time. Who wants to crack a musty old book when there are fucked-up cakes to look at?
The first item on the Holy Bee Recommends list is the over-dramatically titled Spencer Tracy: Tragic Idol, by Bill Davidson. If you asked any actor working from the late 1930s to the mid 1960s “Who is the finest film actor around?”, most of them would unhesitatingly respond “Spencer Tracy.” The first actor to win back-to-back Oscars (for 1937’s Captains Courageous and 1938’s Boys Town), Tracy was never #1 in audience polls like John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart, but among those working in his profession, he was considered the best.
But Tracy seems fated not to be remembered as well as many of his co-stars by modern audiences, which is sadly ironic because Tracy may have been the first film actor to act in what we would consider a modern style. Unlike the stagey, larger-than-life performances of other actors in mid-20th century films, a Tracy performance could play, unaltered, in a 2009 film and not stand out as mannered or old-fashioned. He inhabited his character without drawing attention to his own “star” persona, which went against the style that prevailed in the 1930s and 1940s. “Comedians are always doing impressions of guys like me and Bogart,” said James Cagney. “Nobody does Tracy.” Every moment was underplayed and thoughtful, built around glances and expressions, and a speaking style that was down-to-earth and absolutely real. No fodder for impressionists and comedians there. That lack of imitatable quirks and mannerisms is probably a factor in why he’s so little known by modern audiences. (Case in point: Jimmy Stewart, who is distratctingly terrible in almost everything I’ve seen him in, is easy to imitate, and thus, still revered.)
Despite Tracy’s quiet style, he managed to dominate his scenes, even alongside noted scene-dominators like Clark Gable, Frederic March, Robert Ryan, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and the formidable Katharine Hepburn. (“I think I’m a little too tall for you,” said Hepburn when they first met. Tracy, predictably, said nothing. But screenwriter Joe Mankiewicz, who had just introduced them, said “Don’t worry. He’ll cut you down to size.”)
Just as he had refused to showboat in the hammy 30s and 40s, he had no patience for the “method” movement of the 50s and 60s, with all its psychological underpinnings and questions of “motivation.” “Learn your lines and don’t bump into the furniture,” was his famous advice to young actors. He even lost patience with the over-analytical Hepburn on occasion. (“Goddamn it, Katie. Just say the words the writer wrote and do what Stanley tells you to do. Quit talking like you’ve got a goddamn feather up your ass.”) What there was of Tracy’s “technique” was entirely instinctual.
He even managed to make the most stage-bound of acting traditions, the monologue, seem fresh and natural. Most notable in this area are some of his later performances: his cross-examination as the pro-evolution defense cousel in Inherit The Wind, his handing down of the decision in Judgment At Nuremberg, and, especially, his devastating defense of true love in the dated-but-still-good Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, his final film appearance. Everyone who was on the set when it was being filmed (and every audience member who has seen the film since) could see clearly that he was directing his words to longtime partner Hepburn. Tracy died seventeen days after completing the monologue scene. Hepburn refused to ever watch the finished film.
What’s the tragedy in Tragic Idol? Alcoholism. Tracy was one of Hollywood’s most notorious drunks. Or at least notorious to insiders. Unlike carousing, good-time partiers like John Barrymore and Errol Flynn who used their heavy drinking to further their public personas, Tracy’s drinking was semi-private, and came in massive blackout binges where he would lose all control. Studio publicists covered up a trail of smahed-up hotel furniture, countless broken dishes and plate-glass windows, injured journalists and co-stars, and a myriad of health problems. Everyone close to him knew of his patented “two-week lunch breaks,” where he would disappear from a film currently in production, check into a hotel with a suitcase full of whiskey bottles, strip down, climb in the bathtub, and proceed to drink himself insensible. When the whiskey ran out, he rinsed himself off, checked out with a suitcase full of empty bottles, and returned to work on the film. Tracy’s liver and kidneys were shot by the mid-1950s, and the fact that he lived until 1967 was credited to Katharine Hepburn, who essentially gave up her career for almost ten years to care for him.
It is a shame that Tracy has not received the first-class biography treatment that some of his peers have gotten. Guys like Grant and Gable (neither of whom could touch Tracy as an actor) have had multiple, deeply-researched historical tomes written about them, and the Sperber-Lax bio of Humphrey Bogart moved me to tears. What does Tracy get? A couple of gossipy co-biographies pairing him with Katharine Hepburn, implying he was not interesting enough to carry a bio on his own. And the subject of this blog entry, Bill Davidson’s slightly hack-y, show-bizzy 1987 effort. Davidson is not a writer with pretensions of literary greatness (he’s also cranked out a book on Gary Coleman), but his prose is serviceable, and at a relatively breezy 232 pages, I was able to finish the book in a single afternoon. Davidson has also been a Hollywood hanger-on long enough to get first-hand interviews with people like James Cagney, directors Edward Dmytryk and Stanley Kramer, among several others. Rather than incorporate these interviews into his own writing, Davidson simply plops large quoted passages into the narrative. A very lazy technique, but it does let a lot of the story unfold in people’s own words. The book, for all its flaws, is still recommended as a good introduction to Tracy’s life and work, along with a viewing of Bad Day at Black Rock (one of the best crime-dramas ever), Adam’s Rib (the best Tracy-Hepburn pairing, IMHO), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (which demonstrates Tracy’s ability to loom over an entire film despite a smaller role), the original Father of the Bride(showing off Tracy’s skill at light comedy beyond his team-ups with Hepburn — his performance is the only thing funny on purpose in an otherwise embarassingly outdated film), and the films already mentioned above.
4 responses to “Holy Bee Recommends, #1: "Too ugly for a leading man, not ugly enough for a villain"”
Tracy was a fine actor, but a little boring. He always seemed old to me no matter what age, and his choice of roles didn’t help. As far as your slight of the “method”, it really has shaped film acting into what it is today. I would rather watch Brando or even Rod Steiger in their prime. Final judegemnt on Tracy: servicable.
I love me some Brando, but I’ve always been a little put off by the pretension and self-importance that seeps from most method actors. If it got results 100% of the time, I wouldn’t have a problem with it, but a method actor is just as likely to deliver a shitty performance as one who relies on natural skill and spontaneity. (Steiger is a good case in point.)
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