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Exploring Spencer Tracy's enigmatic life

Mr. Spencer Tracy, left, and his wife Mrs.

Mr. Spencer Tracy, left, and his wife Mrs. Louise Tracy pose aboard a ship, April 21, 1939. Photo Credit: AP Photo/

SPENCER TRACY: A Biography, by James Curtis. Knopf, 1,024 pp., $39.95.

 

With back-to-back Oscars (for 1937's "Captains Courageous" and "Boys Town" the next year), seven more nominations and a range that covered characters from Father Flanagan to "Father of the Bride," it's no wonder that Spencer Tracy is often cited by film historians as the quintessential film actor. So why, until now, has there never been a definitive biography of him?

James Curtis, who previously tackled the complicated lives of comic W.C. Fields and directors Preston Sturges and James Whale, fills that void with this heavily researched and, at more than 1,000 pages, just plain heavy bio of Tracy. From his troubles with the bottle to his troubles with women -- not to mention detailed coverage of his nearly 75 feature films -- Curtis presents a magnificently fair and balanced portrait of an actor far more enigmatic than many of the characters he portrayed on-screen.

As a child in Milwaukee, Tracy indulged his theatrical side by putting on magic shows, so it was natural that he'd opt for a career on the stage. George M. Cohan, who taught him to squeeze everything he could out of each line, became a mentor.

In stock and regional companies, Tracy honed his craft and also met and married Louise Treadwell, a leading lady with the Leonard Wood Players in White Plains. The strains of marriage began early, as Tracy had a fling with his touring co-star while a pregnant Louise remained at home. A guilt-ridden Tracy always believed that his son John's deafness was punishment for committing adultery.

Not that it kept Tracy from straying later on during his days under contract, miserably, to Fox from 1930 to 1935, and then MGM, where his career flourished. Louise became such a doting mother to John and their daughter, Susie, that Tracy often felt like an outsider. While working on a film, he'd rent a hotel room, which made it easier to indulge in affairs with the likes of Joan Crawford, Loretta Young and Ingrid Bergman. When Joan Fontaine refused Tracy's advances because he was not only married but involved with Katharine Hepburn, he told her, "I can get a divorce whenever I want to, but my wife and Kate like things just as they are."

Tracy's Catholicism was the true reason he never got a divorce, even after he took up with Hepburn. His first meeting with Hepburn, however, would hardly be called love at first sight.

"She has dirty fingernails. Her hands are dirty. And she's bossy," Tracy reportedly told producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Added Hepburn: "I think he just found me rather unattractive and disappointing. And thought, 'My God, what am I stuck with?' "

They each found out making their first film together, "Woman of the Year" (1942). Their chemistry was something no scientist could duplicate, and it led to eight more screen teamings and a love affair that lasted until Tracy's death in 1967. Curtis gives us a detailed account of their sometimes volatile relationship without overly romanticizing it. That includes Tracy's occasional binges. If he hit Kate, she'd hit back. Curtis notes that Hepburn had a weakness for alcoholics, relishing her roles as lover and caregiver.

Sadly, the role of alcoholic was one that Tracy seemed destined for at birth. All of the Tracy men were afflicted with alcoholism, including his father, John, an Irish Catholic truck salesman, who once moved the family when Spencer was a child because the town they were in had too many bars.

Curtis also explores Tracy's philanthropic nature (he paid for a neighbor's medical schooling) and his many insecurities, from his abilities as an actor to his constant battle with weight (he was well past 200 pounds by the 1950s).

All of which makes this fascinating biography worth the long wait. Putting a twist on Tracy's famous quote from "Pat and Mike," his delicious 1952 pairing with Hepburn, there's much meat here, and it's all "cherce."

 

 

5 Tracy films you must see

Captains Courageous (1937). Sporting a Portuguese accent (or a close facsimile) and curly locks, Tracy played a rugged fisherman and landed his first Oscar.

Adam's Rib (1949). As married lawyers on opposite sides of an attempted-murder trial, this comic gem with Judy Holliday is exhibit A of the Tracy-Hepburn magic.

Father of the Bride (1950). Say "I do" to this charmer in which Tracy gives an effortless Oscar-nominated performance as a harried dad caught up in the circus of daughter Elizabeth Taylor's wedding.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1954). In this taut drama, Tracy shines as a one-armed stranger with a dark secret who blows into a Southwestern town and gets a less-than- cordial welcome.

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). Maximilian Schell won an Oscar for his dramatic fireworks in this recount of the Nuremberg trials, but it's Tracy's quiet performance as the lead judge that grounds the film.

 

 

Five things you didn't know about Spencer Tracy

Tracy took a room at the Riviera Country Club so he could get up at 6:30 every morning and practice polo before going to the studio.

To get the right look for his role as a Portuguese fisherman in "Captains Courageous," a curling iron was applied to Tracy's hair twice a day.

Tracy was a regular at the Hollywood Canteen, where he entertained the soldiers by performing "Pistol Packin' Mama."

Tracy taught Deborah Kerr how to play an alcoholic in their film "Edward, My Son" (1949). "'You know darling,' he said gently, 'when you're an alcoholic, you don't sip, you just throw the whole thing down.'"

Tracy was Harper Lee's choice to play Atticus Finch in the film version of her novel "To Kill a Mockingbird." Gregory Peck got the role -- and an Oscar.

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