35 years of acting genius
Published 03/04/2010 | 05:00
This Monday, April 5, will mark the 110th anniversary of the birth of Spencer Tracy. In recent years, his posthumous star has faded somewhat: his films are rarely shown on television, he is a lot less well known now than such contemporaries as Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart, and some younger readers may not be entirely sure who he is at all.
But in his day he was considered the greatest screen actor of them all, and his achievements on film can only be compared to those of Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando.
Tracy was a performer of staggering range, and during a 35-year career appeared in everything from frothy comedies and musicals to weighty tragedies, horror films and thrillers, playing priests and gangsters, fishermen and monsters. He was one of those actors who conveyed volumes while appearing to do very little, and had an effortless intensity that blew lesser mortals off the screen.
He was also a proud Irish-American, who became beloved of cinemagoers here despite his rather complicated private life. Clever actors still study his performances, and a good number of his films are regarded as enduring classics.
Spencer Bonaventure Tracy was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on April 5, 1900. Though his mother, Caroline Brown, could trace her roots to the earliest colonial settlers, his father John was Irish through and through. Both of Spencer's paternal grandparents had been born in Ireland, and it was with this aspect of his heritage that he most strongly identified.
His father was a jobbing truck salesman, and during Spencer's childhood his family moved around the American midwest. Tracy attended a series of Catholic and Jesuit colleges, and was dissuaded from quitting school at 16 to find a job.
When America entered the Great War in 1917, he seized his chance and enlisted in the US Navy. Instead of the action he was hoping for, however, he spent the rest of the war in the Norfolk Navy Yard, in Virginia.
At a loose end after being discharged, the 18-year-old Tracy took advantage of a government education grant for servicemen and enrolled as a medical student at Ripon College, in Wisconsin. When he joined the debating team for a laugh, he discovered to his surprise that he enjoyed public speaking hugely.
Acting in college plays was the next logical step, and when he took the leading role in a play called The Truth, a perspicacious critic in the school newspaper described him as "an unusually strong actor" who performed with "steadiness, strength and suppressed emotion". It would be hard to sum up Tracy's unique talents more accurately.
Young Spencer had found his vocation, and persuaded his reluctant father to pay the tuition for his first term at the Sargent drama school in New York City. Tracy studied hard, sure that his money would soon run out, and survived some days on a diet of pretzels and tap water. His room-mate at a rundown Manhattan boarding house was one Pat O'Brien, who would become a lifelong friend and a Hollywood star in his own right.
After completing his studies, in 1923, Tracy joined a stock theatre company that toured upstate New York. Among his colleagues was a young actress called Louise Treadwell, and she and Spencer quickly fell in love and were married within the year. They would have two children, one of them a deaf boy, which would inspire the couple to found a major charity which is still running today.
Meanwhile, Tracy trod the boards in obscure theatres for most of the 1920s, and his big break didn't come till 1930, when he was offered the part of a murderous convict in the hit Broadway play, The Last Mile. His intensity got him noticed, most particularly by Hollywood director John Ford, who happened to catch the show. He immediately cast Tracy in his 1930 prison drama Up The River, which incidentally co-starred one Humphrey Bogart, who was also making his Hollywood debut and who would become one of Tracy's closest friends.
In 1931, Fox studios offered him a contract, and he moved with his family to Hollywood. Over the next three years he made an astonishing 15 films, playing opposite the likes of Bette Davis, Jean Harlow and Loretta Young. But the films themselves were mainly formulaic potboilers and crime dramas, and he found more room to express himself when he moved to MGM in 1935.
It was here that he began to astonish critics and fans with his almost unparalleled range as a character actor. In 1936 alone he played an innocent man assailed by a lynch mob in Fritz Lang's thriller Fury, a feisty priest opposite Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald in the spectacular disaster epic San Francisco, then fooled around in the excellent screwball comedy Libeled Lady.
In 1937 and 1938, Tracy became the first man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor in consecutive years for performances in Captains Courageous and Boys Town, a record matched only by Tom Hanks some 55 years later.
In 1941 Spencer was cast in a wordy romantic comedy opposite Katharine Hepburn, that arch east coast newcomer and proto-feminist with whom the hard-drinking old-fashioned Tracy might have been expected to have little in common. During the making of Woman of the Year, however, the pair began a relationship, a situation complicated by the fact that Tracy was still married.
A sincere Catholic, he refused to contemplate divorce from Louise Treadwell: instead, they separated, and he and Hepburn were together for the rest of his life. In all they made nine films together, their special comic chemistry reaching delightful heights in Adam's Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952).
As Hepburn would later make clear in her memoirs, he was a complex and sometimes difficult man, and not always easy to live with. And by the early 1960s, his heavy drinking had taken its toll, and his health was starting to fail. But until the very end he kept producing extraordinary performances that cemented his reputation as the finest screen actor of his time. He was the quiet, menacing heart of John Sturges's wonderfully atmospheric 1955 thriller Bad Day at Black Rock; he embodied the simple faith of Ernest Hemingway's poor Cuban fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea (1958); he delivered a towering performance as a campaigning southern lawyer in Inherit the Wind (1960); and again impressed in Stanley Kramer's ambitious war crimes drama Judgment at Nuremberg (1961).
He died suddenly, at home with Hepburn, on June 10, 1967, shortly after completing his final film, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Out of respect for his family, Hepburn did not attend the funeral.