Acting isn't easy; over-acting is. Actors that seamlessly merge with a character and make you believe what they are saying are rare. One such "rara avis" is Spencer Tracy, who-- as according to the old "Seinfeld" bit-- could even make the line "These pretzels are making me thirsty" interesting. His fame was an unlikely phenomenon with his atypical, leading man looks, and his lasting career was a miracle due to the mental demons and liquid libations that tugged at him throughout his life. Yet, he remains one of the greatest legends of the silver screen. He had talent-- a hard won, well-crafted talent that he made appear effortless. Because he was never known for possessing a handsome mug, he too was able to flawlessly age with his characters, continuing to play the every-man, the defiant man, and the last artifact of masculine Americana. And the guy only got better with age. The road to such success was a rocky one; one that never really became smooth. That's what we liked about Spence, though. He was authentic, rough, and real. His pains were as evident as his pleasures. He was one of us.
Spencer Tracy should have been a girl. At least, that was what his mother had hoped, since her firstborn had been a boy-- Carroll. The second born was to be named "Daisy" after her good friend Daisy Spencer, but when John and Carrie Tracy welcomed another son, they compromised by naming him "Spencer" instead. Consequently, while devoted to his mother, Spence got along best with his father, with whom he always attended mass. The church became a bond between father and son, an interesting obsession, considering the arguably immoral penchants the two men had toward liquor. John Tracy was by all other rights a warm man and a loving, loyal husband, who had worked hard to build himself up from a bank teller to a moderately powerful business man, including a position as the general manager of Parker Motor Truck Company. His one weakness was the bottle, and the numerous, inviting taverns lining the streets of Milwaukee were often too hard to ignore. John would casually enter a bar and subsequently disappear for days at a time. He would then come home apologetically, swear off "the stuff," and proceed on as the kind and jovial man everyone knew. In his youth, Spence became accustomed to these bouts of absence, and he sensed the pain they caused his mother. The mystery of just where his father went or why, however, remained a mystery. Already, footsteps were being laid for an idolizing son to follow.
As yet, Spence was not as tormented. He definitely had a habit of getting into more trouble than his quiet, more obedient brother Carroll, and he too was hurt when he heard himself referred to as "homely"-- never a confidence-booster for a child-- but he too had a soft side. On the one hand, he was a "hyperactive terror," and on the other he would give a friend the shirt off his back, a generous trait he would carry with him always. School was another matter. He was smart enough, but he didn't really start applying himself until he attended Catholic School. Spence always worked best under discipline, which is why he also got on fairly well with all of those adorable ,scolding nuns. An independent adolescent, he worked odd jobs to make money, usually using what little dough he had to buy himself ice cream, but he wouldn't discover his true calling until he took to the stage, first becoming enthralled by the movies, and later staging his first murder-mystery play for neighborhood friends at the age of twelve. After seeing various plays, he decided that he wanted to become his hero, Lionel Barrymore. First, he needed to grow up. He enlisted in the Navy at the age of 18 and, after witnessing little combat, attended Northwestern Military and Naval Academy, where he found a penchant for public speaking. It was at Ripon College that he would decidedly turn his thoughts from a career in medicine to one on the stage. After attending The American Academy of Dramatic Arts with childhood (and lifelong) friend Pat O'Brien, the game was set. Despite his father's wishes that he become a normal, business man, Spencer would pursue his dream of acting and devote himself to it entirely. A nagging guilt for this decision would plague him for the rest of his days. He would often lament not becoming a priest-- his first youthful ambition, like most Catholic boys-- thinking his chosen profession silly and unimportant.
Nonetheless, as an eternal masochist, Spence gave acting his all. While working the stage in bit parts, he met Louise Treadwell, who would become his wife. The two had little in common other than acting, but Spence admired Louise's strength and talent, and she admired his passion and potential. As he worked his way up the showbiz totem, Louise become more and more assured that her husband was bound to become a star. The years were lean, and work wasn't steady, but even after she had to give up acting to raise their son John, her faith in Spence never wavered, even when he himself considered giving up. The young family took another blow when it was discovered that John was deaf. Spence mournfully responded, "He'll never be able to say 'Daddy...'" As usual, Spence blamed himself, thinking that his son suffered because he had not been a good Christian-- which suggests that he had already started the extra-marital dalliances he would become notorious for. His drinking too had started to mirror his father's, though as yet, it was nowhere near as severe. He didn't have too much time to belly-ache with a family to feed, so he thrust all of his self-loathing, anger, and pain into his performances, shocking and wowing audiences with his electric presence and carnal sense of danger in plays like "Conflict," "Dread," and "The Last Mile."
Then came Hollywood, or rather, then came Spence to Hollywood. His success on the stage had caught the attention of many, including George Cohan, but it was John Ford who hailed him West. Ford was so moved by Spence's performance in "The Last Mile" that he insisted on using him in his prison flick Up the River, a film that would pair him with another up-and-comer-- Humphrey Bogart. A contract with Fox followed, but despite solid work, Spence failed to catch on with audiences, due to the usual issues of miscasting. He wasn't particularly handsome, he wasn't suave, but he wasn't necessarily sinister either. The studio-heads knew that he was talented, that he had something indescribable and natural, but what it was or what to do with it, no one knew. Slowly, he let the world see what he was capable of in films like Disorderly Conduct and The Power and the Glory, but Spence was quickly becoming disenchanted with Hollywood and yearned to return to the stage. The only issue was cash: a film contract at least provided a steady paycheck, and now that he was supporting his wife and children, his mother, some extended family, and essentially his brother, he was too worried to give Tinsel Town an assertive "adios." After Spence and Louise gave birth to their second child, Susie, born mercifully in tact and unencumbered, Spence made the move to MGM, much to his good fortune-- it was Leo the Lion who would give him the extra bite he needed.
Finally, Spence started catching on. The film that started the furor was Fury, in which his initially optimistic, and boyish character of a young man in love turns into a vengeful dynamo when he is wrongly accused of kidnapping. Intense, animalistic, and yet sympathetic, he reached depths of his own soul that seemed to echo the inner demons of his audiences. His versatility made him a prime asset for the studio, and his warmth and natural knack for comedy earned him his first Academy Award for his portrayal of Manuel in Captains Courageous. Ironically, he would find equal success playing men of honor and morality, including the priests of San Francisco and Boys Town, the latter for which he won his second consecutive Oscar. He was always deeply sensitive about his work, and the slightest criticisms from the press cut him deeply. There was little help for this since the greatest compliments too seemed to fall on deaf ears. The combination of humility and pessimism is rarely beneficial to the bearer, but he made up for his personal misgivings with dedication.
He won a score of admirers, not just from fans and critics, but from his co-stars. The King Himself, Clark Gable, suffered an eternal bro-mance for Spence, jealous of a talent that he knew far surpassed his own. Pal James Cagney, always humble, stated that Spence was the best kind of actor, because he couldn't be imitated, unlike himself. Women in particular were enamored of him, not just because of his talent, but because of his complete lack of ego. In a city comprised of male Prima Donnas, narcissists, and sycophants, Spence was simply a hard worker who gave a damn about his craft and showed equal respect for the leading ladies who indulged in such professionalism. Bette Davis adored him, Joan Bennett loved him, and Claudette Colbert was thunderstruck buy him. But, not all women were able to keep their feelings platonic. A naturally insecure man, the attention and attraction of beautiful women and his own human weaknesses led him to engage in multiple extra-marital affairs with the likes of Loretta Young, Gene Tierney, and Ingrid Bergman. His dependence on women was a frailty that crippled him as much as it temporarily may have soothed. But, through none of these flings did his marriage to the ever-loyal Louise seem to be in danger. She was not only independently pursuing her own ambitions and working towards John's education, but she had faith in her union. "He'll come back," she always said.
And then came Kate. Spence was teamed with Katharine Hepburn for the first time in 1942's Woman of the Year, and thus began one of the greatest on-screen pairings in cinematic history-- and one of the most controversial off-screen love affairs in "tsk-tsk" Heaven. Spence was the perfect match for the intelligent, flinty, and quirky female who drew raised eyebrows for her tendency for trousers and assertive, even bossy, way of communication. Her more cerebral approach to things was the perfect opposite for Spence's more natural, instinctual methods. His masculinity too was the only brand Kate had ever encountered, on-screen or off, that had the ability to dominate and fascinate her. Perhaps she was so taken with him,because he was the only man who ever had the cojones to tell her when to "shut the Hell up." His ruggedness reminded her a great deal of her father, which endeared her to him, and his subtle, intuitive acting left her flabbergasted and awestruck. Spence too found a worthy opponent in Kate, who at first bewildered him, but later surprisingly seduced him with her loyalty, selflessness, and sturdy character. She didn't flinch when he growled; she stood her ground and challenged him. Unlike Louise, she did not turn her head from his behaviors as a way to cope, but instead met him head on, comforting him when needed, scolding him when necessary, but always, always remaining reliable. To Louise's defense, Kate did not have the responsibility of motherhood to usurp her affections-- Spence had Kate all to himself, and she was happy to oblige. Granted, Kate's presence initially induced Spence to endure another guilty bender-- commencing in yet another extra-marital affair attacked his always inflamed guilt complex-- but she too acted as a protector who in time kept him off the booze and taught him that he could overcome his addiction. He would enjoy some of the longest periods of sobriety under her watch, though the inner sadness he felt at betraying Louise too aggravated his hypochondria-- he was unable to sleep, his head was always spinning with worry, and he was constantly certain that he was dying of something-- and equally positive that he deserved to.
While the world at large for many years remained ignorant of this liaison-- a secret MGM fought hard to keep out of the press but that was, of course, an open secret in Hollywood-- they couldn't deny the electric chemistry the duo had on the screen. The public loved them together, and so, when word eventually got out late in their careers and more fully after his death, the affair was strangely not held against them, much in the way Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were forgiven for abandoning their previous marriages to wed each other. To the public, they belonged together. Spence and Kate derived from each other a sexuality that had been missing from their other films. Both were atypical leading stars-- Spence leading with guttural passion and Kate with intellect-- but sensuality was lacking until they found each other. Spence drew out Kate's femininity, and she elicited his eroticism. Through the span of their careers, this balance of wills would create one of the greatest, career-spanning interpretations of the battle of the sexes in the history of film. It wasn't just about masculine versus feminine, it was about old versus new, tradition versus change, and domination versus submission.
While the gift-wrapped endings of these films tended to come with a patriarchal victory for Spence, they were a great step forward in closing the gap in the gender divide. For every battle won by the male character, the female character's fierce defiance could be counted on to come back with a surprise coup. The rules were bent, played with, and re-communicated. Progress was being made. In Woman of the Year, the man overcomes the woman's ambitions to teach her, not necessarily that her place is in the home, but that she could embrace the more delicate side of her nature without letting it make her feel weak; that as a partner she must give as much as she takes. In Adam's Rib, which many hail as their best collaboration, the man does not shy from using typically female tactics to win back his woman-- who can forget that scene when Spence's eyes fill with feigned tears? In Pat and Mike, an athletic woman is praised for her abilities and talents and coached in them, desired for them, and not harangued for her un-feminine ways. These films celebrated not only the distinction between men and women-- "Vive la difference!"-- but celebrated each individual's uniqueness-- every human being can be loved despite their temperaments, eccentricities, or flaws... as long as he or she has found the proper partner.
The success of this duo (in 9 films) was unprecedented, and for a great deal of time, the only films they seemed to make were with each other. But, in between, Spence also maintained his reputation with various other successes, always marked by his continued, solid performances: Bad Day at Black Rock, Father of the Bride, The Actress, etc. Through it all, he would continue his battle with alcoholism, maintaining great periods of sobriety and painfully falling of the wagon, only to pick himself back up again. Each slip was recorded in his loyal calendar book, where he would essentially lacerate himself for his imperfections, conscientiously keeping tabs on himself and his short-comings. If he went on a bender, he would mark it down to shame himself. Equally, if one of his films was a flop, he would jot it down. Nothing he did was good enough, and he was never satisfied. As Louise continued to build up support for The John Tracy Clinic, which sought to educate families suffering from deafness, (old polo pal Walt Disney was a constant donator), Spence was proud that he had the good fortune to help fund the establishment but remained embarrassed both that he had failed his family and that his performing career was a joke compared to the world-altering impact his brave wife was making.
Yet, he continued to hurtle himself into his work, not realizing that he was indeed effecting change, particularly after he made the acquaintance of one Stanley Kramer-- the definitive producer and director of cutting-edge, socially provocative films. The two artists fit like a hand in a glove. In Stanley, Spence found a capable filmmaker who cared as deeply as he about doing work that mattered-- that could reach an audience in the head, heart, and soul. In Spence, Stanley found his dream actor, who could achieve and bring to life the most impossible and impassioned characters with ease. Spence's multi-layered, dramatic, and comical performances in Inherit the Wind , It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and Judgment at Nuremberg would do more than shake up the cinematic world, they would alter our social universe. Despite his human frailties, just as in his roles as priests in San Francisco and Boys Town, Spence would stand as the pinnacle of conscience and justice, leading the little people to a better, brighter existence. He was the sole actor that audiences would trust with such a responsibility, simply because we could at all times believe what this complicated, authentic, man was telling us. His characters may have been imperfect, but they had dignity-- the most admirable of human traits.
Spence's last film was too his final collaboration with two of his favorite partners-- Kate and Stanley-- in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, yet another classic. Older, more frail, and very obviously sick, Spence still gave the audience his all with this final effort toward human comprehension. Even in his old age, he remained so striking that the eternally professional Sidney Poitier had trouble getting through his lines-- he was saying them to a screen legend, after all. As always, Kate fussed about Spence on the set, babysitting and bolstering as need be. Onscreen, Spence portrayed the liberal-minded patriarch who lets go of the old to make way for the new, but only after he has realized that the future is giving birth to a society that, though different, is just as pure. His final speech-- his character was always known for those breath-taking, final speeches-- extols the virtues of true love and enduring affection, essentially praising his relationship with Hepburn as she looks on with eyes full of tears, and finally gives his blessing to the black man who wants to marry his white daughter-- and to all others who defy convention in the name of love. And so, he put the final period on a 67 year sentence, took his final bow, and made his great exit from the land of cinema.
Spence out-lasted so many of his contemporaries, because he was not a studio-made star. He was just himself. Thus, as other actors aged and lost their luster, Spence remained because he had never lied. He had never covered the deep creases in his face with make-up nor played the lover-boy (on camera). He wasn't even the boy-next-door. He was the same son-of-a-gun you passed on every street or sat next to at any bar. He was a well-rounded human being, not a concoction. For this, he remained malleable, cast-able, and-- most importantly-- working steadily while so many of his friends slipped through the cracks or sadly passed away-- leaving him, as always, deeply grieved. Jean Harlow, Victor Fleming, Clark Gable... All pals that he saw put in the ground before him-- odd, since he pessimistically always thought himself at death's door, fearful that the cardiovascular disease that ended his father's life was right around the corner. Indeed, it was waiting, but it waited a long time. After filming on Guess Who's Coming to Dinner wrapped, Spence and Kate retreated to his cottage at 9191 St. Ives (George Cukor's property) where they had been living together discreetly. Kate heard the typically restless Spence go to the kitchen to make himself some late night tea, and then she heard a "crash" as the cup and his body hit the floor. He was gone. Louise was summoned, and the two women who loved him most prepared him for his final journey. Kate would not attend the funeral, following Spence's hearse as far as she dared and then saying goodbye to him before he disappeared into the mass of chaos and flashing bulbs. He would have wanted it that way; this final moment belonged to Louise.
In the end, no one could ever really diagnose what it was that plagued Spencer Tracy. Why he was born with a supreme disappointment; why he always seemed to be dissatisfied with himself... He wasn't a particularly flashy character, and despite the necessary emotional maintenance he needed, he needed few physical comforts to be satisfied. Kate described him as "a lion in a cage. You gave him meat, he ate meat. You gave him water, he drank the water and then he walked up and down, up and down in the cage of life, looking out, and in those eyes you saw the jungle-- the freedom-- the fear-- the affection-- unblinking, unguarded." While he remained certain that he was dying and going to Hell, it seems assured that a man who provided his fans with so much hope, who guided us to feelings of rightness, paid his penance during his life and made it to the Heaven he dreamed of as a boy. He always wanted to be a priest, and in a way he was. Not only did he fulfill this prophecy in his incarnation of Father Flanagan of Boys Town, but in his embodiment of the solid moral compass that showed us both the penalty of sin in Fury and the rewards of adherent principle in Judgment at Nuremberg. One hopes that he has at last found peace and solace, and that in the end he was at least able to appreciate the great work he did. As for the rest of us, we shall continue to gratefully indulge in the continuing legacy of the the agony and the ecstasy of Spencer Tracy.