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Spencer Tracy: A Biography—Book review

Spencer Tracy: A Biography—Book review

by James Curtis (Knopf)

I’m not sure I have sufficient superlatives to express my feelings about James Curtis’ latest biography, which consumed six years of his life (and about a month of mine—time well spent in both cases). It represents a high-water mark in this field: a scrupulously researched life story that is also well-written and completely absorbing, through 878 pages of text and the endnotes that follow.

            Curtis has chosen not only to chronicle one of the 20th century’s finest actors, but to tell the interrelated story of his wife Louise, a talented actress who was his biggest booster. She gave up her career to have children and doggedly remained Mrs. Spencer Tracy even after he stopped living in the same house, long before Katharine Hepburn entered his life. Her saga, and her determination to give her deaf son Johnny the best possible life he could have is as compelling as her husband’s. (The history of the John Tracy Clinic, which she conceived and developed from scratch, is quite amazing and involves the Tracy’s family friend Walt Disney at several junctures.)

          Moreover, Curtis has chosen to incorporate a mini-history of each

 —Tracy film into his narrative, filling his book with fascinating backstage anecdotes and insights on films as varied as Man’s Castle, Fury, Captains Courageous, Bad Day at Black Rock, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

            It would be easy to write a harsh book about Tracy, who despite his enormous talent, and the almost-universal respect he commanded, was beset by demons…not just the demon rum, but an almost-overwhelming Catholic fear of damnation. He was certain, for instance, that his son John’s deafness was direct punishment from God for his own drinking and philandering. (In his frontispiece, Curtis quotes William Butler Yeats: “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”) Yet the book doesn’t judge or condemn Tracy. Curtis reports the facts, laid out for us through interviews with friends and family members, nuggets culled from obscure oral histories and unpublished manuscripts (including one by Louise) and unprecedented access to Tracy’s own papers, including a series of datebooks in which he made terse but revealing notations about his daily ups and downs.  

            Curtis’ own observations are articulate and even-handed. He quotes Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who came to realize while working on Test Pilot that the seemingly-spontaneous actor prepared thoroughly for each day’s shooting, not only learning his lines but devising bits of business that would spark his performance. Says Curtis, “It was, perhaps, the legacy of the boy magician, the instinct that compelled him to hide all the work, to keep the secrets to himself, leaving the impression that it all came out of thin air, effortless sand magical, a thing of mystery and wonder.”

            Here is his eloquent description of Tracy and Katharine Hepburn’s first screen kiss, in Woman of the Year: “…When she catches her breath and says, ‘I thought you might want to kiss me good-bye,’ Tracy calmly takes it in, processes it, then turns himself from the camera, ostensibly to glance down the terminal corridor, but also to make sure the most significant kiss of his entire career takes place completely out of sight of the audience. The camera moves in, Hepburn in profile as he draws her toward him, her lips apart, the moment of contact perfectly obscured by the brim of his cocked hat. It is brief but heartfelt, passionate and completely unencumbered by concerns of lighting, position, focus. It’s the back of his head, her chin, the muffled soundtrack, their eyes laser-locked on each other as he releases her. It’s as real as any kiss in the history of the medium, the look of astonishment on her face, the deadly serious look on his, screen acting at its finest… if it was acting.”

 I’ve never seen most of the photographs that punctuate the text—another of this hefty volume’s many assets. Following the final chapter, Curtis has a brief essay in which he dissects, or should I say “decimates,” a number of Katharine Hepburn biographies, insofar as they relate to Tracy’s life. As a meticulous researcher he has no patience for authors who fabricate material, quote dubious sources, repeat unverifiable innuendos, or simply fail to do their homework. Since the actor’s daughter, Susie Tracy, granted Curtis complete access to her father’s medical records as well as his datebooks, he is able to refute many scurrilous statements which readers of those volumes—some of them by “respectable” writers and publishers—had no reason to question before.

            This is the book Spencer Tracy deserves. It explores his great gifts as well as his tortured soul. I loved reading it, and didn’t mind the commitment of time it required. (In fact, after every chapter, I felt I simply had to share a story I’d just read with my wife.) I know I will refer to it for many years to come.

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