Rants and Raves: Spencer Tracy
Celebrating the Birthday of One of My Favorite Actors
Monday, April 5, 2010
If Spencer Tracy were still alive he would be turning 110 today. Ever since I was a little kid Spencer Tracy has been one of my favorite actors.
My dad raised me on the classics and one of the first actors to make an impression on me was Spencer Tracy. He was not a star in the same sense as a Clark Gable or Cary Grant were. He never thought much of his profession and was known when asked for advice from young actors to simply advise: Learn your lines and don't bump into the furniture. In his personal life he was politically conservative yet he had an on screen and off screen relationship with the very liberal Katharine Hepburn. He also maintained a friendship with the liberal minded U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who on occasion was mistaken for the actor since in later life the two looked surprisingly similar. On screen Tracy embodied a low key naturalism that made everything he did look easy. He won a pair of Oscars back to back in the 1930s for "Captains Courageous" and "Boys Town." In 1942 he was famously paired with Katharine Hepburn in "Woman of the Year."
How Tracy and Hepburn met on the studio lot has become something of Hollywood legend. Producer Joseph Mankiewicz introduced Hepburn to Tracy, and the actress supposedly quipped, "I'm afraid I'm a little tall for you, Mr. Tracy." To which Tracy replied, "Don't worry, Miss Hepburn, I'll cut you down to my size." What made their on screen relationship work so well is that they gave us a partnership between equals. Or as Tracy's character Mike says in "Pat and Mike," it's "50-50." One reason their films were so good and showcased them so well is that real life husband and wife Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon wrote their best films: "Adam's Rib" and "Pat and Mike," and defined their cinematic relationship as one of smart, witty equals.
In later years, Tracy racked up a series of powerful performances in socially conscious films such as "Judgment at Nuremberg," "Inherit the Wind," "Bad Day at Black Rock," and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." I fell in love with Tracy for these roles because he conveyed such integrity and passion. Here's a little reminder of how good he was and how relevant some of his films still are. This is a scene from "Inherit the Wind" in which Tracy's character is based on Clarence Darrow and the film looks to the debate about teaching evolution in the public schools.
Spencer Tracy is not remembered with the same cult devotion fans bestow on the likes of James Dean and Clark Gable. And he rarely if ever gets film retrospectives in his honor, but for me he remains one of America's greatest actors and I deeply miss him. I'm just grateful that his performances are preserved on film for generations to come to enjoy. So happy birthday Mr. Tracy and thanks for all the great work.