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Spencer Tracy: A Biography Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 18, 2011
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“Definitive . . . [James Curtis] charts the life, loves and struggles of the Milwaukee-born, Oscar-winning screen legend in expert detail, leaving no source or story unchecked. . . Curtis taps deeply mined remembrances and fresh anecdotes collected in years of interviews with just about everyone in Tracy’s life.”
—Chris Foran, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Definitive . . . well written. . . I marvel at the research.”
—David Thomson, The New York Review of Books
“A great story about a great actor. . . [James Curtis] is an excellent researcher and writer . . . definitive . . . belongs in the classic movie fan’s library.”
—Douglass K. Daniel, Associated Press
“Exhaustively researched. . . ”
—Jeff Dawson, The Sunday Times
“A balanced and intriguing look at one of the screen’s greatest actors . . . Curtis has obtained access to everything from Tracy’s datebooks to his health records . . . all of this research makes possible an incredibly detailed account of Tracy’s life . . . those who remember him will be fascinated; younger readers will be spurred to rent his film and revel in his talent.”
“Impeccably researched . . . a monumental, definitive biography of one of the finest film actors in the history of the medium.”
About the Author
James Curtis is the author of W. C. Fields: A Biography; James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters; and Between Flops: A Biography of Preston Sturges. Curtis is married and lives in Brea, California.
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First impression… and let’s get it out of the way as the elephant sitting in the room. Spencer DID have a drinking problem…..a big one. It was truly sad to see (through the eyes of the author) that he dealt with his inner demons by drinking. The story of him in the hospital strapped down to a bed and fighting for his life, and fighting his inner demons was horrifyingly real. Too real. I pitied the man, wondering why he would let it get so bad, why he would continue to hurt those closest to him, but continuing to drink. On the flip side, I was amazed that when he chose to he could stay cold stone sober for years. His will was as strong as an ox at times, and yet as fragile as an egg waiting to crack under the pressure at any given moment. I did notice though that his later years of drinking seemed to have come with a pattern. When Katharine Hepburn would leave his side….to do a film or play out of his reach ……he would drink. No I am not blaming her for his drinking. I am just saying that she obviously held that at bay, he found in her a kind of solace, but when she was away, he was lonely and the old demons crept back into his mind. So he drank. Alcoholism is such a sad disease……and it was sad that in that era it was not seen as that and those around him also turned a blind eye or encouraged it, not just to Spencer Tracy but others of that era that had drinking issues. It was always an ongoing battle for Spencer.
Secondly…The man was a true artist when it came to movie making. I hate to use the word act in conjunction with Spencer Tracy because it never really feels like he is ever “acting” per se. He would spend hours reading and memorizing the lines………he didn’t like to rehearse. He just reacted to the other actors, and the scene would play out just like it was an everyday occurrence. The Magic that was Spencer Tracy as it was called. Like all actors not all of his film choices were a hit out of the park, but that said, I think that those films that were labeled as disappointments were better off for having Spencer in them. He had a way of drawing the viewer in and he commanded every scene he was in. (My favorite example of this is his film Judgement at Nuremberg….. Although top billed his performance was relegated to be back ground for most of the film, but then it was his moment to shine, and when that verdict came down all eyes were on him. It is a powerfully moving scene that has remained with me since my first viewing.) Even his worst critics that would slam his bad films would always say Tracy shined in his delivery no matter how bad the material.
Thirdly and most importantly was his love affair with Ms. Katharine Hepburn. This woman loved and adored Spencer beyond any of her own comprehension. “People asked me what it was about Spence that made me stay with him for nearly thirty years. And this is somehow impossible for me to answer. I simply don’t know. I can only say that I could never have left him. He was there…I was his!” In every sense of the word love, she gave herself to him wholly. What surprised me most about Spencer was how he at times treated Katharine, demeaning her at times in front of a whole movie set or their mutual friends, and she took it and continued loving him. Spencer Tracy was no angel and in my opinion damn lucky to have had Katharine Hepburn in his life……..and that she loved him so much. According to her he never said I Love You. He needed her though, more than I think he even realized, she was what kept him balanced. Through it all she had stayed with him, the drinking, the womanizing, the demeaning little comments, and his demons……but he would give her one last gift….a gift of love, not in actions as usual, but in words. “The only thing that matters is what they feel, and how much they feel…for each other. And if it’s half of what we felt…that’s everything!” These are lines from his character Matt Drayton from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Everyone said all you had to do was look at Spencer’s eyes and his eyes never leaving Katharine Hepburn’s when he delivered those lines. The crew said that the catch in his voice was as real as the tears in Katharine’s eyes. As the book says Spencer lived the character, he didn’t “act” it……those words translated to Katharine were more than just I love you, but a thank you for all that they had shared. He couldn’t say the words as Spencer Tracy, but behind the guise of Matt Drayton he was able to express his feelings loud and clear. Love once again endears even over the demons that kept knocking.
This is a thick biography of Spencer Tracy’s life. I only gave it four stars out of five because I think in places it was a little long winded and some details were unnecessary. That said it is a great glimpse into the man that is Spencer Tracy………..he was a very complex and very private man, that was deeply haunted, but he also was a kind and gentle soul that was very sensitive. From his birth, to stage and his start of films, we learn about Spencer the Husband, the Father, the Actor, the Friend, the Champion, the Drinker, and the Lover. All of these things made him what he was, and James Curtis gives us a realistic view of the man. Was my image of the man tarnished by this truth…..no because at the end of the day Spencer Tracy is human just like the rest of us. No better no worse. His Magic still lives on……
“He was like a lion in a cage…..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!”
Curtis is a careful researcher and notes that he is not a fan of the current genre of celebrity biography in which writers are often try to synthesize new sexual orientations, accept word of mouth remembrances, and decades-old memories as undeniable proof.
This book is meticulously researched and ends up showing Tracy as a very vital, fascinating, but self-abnegating actor.
This is not a book that focuses on Hepburn and talks about Tracy as a sideline--it's about Tracy, and where it's important, there relationship is discussed, and in very matter of fact terms. That she loved him was undeniable. He certainly needed her. But he remained married to his first wife until his death, and Hepburn did not attend his funeral.
Spence was a great actor and--with typical Irish understatement--denied he worked at it at all. He was a man's man. And women found him irresistible. Not even Hepburn had a strictly monogamous relationship as a mistress. She did love, and care for Tracy in a way that no one else could, and was as crazy about him as an adolescent.
To the very end, Spence held onto the beliefs he was brought up with, although his actions were rarely in keeping with the beliefs. He was tormented by guilt and felt his work was meaningless, compared to, say, the real Father Flanagan, with whom he maintained a close relationship until the latter's death.
The book is long but engrossing. It's hard to end it without feeling a deeper admiration for Spencer Tracy. And, to give credit, to Hepburn, for showing respect to his beliefs, which were much different than her own.
For Tracy fans you will read fascinating accounts of all his movies, the preparation for them, the on the set conflicts, his relationships with the greatest movie stars of the 20th century and how he dealt with being one of the greatest movies stars of his time. The author also spends a great deal of time showing Tracy's marriage, his children ( his son born deaf) and how this too contributed to his deep emotional conflicts.
A good part of the last half of the book deals with his long relationship with Katherine Hepburn. Author Curtis brings this often tumultuous relationship with all its passions, complexities and love to the reader in often intimate detail. And with that we gain much insight into the great Hepburn herself. Just reading about their relationship is worth the price of this book alone. This book is a must read for anyone interested in the movies, the history behind them and the true greatness of one of it's best and most gifted stars. A fascinating book on all accounts.