Spencer Dec 5, 2005 4:39:24 GMT -5
Post by smith on Dec 5, 2005 4:39:24 GMT -5
As unglamorous as its namesake, the Spencer Tracy House doesn't have stars on the front walk or even a sign on the door. It's a plain, private home made of stucco - a "craftsman," they call it - in a quiet neighborhood known as Story Hill.
No official dedicated this house. The title's just an old nickname for where the actor lived as a teenager, shortly before World War I. Owners Bob and Judi Rehm keep a few Tracy books and photos on a living room shelf, but otherwise think of the connection as simply "a point of interest."
"They told us about Tracy when we were first looking at the house, but I can't say that affected our decision," said Bob Rehm, who moved here seven years ago.
The city has few reminders of its long-departed native son, a two- time Academy Award winner who would have turned 100 Wednesday. The rare place even to show his picture is the Milwaukee County Historical Society, which mentions Tracy briefly in a slide show. (Fellow Milwaukean Pat O'Brien, a lesser actor but apparently a more solid citizen, gets equal time).
"The ones who tend to come back to Milwaukee are the ones who get memorialized," said local historian John Gurda, noting city sites named after Gen. Douglas MacArthur and others. "Tracy didn't really make an effort to keep his ties. He never came back."
However dignified he could be on screen, Tracy was never an easy role model. He was cranky with the press, cranky on movie sets and attended no Academy Award ceremonies after 1940, despite several nominations. His drinking problems were reported even in his lifetime, and his most lasting romance was with Katharine Hepburn, who wasn't his wife.
Neither the city of Milwaukee nor the local historical society has plans to mark his centennial. A Wisconsin Public Television Web site www.wpt.org/weekend/century/people-frameset.html notes his year of birth but incorrectly credits him with three Oscars. (He won in 1938 for "Captains Courageous" and 1939 for "Boys Town.") The Times Cinema in Milwaukee will have a weeklong tribute - in June.
Tracy, who died in 1967, was a major star for three decades. But today he probably is better remembered as the partner, public and private, of Hepburn. Robert Sklar, a film historian and professor of cinema studies at New York University, said Tracy rarely comes up in class. Author Neal Gabler thinks Tracy's fame suffers for the same reason the actor has been admired.
"Because Tracy was such an unflamboyant performer, he really has receded from people's consciousness in ways that Cagney and Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart have not," said Gabler, whose books include the Hollywood history "An Empire of Their Own."
While Tracy made more than 70 movies, many now are hard to find. Virtually all of his early work, including the 1933 classic "The Power and the Glory," is unavailable on video. When Times Cinema looked into screening such later films as "Judgment at Nuremberg" and "Inherit the Wind," from 1961 and 1960 respectively, it couldn't find a usable print.
"There just hadn't been any demand," explained the theater's co- owner, Eric Levin. He plans instead to show "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," a 1941 release even Tracy didn't care for.
Tracy was an "actor's actor" in his lifetime and he remains so now - remembered above all by the film community. Each year UCLA presents the Spencer Tracy Award for lifetime achievement. The American Film Institute recently ranked him ninth among male "screen legends." (Hepburn tops the women's list.) Buried in the exclusive Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale, Calif., he has a dark headstone that reads just "Tracy," no first name needed.
"When I first began thinking about acting it was obvious Tracy was one of the masters," said the stage and screen performer Brian Dennehy. "He was extremely sincere and as he himself said, Sincerity is the hardest part of acting. When you can fake that you really have it made.'"
Born April 5, 1900, Tracy was a troublemaker more interested in sports than in school. He enlisted in the Navy when the United States entered World War I - he never got past training camp - and after his discharge spent a year at Ripon College in Ripon, Wis. Discovering a talent for performing, he moved to New York to try his luck in the theater. His father had preferred he join the family trucking business.
Tracy's reputation as an actor begins with a story from the mid- 1920s. He was appearing in the Broadway melodrama "Yellow" and the director was the demanding George M. Cohan, who sat in the front row during one rehearsal and interrupted the actor by banging his shoes against the orchestra railing.
"Mister Tracy," he called out. "You are the best actor I have ever seen!" Tracy stared back, not sure if he had heard correctly. Cohan repeated himself, then said, "Now, go ahead!"
Tracy's first film, "Up the River," came out in 1930. Cohan was his mentor and Tracy would mind his advice: "Spencer, you have to act less." Tracy remains the ideal for the clear, "just learn your lines" style used by countless others. Without him, it's hard to imagine a Gene Hackman or a Richard Farnsworth or an Ed Harris. They all depend more on character than looks, on craft rather than charisma.
"When we look at Tracy we learn something about ourselves," Dennehy said. "A lot of people admire Bogart and want to be like him. When I was growing up I wanted to be like him, too. But there's a difference between wanting to be like someone and learning from someone. One is the definition of a star. The other is the definition of an artist."
Robert Duvall once complained that "You go to old movies, and you see crappy acting, except for a handful, like Spencer Tracy." Stars in the old Hollywood system were often set personalities - the "manly" Clark Gable, the "cool" Myrna Loy - but Tracy was different. He could be lighthearted ("Libeled Lady"), explosive ("Fury"), a criminal ("20,000 Years in Sing Sing") a priest ("San Francisco," "Boys Town").
This year's acting nominations for the Academy Awards paid unintentional tribute to Tracy. He could have played so many of those roles: Michael Caine's stern but kindly doctor in "The Cider House Rules," Farnsworth's single-minded old man in "The Straight Story," Russell Crowe's moody whistle-blower in "The Insider."
"Tracy is an interesting figure because he's a quite complex synthesis of the stage actor and the movie star," said author Jeanine Basinger, whose books include "American Cinema: One Hundred Years of Filmmaking."
"He has that low-key, natural quality on film, the underplayed movie persona. But he also had real theatrical skills and had the acting chops when needed."
The rugged-looking Tracy didn't think of himself as a leading man, but he became part of Hollywood's most beloved screen couple, paired with a spirited actress once labeled "box office poison." The first of his nine films with Hepburn, the comedy "Woman of the Year," came out in 1942.
They were a different kind of team. Earlier marital comedies let nothing get in the way of the fun - not alcoholism in "The Philadelphia Story" or suicide in "His Girl Friday." But in "Woman of the Year" Tracy sets a firm tone. Whether the subject is sex or parenthood, he's reserved but well-spoken, romantic but not unpractical.
"There's a maturity in terms of how marriage and heterosexual coupling was treated that was extremely uncommon," said film historian Thomas Schatz, whose books include "The Genius of the System" and "Boom and Bust."
By middle age, after his back-to-back Oscars, Tracy was almost literally canonized. Frank Sinatra started calling him "The Pope." As if living up to the part, Tracy let his red hair turn white and his solid build turn round. While Gable and Grant still made love to young women on screen, a more typical Tracy role was the title character in "Father of the Bride."
A fighter within the studio system, Tracy proved oddly passive when the system collapsed after World War II. Unlike Kirk Douglas or Burt Lancaster, he didn't start his own production company. The extra pounds only gave him more weight as an actor, but nothing he did was as risky as the westerns Jimmy Stewart made with Anthony Mann or Lancaster's work in "Sweet Smell of Success."
Biographers tell a sad story of his last few years. He was ailing, reclusive and depressed by the deaths of such peers as Gable, Bogart and Gary Cooper. Although long-separated from his wife, Louise Treadwell, he couldn't bring himself to divorce her. Hepburn would write years later that even she never really understood him.
On screen, meanwhile, he played the Grand Old Man: the clenched, compassionate face of Justice in "Judgment at Nuremberg," the high- minded patriarch in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." It was an image Tracy must have longed to live up to, an image of eloquence and achievement, of conflicts resolved and standards uncompromised.
"If you looked behind his eyes there was a great sadness and a great knowledge of the world, which probably had to do with his own unhappiness," Dennehy said.
"These days, you have a hardness and a kind of irony. There's a protective plastic covering over everything. Tracy lived in times where virtue mattered. And even though his life may not have been filled with virtue, he still cared about it. His agony, his pain and his weakness was a great example of someone who wanted to be better."
PHOTO BY:NO CREDIT Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in their first film together, "Woman of the Year" (1942).