Old Lion Eyes

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Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Spencer Tracy and his wife, Louise Treadwell Tracy, Hollywood, California, 1930s

As an actor, he was as simple and unadorned “as a baked potato,” said Katharine Hepburn at a press conference after Spencer Tracy’s death in 1967, and she was like “a dessert, with lots of whipped cream…. He never got in his own way—I still do.”

Meat or potatoes, there was an era when Tracy was regarded as not just the most natural and honest of American screen actors, but the embodiment of unforced morality in our mainstream movies. No one kept count, but Tracy reliably presented men in whom virtue was neither pious nor self-serving. He played these guys calmly, steady in his faith but never cocky about it. Indeed, many of his heroes were battered from their struggle. But Tracy characters did their best and no one doubted their integrity.

That there is no one like him among actors now speaks to what has happened to America as well as to our movies. Perhaps “our” is no longer the proper word. There is so much less shared narrative consequence. There is even a question whether people still watch Tracy’s pictures—as opposed to the partnership of Tracy and Hepburn. The ordinary young viewer may recognize several of the titles those two did as a team, and the legend abides that they were “together” in life (some of the time). But ask the same young person to recall a Tracy picture—Captains Courageous, Boys Town, Man’s Castle, Fury, Bad Day at Black Rock—and he might come up short. So is Tracy simply part of cultural history, or is he still a force in our imagination?

The very size of James Curtis’s definitive new biography is resolute about the answer—1,001 pages on a man who was only sixty-seven when he died, and who made seventy-three pictures. It’s not just that the book is tireless and diligent in its span. No one doubts the author’s fondness for Tracy, or the circle of family and friends who tried to please or humor him. It’s also well written. Beyond that, Curtis has a mission: to rescue Tracy, and even Hepburn, from some of the suggestions that have been passed along, in print and gossip, about them.

Still, the coda to Curtis’s book comes as a surprise, since it is called “The Biographies of Katharine Hepburn,” and is intended to clean our windows. The oddity of this decision is not the authorial indignation at aspersions cast on Tracy’s sexuality, but that the book declines to close with a meditation on what Tracy did and did not accomplish. There is a lasting fascination in the way these two stars “saved” each other and seem to have been more “married” than any other Hollywood couple we can think of. Garson Kanin, who had worked with them a lot, published a memoir, Tracy and Hepburn, in 1971, the …

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