Spencer Tracy: The Forgotten Great

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He's Roy Scheider's idol. Richard Gere cites him as a great influence. Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Widmark, and, of course, Katharine Hepburn, all have praised him. James Garner, Morgan Freeman, Harrison Ford and Gene Hackman could all be considered his professional progeny. So why is it that Spencer Tracy isn't better-known today? By rights, the actor should be grouped with Marlon Brando and Sir Laurence Olivier in a triad of the 20th Century's most brilliant and influential actors. For if Brando is the God of all "Method" actors and Olivier is the same among Shakespearean thespians, Tracy should justifiably be considered the best of the "Hollywood" actors. A two-time Oscar winner who was nominated seven more times, his was the art of the utterly seamless performance in service not of histrionics (the rap usually laid on Olivier) nor of hyper-emotional realism (Brando, it has been written, seldom played a character that could successfully navigate an average day). Tracy usually played "normal" people, in an acting style of extraordinary transparency. Taylor has said: "His acting seemed almost effortless, it seemed almost as if he wasn't doing anything, and yet he was doing everything. It came so subtly out of his eyes, every muscle in his face -- he was a film actor." And Widmark: "It's what every actor tries to strive for -- to make it so simple, so real that anybody in the audience can say, 'Oh, I could do that' -- if you can ever achieve that kind of grace in acting you're on the way. And Tracy did it from the very beginning." Yet that utter simplicity was often dismissed as Tracy merely "playing himself" -- as if even that would have been easy. Tracy was complex and difficult. Dogged by alcoholism (he would spend days in a bathtub drinking), he was a shy man with a deep Roman Catholic faith that tormented and sustained him. Insomnia, heart problems, a thyroid condition and a butcher's list of other maladies left him at age 60 looking 80 and helped cause his death at age 67 in 1967. Those who knew him best never fathomed his demons. Like Brando, Tracy totally dismissed acting as an art or profession fit for a man. In later years, he refused to play parts that required makeup. He often said an actor's job is not much more than knowing lines and not bumping into furniture. Yet his best movies are as good as any. Watch Bad Day at Black Rock and you'll see a suspense film as good as any Hitchcock that's stunning in its simplicity and bare setting. Thanks equally to Hepburn, Adam's Rib is a classic romantic comedy. Boys Town is a great family drama. Captain's Courageous is a rollicking adventure marred only by its heavy reliance on studio settings. Judgement at Nuremberg, Inherit the Wind and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? are dramas that get most of their moral complexity from Tracy's expressiveness. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is Tracy doing a much better General Jimmy Doolittle than Alec Baldwin would do in 2001's Pearl Harbor. A Guy Named Joe is a glorious fantasy. And Tracy even did a pretty good if early horror movie, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Yet of the other 79 films that he made, only Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? --hardly the strongest -- made the American Film Institute's 100 Greatest Movies List. The next time you hit the video store, grab a Tracy movie. You won't be disappointed.