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Tracy was dying. Everybody working on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner knew it. His heart was failing, his liver, his lungs. He was 68 years old. Same age Harrison Ford is now. But while Ford moves through Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as if he was 15, 20 years younger, Spencer Tracy was fading away like a man 20 years older. This was going to be Tracy’s last movie. If he made it through filming. He couldn’t summon the strength or the energy to put in a whole day of work. Some days an hour’s work was beyond him. Look at the last scene, the way his final speech is shot. An awful lot of cuts. An awful lot of shots of Tracy alone. Up until this point director Stanley Kramer has shot almost every scene in two shots and group shots. That’s because the speech was shot over the course of several days. Tracy would come on the set for a few minutes, shoot a few lines, and go home to rest.
He had come to his end.
It was to be the last fine performance of a long line of fine performances.
Think of the great male stars of Tracy’s era and Tracy’s name doesn’t usually pop into the head first. Bogart, Gable, Cooper, Cagney, Wayne, Stewart, Fonda, Grant. But in the day Tracy was bigger than all of them. His star shone brighter, longer than any of theirs, except Grant’s and Wayne’s. And it was because he was the best. Everybody thought so. Everybody was right. The best natural movie actor ever.
And he made it look easy.
Karen Karbo writes in book about Tracy’s greatest leading lady, How to Hepburn:
It’s a challenge to think of an actor working today with whom to compare Spencer Tracy. The best I can come up with is Russell Crowe on a calm day crossed with the Robert De Niro of Godfather II. Tracy’s great gift was that he never looked like he was acting. Watch even the worst of the seventy-four movies he appeared in, and whatever is going wrong on screen or in the script, it never has anything to do with Tracy. Compare Tracy’s performance as John Macreedy, the one-armed war veteran who shows up at a desert backwater that hasn’t seen a visitor in four years in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) with that of Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker, where Lancaster starred opposite Hepburn as the flamboyant, madly gesticulating con man Starbuck. Lancaster can’t deliver a single line without crouching, leaping, or swinging around a post, as if he’d just been cut from the chorus of Oklahoma! Indeed all the male leads throw themselves around (off and on their horses, up and down the porch steps, in and out the front door) as if their acting coach were Dane Cook on speed. The Rainmaker is as dated as an old dance card. Tracy’s Oscar-nominated performance in Black Rock, on the other hand, looks as if it were turned in last week. His low-key gravitas, not to say normal behavior (notice the way he keeps his arms down?) is timeless.
And he was all done.
That he’d gotten so far, lasted this long was amazing, really. Tracy the quiet, solid, amiable if gruff, normal man on screen had been on self-destruct off screen since he was a teenager. He was still alive, still a star, still able to work the little that he could manage, because for close to twenty-five years Katharine Hepburn had kept him that way, alive and working.
Hepburn fashioned her life around Tracy’s movie roles and drinking binges. They lived in separate houses...but she managed both households, seeing to Tracy’s cooking, cleaning, chauffeuring, entertaining, and, as Tracy’s health worsened, nursing. Her other full-time project was keeping him away from the bottle. When Tracy and Hepburn weren’t working, she became a camp counselor, and he her lone, doted-upon camper. She kept him busy with art projects, books, stimulating conversation, gallons of coffee, and daily swims. When he was working and she wasn’t, she would drive him to the studio, wait on the set, then drive him home and cook him dinner. The flow of concern went in one direction, and one direction only, from Hepburn to Tracy; it was understood that he had his own problems, and they were paramount to hers.
When he went on benders she went looking in all his favorite bars to find him and drag him out before he started breaking things and hurting people.
In return he bullied her, he ignored her, he cheated on her. "He called her Olive Oyl. He called her Bag of Bones. He was known to tell her to just shut the hell up." He made her carry his luggage! When she wasn’t around to take care of him he sulked. When she was around he wasn’t much more cheerful.
Or apparently grateful.
Someone asked him once why his name always came first in the credits, why didn’t he let the lady go ahead of him. “It’s a movie, not a lifeboat,” he said.
If their life together was a lifeboat, there was one passenger, Tracy. Hepburn was the crew.
Hepburn is the legendary exemplar of the independent woman. Strong, self-reliant, alone but never lonely. She could take men or leave them, and she did both as she needed. Karbo's book is about how to make a role-model of Hepburn, about how to borrow some of Hepburn's strength and independence and eccentric flair to give strength and meaning to one's own life. How to Hepburn is about how not to become someone else's notion of you.
It's about how not to let yourself be used the way Tracy used Hepburn.
So had did it happen to her? How did she put up with him for twenty-five years?
Hepburn's own answer was simple. She loved the bum.
"Love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get," she said, "only with what you are expecting to give---which is everything."
As Karbo writes, "Even Hallmark would steer clear of that one."
But she did love him. No denying it. And he loved her. You could see it, right from their first movie together, Woman of the Year.
...between Woman of the Year and Adam's Rib the world was treated to some impressive sizzle. Part of their colossal appeal was that audiences knew something had to be going on, while, of course, at the time knowing that nothing could be going on, because Tracy was a Married Man with a Deaf Son, and also a devout Roman Catholic. Still, what to make of those simmering gazes? Those effortless riffs of teasing banter? The hot scene in Woman of the Year where Hepburn's Tess Harding pauses on the stair to coyly arrange her stocking, while slinging some smart-alecky remark at Tracy's Sam Craig, panting with hat in hand, two risers down? Ooh-la-la! This could not be a simple demonstration of fine acting.
That chemistry is still there, that love is still obvious, if not as sizzling, in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. It could be argued that it's what makes the movie. So let's argue it. Tonight's open thread is now open...