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SPENCER TRACY by James Curtis


A Life

by James Curtis

Pub Date: Oct. 18th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-26289-9
Publisher: Knopf

Spencer Tracy (1900–1967), warts and all.

Acclaimed biographer Curtis (W.C. Fields, 2003, etc.) presents an exhaustive and exhausting biography of the legendary Hollywood star, famed for his uncanny naturalism and authority on camera and best remembered for the series of films he made with longtime companion Katharine Hepburn. Impeccably researched, Curtis’ doorstopper chronicles Tracy’s steady rise from stock company star to Broadway sensation to silver screen icon in copious and sometimes plodding detail, recording salary negotiations, scheduling conflicts and press notices with laser-like focus. Happily, the author is equally expansive on the production details of Tracy’s many classic films, his friendships and affairs with fellow glitterati and the culture of working actors in a variety of milieus. The heart of the book concerns Tracy’s turbulent relationship with Hepburn; in Curtis’ telling, it was a miraculous meeting of two diametrically opposed and difficult temperaments in which the neuroses and rough edges of each party found succor and understanding in the other. Truthfully, they both come across as monumentally annoying, and Tracy’s lugubrious personality—guilt-ridden, painfully sensitive, diffident, gloomy—casts a bit of a pall over the narrative. Curtis is scrupulous but not salacious in documenting Tracy’s catastrophic alcoholism and philandering. His long-suffering wife Louise (they never divorced, despite the open secret of his decades-long affair with Hepburn) emerges as an unlikely hero, an intelligent and proud woman who devoted her life to the establishment and expansion of The John Tracy Clinic, named for the couple’s deaf son and tasked with improving the lot of deaf children and their parents through education and progressive treatments. Tracy regularly supplied funding for the clinic and seemed to regard its existence as the noblest aspect of his legacy—unsurprising for a self-loathing man who always reckoned he should have become a doctor or a priest and regarded his chosen profession as an embarrassment.

A monumental, definitive biography of one the finest film actors in the history of the medium.