A star so resolute on screen, a man so reckless in real life

Film Studies

Spencer Tracy died in 1967, but there are plenty of people alive for whom he was an essential movie star. He seemed to have an integrity that helped excuse the shallows of so many films. He was never pretty, or even young. He carried himself as if glamour was an aberration in the eyes of common sense. On screen, he tried to be quiet, natural, ordinary; he spoke when he was spoken to, and if a reply was deserved. He would say that the trick to acting in pictures was "learning your lines, turning up on time and not bumping into the furniture". What that meant was that, along with Henry Fonda and James Stewart, he became one of the most liked and trusted of stars.

On 5 April he would have been 100. That sounds remote, maybe, until you realise that Katharine Hepburn - his finest companion on screen, his strange half-consort in life - is still alive. She's 92 now. And by an odd coincidence, the other great star with whom Tracy was romantically involved - Loretta Young - is alive, too, aged 87. Not to be too gloomy about things - yet, truly, to admit that young readers will have a vague sense of Tracy, and no notion of who Loretta Young was - may I remind us all that when Hepburn, Young and Bob Hope (92) are gone (there's no hurry), the number of movie stars left who shone in the golden age, before 1940, will be zero?

I could tell you about Tracy's screen presence - a common man who made you believe he felt great anger, intense love or radiant hope. One of the best fathers in movie history. He had a soft, dreamy voice when reflective, and eyes made for gazing off-camera and picturing a better life one day. It was an Irishness suited to the tough times of the Thirties. From that age, you can watch him still in Frank Borzage's Man's Castle (where he plays along Loretta Young) or Fritz Lang's Fury (where he is supposedly lynched, back from the jail fire, remembering his arm as it burned, and looking for vengeance). He makes those old. black-and-white films flare up like a match.

Those two films are a lot less coarse than the two films for which Tracy won the best actor Oscar in successive years, 1937-8 - Captains Courageous (in which he is a Portuguese fisherman, looking after Freddie Bartholomew) and Boy's Town (where his Father Flanagan guides the unruly Mickey Rooney towards citizenship and all those things for which Mickey was unsuited). In other words, those pictures are MGM humbug we were all meant to believe in. You see, Tracy wasn't always a guarantee of honesty or quality. He seemed sensible and resolute on screen, but in life he was a pushover and a wreck. So many actors are. He was raised a Catholic, and he had married an actress, Louise Treadwell, in 1923. But he was a terrible binge drinker, and he could not resist other women. Those two things promoted something more damaging still, a fearsome, morose guilt that made him drink again. And when he and his wife had a son who was deaf, Tracy believed it was God's punishment. The man treasured for steadiness and authority was a neurotic who bumped into every disaster in life. When Katharine Hepburn first worked with him - on Woman of the Year (1942) - you can say that they fell in love. I think it's more to the point, and closer to Hepburn's nature, that she saw the wreck of a man who needed looking after. Their fondness is beyond dispute, and it lasted till his death - though it did not deter his forlorn affair with Gene Tierney ( a woman as disturbed as he was). And it did not end Tracy's marriage. But in films like Keeper of the Flame, Adam's Rib and Pat and Mike they made a subtle, bickering middle-aged couple - the most human portrait of marriage American movies ever offered. It also helped prolong two careers that might have been doomed without some saving partner.

The older Tracy made too many bad films - try The Old Man and the Sea, I dare you. He was never in charge of his own career. He's as good as he was miscast in Bad Day at Black Rock, because he made contact with that ordinariness thing again. There's something touching in the way his stocky frame and city suit confront the CinemaScope size and blaze of Nevada.

There's no one like Tracy now, except for Gene Hackman and the veteran Paul Newman who has subdued his own prettiness and learned how to choose good material. But "ordinary" now is either too boring by half, or something that requires the spectacular psychic realism of Gary Oldman or Tim Roth. It's no longer thought possible that anyactor can just be himself.

I'm feeling my way towards the realisation that Tracy's greatness no longer quite applies, just as movie stars don't have sway any more. You can regret that if you like the old movies. On the other hand, in the age of stars - or worse, our suffering with celebrities - we have been sheep driven to imitate and follow these great ghosts. Instead of being ordinary or trusting ourselves. That is a lie or a mistake that may have harmed us more than bombs, famine and plague.