Friday, June 19, 2009

Favorite Actors, #1: Spencer Tracy

First Movie I Saw Him In: Father of the Bride (1950)

Three Favorite Movies: Father of the Bride (1950); The Last Hurrah (1958); Inherit the Wind (1960).

Honorable Mention: Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Favorite Movie with Katharine Hepburn: Adam’s Rib (1949).

Favorite Performance: Father of the Bride (1950)

Why I Like Him: For years, all I heard about Spencer Tracy was that he was widely considered the greatest American screen actor. Everyone from Anthony Hopkins to Bruce Willis raved about him. Tracy was The Actor. As so often with these things, I had to do a little maturing to understand what all the hoopla was about. I was about twenty six when I first watched Father of the Bride and at first I was taken with the witty and literate script, the uniformly excellent cast, and the tasteful direction by Vincente Minnelli.

It was also the film where I understood what was so great about Spencer Tracy. I never saw him acting. He just was. That’s what makes Spencer Tracy so good. You notice and accept the character first and never consider the man. Ideally, that’s how acting should be. It’s a towering achievement, especially since Tracy lacked the typical attributes that make a screen actor memorable. He didn’t have a distinctive voice-- certainly not like the top four of this list-- he wasn’t considered handsome, wasn’t tall, overtly funny, and couldn’t sing or dance. He rarely raised his voice to get his point across, yet everything was present that made Spencer Tracy great and worthy of that adulation; he was natural. Tracy didn’t have the belabored acting mannerisms of the later conspicuous “method actors” with their superfluous gestures and cries of “What’s my motivation?” When watching Tracy on screen, notice how he listens—great actors are great listeners. He doesn’t think about what he’s going to say, but rather he’s in character and the person he’s playing is thinking and reacting as if in actual conversation. Tracy excelled at natural, unselfconscious acts and it was he before anyone else who discovered how important it was not to be “caught” acting. Tracy’s own advice: “Learn your lines and don’t trip over the furniture.”

His best performances are the films set in contemporary times. Tracy typifies the man of the 1930s and 1940s. Not the high-gloss glamour of those decades, but the man working as a newspaperman, coach, politician, and as a father. I often wonder if many men from the Greatest Generation modeled themselves after Spencer Tracy. Perhaps they didn’t, but I like to think otherwise; must be my tenuous grasp of reality.

Tracy’s films with Katharine Hepburn chronicle an accomplished, cosmopolitan couple and much of that Tracy-Hepburn magic chronicles a surprisingly-modern and still-relevant depiction of married relationships. We see Tracy’s difficulty in grasping a strong female in Woman of the Year and Adam’s Rib and there's that final statement of the couple’s history in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? I've always viewed these three movies as chronicling the beginning, middle, and end of their onscreen partnership, as if it were the same couple in all three films. There’s never been a couple whose on-screen collaborations have produced such a rich, deep, and meaningful body of work.

Spencer Tracy was a giant among movie stars. His peers respected his talent, and Tracy received nine Oscar nominations for Best Actor, winning back-to-back awards in 1937-38. It would be nearly sixty years before that feat was duplicated. By the early sixties, Tracy was the craggy face and weathered voice of wisdom. Who else could have been the voice of reason in Inherit the Wind or Judgment at Nuremberg? Or the narrator of the American experience in How the West Was Won? Tracy’s stature as an actor and a screen presence were unparalleled within the movie industry. Spencer Tracy was a tormented and unhappy man and no one knew exactly why. Tracy was prone to sudden rages and odd behavior, and was plagued by alcoholism, which hastened his decline; I choose to remember Spencer Tracy the artist. His brilliant, low-key, and unaffected performances put him at the very top of this list.

Random Info: Lived in a rented bungalow on director George Cukor’s estate for several years.

So there you have it, Hollywood Dreamland's Top Ten Favorite Actors. There are eight million lists in the Classic Movie Blog-o-sphere; this has been one of them…

None Better: Spencer Tracy.


  1. C.K., a fitting choice for #1, a good finish to a great thread, and you concisely pinpointed the key to Tracy's popularity with audiences and his peers: his "invisible" acting style. He didn't play a character; he seemed to BE the character. All your choices were apt. My only disappointment: that you couldn't find a place for Henry Fonda.

  2. C.K., I pretty much agree with R.D.'s comments here about Tracy, though I would personally not have ranked him #1. Like R..D. I am a bit disappointed on no placement for Fonda. I will also add Cagney and Bogart to the mix.
    All in all a great thread and some wondeful insight on why you picked who you did. Will we see a similar thread on actresses???

  3. I enjoyed these posts. And I'm pleased to see Spencer on top.

  4. This has been a great list, and very intriguing to read your insights into all of them. These are all actors (except Cooper, LOL!) that would make my top 20 best actors list (which is a very different list from my own favorites list).

    I haven't seen your three favorite Spencer Tracy movies. I must remedy that!

    I've really enjoyed this top 10 countdown!!

  5. glad to see Bad Day at Black Rock get honorable mention :) Besides the Ox-Bow incident it's my favorite western of all time

  6. A great list, CK - I really like Spencer Tracy and he would definitely be in my top 10 too, though I think I really need to watch a lot more movies before compiling any lists of favourites! I also love him with Hepburn and must agree with you that 'Adam's Rib' is wonderful. Just to add that there are some great early movies of his which stick in my mind, such as 'Man's Castle' '20,000 Years in Sing Sing' and 'Riff Raff' - all quite gritty and compelling.

  7. Since almost no one really likes my "cherce" for #1(except you, Wendymoon-- thanks!, I'll have to wallow in my own contentment for having picked "Spen-suh" (as Kate used to call him). :D ;)

    I'd be interested in seeing everyone else's favorites, too. I love to read why they like who they do and all the memories of watching your favorites; the whens and wheres, etc. I hope others do this, too.

    R.D. and John: I hadn't planned on doing an in-depth actresses list. I focus on them here anyway, so they'll all get their spotlight. I did post a casual top ten back in December, so it'd be no surprise as to who'd be on it.

    I do like Bogart, Fonda, Holden, John Garfield etc., but a top twenty favorites doesn't have as much excitement as narrowing it down to ten. It was also tough to exclude all the 1960s actors I like (Coburn, Bronson, McQueen, Marvin, Garner, Connery, etc.) but this blog tries to emphasize the Golden Age, and that's why they're not here.

    Thanks to everyone for following this madness so enthusiastically!

  8. He could do intense drama and light comedy equally well

  9. The natural quality you talk about that Spencer had with his acting was quite something.

    I did really like how you listed the first movie you saw the actor in and your three favorites. I already listed my top actors and actresses (although not ranked specifically), but I suppose there's room for going more in depth. Maybe. :-)

  10. My #1 is Cary Grant, but I definitely am a big fan of Spencer Tracy. Great tribute post to him. I really enjoyed all of these posts going through your favorite actors.


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