Picks and Pans Review: Spencer Tracy: Tragic Idol

updated 06/13/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/13/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Bill Davidson

Katharine Hepburn recently said of Tracy, her celebrated screenmate and longtime love: "He was like an old lion appearing out of the bush, glancing here, glancing there, walking alone in the jungle." Well, Tracy, the priest manqué and nine-time Oscar nominee, would find plenty to roar about in this biography. The problem isn't that it portrays him as an alcoholic and a brawler (he once tried to hurl his brother Carroll out the window of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel). It's no big deal that Davidson, a veteran Hollywood writer, portrays Tracy as a womanizer (Loretta Young, Marlene Dietrich, Olivia De Havilland, Judy Garland). It's not even that the biography tells all about his relationship with Hepburn (it doesn't). The problem is that the book is so tedious it might as well read, "and then he made Captains Courageous, and then he went on a binge, and then he made Boys Town, and then he went on a binge and then he made..." Worse, Davidson is of the rhetorical question school of star biographers: "Why the contradictions? Why the sudden mood changes from affection to intolerance, from love to hate...?" "What was he brooding about?" Seek in vain for answers to these questions. When Davidson isn't being rhetorical, he is finding ironies in Tracy's life: "He could be cruel and heartless toward some actors with whom he worked; overwhelmingly kind to others...." (Wow.) "...There was a similar dichotomy in Tracy's relations with directors. He got along well with some." (Ditto.) Davidson sees it as ironic, too, that the "supposedly apolitical Tracy cared enough about the tragedy of the Jews in the Nazi Holocaust to defy all Hollywood wisdom in even wanting to make the film" (Judgment at Nuremberg), and ironic that Hepburn avoided Tracy's funeral (she stayed away out of respect for Tracy's wife, Louise Treadwell). The book has a few scraps to savor, such as Clark Gable's distress at Tracy's histrionics during his death scene in Test Pilot: "The son of a bitch," Gable said, "is a slower dier than Cagney. At the rate he's going, it's gonna take him four reels to kick off." Davidson also addresses THE question: Why didn't Tracy and Hepburn marry? "When we first started going together," Davidson reports Tracy as saying, "Katie wanted to get married. But my son, John, still was living at home, and I felt that until he grew up and could take care of himself, I couldn't do it. Later, when all that cleared up, I wanted to marry Katie, but by that time she didn't want to marry me." Despite that revelation, readers are better served by Garson Kanin's 1971 memoir Tracy and Hepburn. It offers a slightly sanitized but also more lucid portrait of "the tragic idol." (Dutton, $17.95)

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