Thursday, November 10, 2011
Spencer and Sam
In my delirium I like to fuse my father, Sam, with Spencer Tracy. They looked alike, at least to my eyes, and since nobody had ever seen them together they might as well be the same person. Same body-type, same equanimity and deliberate nature. Tracy lived with Hepburn all those years but I can’t bend my mind into making her my mother or imagine Spencer living with my Mom.
As we now know, Tracy’s on-screen calm and assured delivery masked an inner turbulence. His drunken binges and infidelities went along with the guilt he felt over the congenital deafness of his son, John. Perhaps the only peace he found was in front of the camera. My father dealt with his grand-daughter’s deafness in stride but who knows what suffering he repressed. Perhaps it was a wounded decency they both possessed.
Their lives intersected only after Spencer Tracy’s death. In 1964 my daughter, Janice, attended the John Tracy Clinic program which was started and presided over by Spencer’s wife, Louise Tracy, who I was privileged to meet as well as his son, John. In 1968, at Janice’s graduation ceremony, my father was also introduced to them.
It isn’t the early Tracy of Father Flanagan or Captains Courageous which captivated me, though I was beginning to see him playing my father as Thomas Edison. I could barely imagine Sam being Spencer in the nine Hepburn films, except for, The Keeper of the Flame written by Donald Ogden Stewart, later blacklisted. In it Tracy spoke with an inner conviction I also attribute to my father, patient but resolute. He plays a persistent journalist who uncovers the fascist activities of a wealthy industrialist. In 1945 there was still a large audience for such themes, seen as an extension of WW II.
By 1950 he was cast in roles, giving away daughters, starting with Elizabeth Taylor in Father of the Bride. He also parented Jean Simmons which would have granted me two beautiful sisters.
It was in his later movies that the two of them became one. That was my Dad as the Chief Justice at Nuremberg, Darrow in the Scopes trial and giving Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan a bad day at Black Rock. In the latter, Sam/Spencer wins the day with one arm missing. Also missing was any bluster or weaponry. A triumph of dry and tough stoicism. The film was not only an attempt to redress the stain of Japanese internment but also an allegory of the days of the black list and complicity of a passive community (society).
Neither Sam nor Spencer ever got in their own way. Tracy once said that acting was simply learning your lines and not bumping into the furniture. His silences spoke paragraphs.
My father, in his quiet integrity, could command attention with a look of displeasure or convey love with his eyes. Like Tracy he made a word feel as powerful as a gesture. If he felt ferocity it was self-contained. He never abused the furniture or anyone in the room. There was a grace in him as he presided in his drug store; the way he received anxious patients, took in their alarm, even grief, and shared their troubles, unburdening them.
As an actor Spencer Tracy was always himself; nothing more nor less. He displayed a moral center that flowed organically, unforced and unadorned with decibels or religiosity. His model of a hero has been largely replaced today by a noisier, self-congratulatory kind; telling of our times.
It is remarkable how a man could find his true self slipping into the skin of the characters he embodied. His persona on screen revealed a man with indomitable integrity, what was unattainable in his flawed real life. If his Catholicism confirmed his sins and left him without absolution, he became his idealized self only in his film roles.
I have projected these heroic traits onto my father as part of my mythos. In my revisionist history I can see Sam at our front door questioned by two FBI agents. They know of his membership in the Communist Party, the Tuesday night meetings, his subscription to the Daily Worker. They want names. He blocks their passage into our apartment, refuses to betray anyone. He is Spencer Tracy at Black Rock, taller than ever before. He is the Chief Judge at Nuremberg dispensing justice. He is Darrow defending free speech. I claim that wind as my inheritance.