Spencer Tracy: That Natural Thing, a series running through March at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, opened this past weekend and James Curtis was on hand to sign copies of his new 1001-page book, Spencer Tracy: A Biography. "Curtis by his account spent seven years on Tracy," notes John McElwee. "What came of that is the best book on Tracy or any filmic figure for a long while to come (or at least till JC's next)."
"Curtis, whose previous subjects have included WC Fields, James Whale and Preston Sturges, is the kind of biographer who serves his subject first and his readers second," writes Stephanie Zacharek in the New York Times. "The first half of Spencer Tracy is — let's not mince words — pretty boring, packed with details that prove Curtis's tirelessness as a researcher but load us down with far more information than we need…. But a strange, almost magical thing happens midway through Spencer Tracy, around the time [Katharine] Hepburn enters the picture. Gradually, Curtis's book becomes a much better biography, maybe even a great one, and I'm sorry to tell you that you won't get the full effect if you skip ahead. Because the second half of the book not only covers the years we all want to hear about, it puts everything in Tracy's earlier life into rich context. From the mist of all the details, the dimensions of a real human being, and not just a revered actor and movie star, emerge."
"When not sparring onscreen with Hepburn in frothy battles of the sexes," writes Jan Stuart in the San Francisco Chronicle, "Tracy appeared as an avatar of gravitas and moral rectitude: the savior of lost boys (Boys Town, Captains Courageous), the steadfast magistrate (Judgment at Nuremberg), the divinely inspired inventor (Edison, the Man), the lamb of God in a hotbed of sinners (San Francisco), the put-upon patriarch who rises to the occasion (Father of the Bride, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner)…. All this probity could be anesthetizing were it not for Tracy's redeemingly sly edge and the economy of means with which he externalized the actor's business of receiving and processing information. Tracy's signature minimalism is repeatedly appraised and deconstructed by an awestruck assortment of directors and acting partners, with the most eloquent testimony coming via Gene Kelly, who characterized his Inherit the Wind co-star as 'the embodiment of the art that conceals art.'"
More from Bill Desowitz (USA Today) and Charles Matthews (Washington Post). Interviews with Curtis: Casey Burchby (SF Weekly), Susan King (Los Angeles Times) and Leonard Lopate.