Sunday, 28 April 2013

Spence and Kate: The Definitive Story - Part III

First, an apology on behalf of the writer: I'm sorry for being away for so long. It turns out I became quite a bit busier than I had previously anticipated. But please interpret my absence as a dramatic pause between the last post and this one. Interpret my absence symbolically, because while I removed myself from my audience to tend to more important, personal matters, so did Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in the 1960s. Just like you haven't seen me for a few weeks, you wouldn't have seen either of them for a few years had you been one of the eager 1960s moviegoers, yearning for a Tracy-Hepburn collaboration, or even a film with a single one of their smiling faces. They could've been quite the prolific movie and stage actors beforehand, whose enormous body of work spoke for itself, but between 1962 and 1967, nada.

1960s. The decade where cinema freed itself from the restraints of censorship, the era where liberty was law and art was a precious gem. At the same pace that the world changed the ways they viewed love, our favorite couple changed with it. They took time off from the screen, the spotlight, the fan magazines, and spent five years living a tiny life, enjoying the golden summers, the warm winters and each other.

In 1960, Spencer Tracy completed what I consider to be his finest performance: Inherit the Wind. A movie about the timeless fight between religion and science, in which he plays a lawyer, defending a young teacher's right to think. There are pictures everywhere, that evidence Kate's constant presence on the set. By then, what audiences and press failed to realize is that they had become what is commonly known as a family: It was just too darn bad that the society of the '60s had a pre-established idea of what a family looked like, and it often involved children and housewives. Spencer's health was unstable, although not a threat to his overall livelihood. Coincidentally, it was only two years later when Katharine Hepburn handed in her finest performance: Long Day's Journey Into Night. She played a morphine addict who watched her family fall apart - and her own body fall apart with it. And that was the end of Kate's career - until 1967 at least.

In 1963, when Spence and Kate were at the beach, he collapsed. He suffered from serious breathlessness and had to be hospitalized for 13 days. From then on, they made the decision that it would be best for the couple to move in together, so that she could care for his diet, exercises and medicines, as to minimize his difficulties. She left work in order to dedicate herself full-time to the job.

For years she was on top of his every move, making sure he took the best possible care of his ailing health. But at the same time, it was also an opportunity to lead a normal life, a tiny life, as Kate calls it, without the glamour and publicity of movie stardom. They received visits from other friends, screened movies in their basement home theatre, went to see several plays, and even went together to Betty Bacall's opening night on Goodbye Charlie, sitting in the front row and, some even say, holding hands. By then the press had learned to keep their distance, and they had relatively more freedom to lead their shared life. Kate's favorite time of the day, she later recalled, was dinnertime, when they each took their plates, in trays, to the front of the TV set, and snuggled up for a couple of hours.

Kate kept her exercising and cold showers in the morning, and Spencer took to painting and reading, sometimes up to three or four books a week. They were deceptively normal in those years. Without a doubt, if this break had never happened, Spencer Tracy's life would be cut short by a few years. Five years after the break began, they felt it was time to head back to the workforce, even though Spencer's condition was nowhere near trustworthy in finishing a film. Luckily, their director Stanley Kramer was a good friend, and their co-star Katharine Houghton was Kate's niece, obviously understanding of the situation. The cast was completed with Sidney Poitier, who proved to be very kind to the ailing actor. Spence was in such bad shape that no insurance company wanted to insure the movie. The two older stars had to waive their salaries and work for free. It was the first time Kate got third billing, because, since Poitier was the most appealing star to younger audiences, his name came right behind Tracy's. Because the couple's names had to be separated, it is very difficult to find Guess Who's Coming to Dinner posters with less than three names above the title. 

During filming, Kate was as much a nurse as she was an actress. Many times he didn't know whether or not he'd be able to finish the picture, afraid of dying before the director yelled cut. I can't imagine what a situation it must've been. Luckily, on May 24th, the picture was completed. When the last shot was finished, Spencer, in front of the entire crew, picked up Kate's hand and said: "If you ever have anything close to what we have, then you'll know love." A week later, Kate attended the wrap party, something she rarely did, to thank all the crew members personally for being so patient and sweet to her sick darling. 

Seventeen days later, before the movie was even released, on June 10th 1967, Kate woke up startled with a noise coming from the kitchen. She walked toward it, knowing Spencer was up, and hoping to kiss him good morning and make him breakfast. But when she opened the kitchen door and uttered his name, she only had time for one last glimpse of his beautiful eyes. He fell, crushing the teacup he was holding in many pieces. She ran to his body, now absolutely lifeless, and knelt before it. There was nothing she could do. Spencer Tracy was dead. 

She received countless letters from hoards of people, regardless of whether or not they knew them. It was a consensus that the entire world had lost something that day. She became reclusive for a few months and not even her Academy Award for Best Leading Actress was a consolation to her. Nothing would be. Spencer won several awards abroad and either Stanley Kramer or Katharine Houghton went to pick them up. Kate would not show herself in public. In the David Di Donatello Award ceremony, Houghton went in Spencer's behalf and was unable to give a speech because she was too emotional from watching the film for the first time, which was screened before the Award was given. Anna Magnani, the presenter, said "In Italy, we don't need words. We understand tears." Houghton took the prize home, but the aura was hardly celebratory. The picture says it all. 

After Louise Tracy (remember her?) died in 1983, Kate finally came clean about the nature of her relationship to Tracy. In an interview, Barbara Walters asked, rather bluntly, whether or not their 26-year liaison included a sexual component. She got a positive answer, for the first time, from the lips of the 76-year-old actress. From then on, the world confirmed what they had already known for years. In 1986, Kate narrated and helped produce a documentary about Spencer's life, The Spencer Tracy Legacy. I recommend it to any Tracy fans out there. For the 36 years that remained in her life, Kate strived to keep Spencer's name in the moviegoers' hearts. She, despite having a successful career after 1967, was never the same after he was gone. And in June 29th, 2003, I doubt there was anyone else in her mind when her eyelids fell shut for the very last time. Just as swiftly as her great love had slipped away three and a half decades earlier, Kate was gone. And while the living still cherish their treasured memory, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn have found their way to each other again. In a better place. 

Thank you. 

So long, Marcela.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Spence and Kate: The Definitive Story, Part II

From my last post, you've probably gathered that this is the most perfect relationship in the history of men. No unsavory moments. Only birthday cards, high-heeled shoes, pet names, helping young actresses, simply one big party of love, trust and support. A man who's an alcoholic and suffering from guilt complex and depression and a woman who is unfit at best for living in couple are magically in sync. How did this ever happen?

Answer: It didn't. The Tracy-Hepburn relationship was far from being perfect. And it's time I tell you the truth.

I deliberately chose to paint a sweet picture of the perfect couple in the first article, so you wouldn't be misled by what I'm about to tell you now. They had problems, yes. But, their love ultimately faced those problems down. What you're about to read doesn't change the fact that they chose to endure the difficulties and bumps along the road together. Now, I must say: Some of these stories are shocking, but in time, with lots of reading and putting one's self in other shoes, one understands the circumstances and reaches the unavoidable conclusion: These were two wonderful people meant to live wonderful lives together. 

When Katharine Hepburn began dating Spencer Tracy, she knew she was picking up a very damaged man. And I used the verb "pick up" as a very literal metaphor, because with her arms around him she intended to protect him, improve him, heal him, save him. It was a romanticized ideal, but that due to her resilience and willingness to let many serious things slide, she got remarkably close to achieving. Just like in '67, when he died in front of her and she took his lifeless body in her arms, hoping that a bit of her life force, her power would transmit into him; she did the same in '41, with a seemingly lifeless man, ready to give up her livelihood, her time, her career to save him. He, in his own way, recognized the effort and the essential effect it had on him, and was grateful for two and a half decades. Our mistake is to expect perfection. And, even coming from the most perfect actors that ever graced the silver screen, perfection is unattainable. 

Let's start still in the 1940s. The biggest problem was, without a doubt, Spencer's drinking. It was only when drinks were involved that the couple ever got physical with each other. Hepburn transited from wrestling drinks out of his hand and pushing him away from the booze counter to handing him drinks to rid of him of the guilt of getting one himself, when she felt drinking was inevitable. I can only imagine was a difficult situation it must've been and one cannot blame her when she snapped. However, having said that, Spencer's private life had been a wreck for over a decade. The stress he had gone through with Louise and the deaf son, the alcoholism and the insurmountable all-around guilt he felt was also almost unimaginable. The worst moments happened on Kate's brownstone. The worst of them all, in my view, was one day where he was extremely drunk and they were in the master bedroom, when he tried to strangle her and she knocked him down. According to Katharine Houghton, it frightened her aunt immensely, but he outweighed her by 70 pounds, so if he really wanted to hurt her, he would've succeeded that night. It's inexcusable to physically assault a spouse in my view, but in this episode, I don't think either can be held accountable for their actions. 

Now let's move on to something more cheerful. As this episode went by, they - proving the "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" proverb - got firmer as a couple. By all accounts, the rest of the 1940s was smooth, as you could see from the last post. Pet names such as "Ratty" and "Old One" came up in this period, and, whenever they were separated, they were in contact daily over the phone. 

Now, onto the 1950s. In the early parts of the decade, there was yet another blow. Katharine Martha Houghton, Kit, passed away. Kate had an immeasurable admiration for her, and admiration which she and I share. Kit was an incredible woman - an educated woman, a fighter, a mother. 
Kate and Kit, circa 1940s
Her loss shook Kate's world like nothing before. And before she was emotionally ready to plunge into work again, she traveled to Africa to film "The African Queen", already committed to a tour on the play "The Millionairess". The result? 100 dollars a day spent in phone calls to Spencer in America. And that sometimes included huge time zone differences. He even drove to see her in a few cities on her "Millionairess" tour. However, still unable to contour her mother's loss and carry on with her life, Kate began to immerse herself in work, in an effort to get her mind off what had happened. She overworked herself to the point of hospitalization and, to a degree, emotional withdrawal from Spencer and from the world at large. That, combined with a ludicrous article released about them that pried into their life together like nothing had before, resulted in a fight and a temporary separation. 

Kate's self-portrait, made during hospitalization
As it was always the case with Spence and Kate, the fight didn't last very long and they got back together after a couple of months. They then starred in one of their best pictures together, Pat and Mike. It was the story of a lady athlete managed by Spencer's character. It put Kate's athletic ability to good use and filming went by smoothly. They were then, separated again for Kate's next picture, Summertime, and multiple tours with the Old Vic Theatre Company, in which she engaged in Shakespeare plays. They were still a great deal in contact, and, by all accounts, a happy couple. On their free time, they took to traveling together, especially to Europe: London and Paris. The only existing footage that they ever took of each other was in the United Kingdom. They took turns behind the camera and were there alone. In Europe it was slightly easier to dodge the press, so they were comfortable in their travels. Comfortable enough to, despite staying in different hotels, spending the night in each other's room. 

A bit of the aforementioned footage, of Spence and Kate in Europe.

By 1957, they had been five years without working together. She asked in an interview if there weren't any scripts for a romantic comedy duo like her and Spencer any more. A week later, she got dozens. They chose Desk Set, a very sweet, very fun picture, and one of my favorite of theirs. Certainly the crowning glory of the relationship that had lasted, by then, over a decade and a half. 
By then their relationship had become an open secret. Everyone and his uncle knew they were together, but made a point of keeping their comments in a merely speculatory tone. They still didn't discuss their relationship with the press, but at this point they couldn't help but be seen around together. They went to see Lauren Bacall in a play and sat in the front row beside each other. Tracy biographer James Curtis states that they could often be seen window shopping or browsing bookstores together in the evening, often holding hands. It had come to a point where the press and the public respected so much their standing as actors that they stayed away and respected their privacy to an unprecedented degree. 

A last anecdote: At an unknown time during the fifties, Spencer and Kate were in a picnic at a god-forsaken area in Europe where they couldn't be found. While picking their eating spot, Kate saw a beautiful field, covered with yellow flowers and the greenest grass around. The only problem? The barbed wire around it. But keeping with her "Never fear, Kath is here" philosophy, she proceeded to jumping the wire and going in anyway, followed by Spencer. It was said to be Winston Churchill's property. Shee! 

As the fifties come to a close, so do we, for today. In the next post, we will explore the beginning of the end: the 1960s, when they each took a break from their careers to simply enjoy each other. We will find out that Spencer's old age was much more a fascinating time of love and laughter than a miserable walk to the death. 

Thank you for sticking with us, and we'll see you later. 

So long,
Marcela, Kate and Spence.