Monday, August 11, 2014

Twice a Best Actor Bloggers Roundtable: Spencer Tracy


Well, I can’t believe that I’m saying this, but we’ve reached the final entry in the Twice a Best Actor Bloggers Roundtable.  This is all very bittersweet for me.  I’ve had nothing but a wonderful time collaborating with these amazing bloggers and getting to rewatch these films and engage in a way that we don’t often get to in this big ol’ blogosphere!  Before we get into this I really want to extend a HUGE thank you to these five bloggers.  Alex, Andrew, Josh, Mario and Shane didn’t have to do this, but they were so willing to sit down, watch some films, jot down their thoughts and debate these performances with me…not just once, but over the course of ten weeks!  It’s been a huge project, a big undertaking and yet they willingly extended themselves, and I am grateful to them for this. 

I’ve wanted to debate these particular performances for a few years now, but I knew that my opinions alone would not do this discussion justice.  I knew I needed a panel, and so I want to thank these five bloggers for making this possible for me.

And now, let’s talk about Spencer Tracy!  It only seems appropriate that we close out this whole series with the actor who was the very first to win two of those golden basterds!

For the last time, here is our panel:

Alex from And So It Begins
Andrew from The Films the Thing
Drew from A Fistful of Films
Mario from Two Dollar Cinema
Shane from Film Actually



ALEX:
If Tracy’s performance in Captains Courageous works, it’s because of his chemistry with his on-screen surrogate son, Freddie Bartholomew. Their scenes together are authentic and touching, and bring out the best in their respective performances. Noting that, Tracy’s performance isn’t perfect. He gives his character, Manuel, a silly little accent that is never convincing, and, moreover, throughout the film it’s very obvious that Tracy is acting. There’s no naturalism in his work, which was, I suppose, quite common for films of the period. All told, I liked the film (and Tracy’s work in it) more than I thought I would. 

The Field
The only other nominated performance I’ve seen is Paul Muni’s work in The Life of Emile Zola. Of the two, I prefer Tracy.
My Grade: B

ANDREW:
As the very first actor to score double Best Actor Oscars (and doing so in back-to-back years), it seems fitting that the discussion for Spencer Tracy's wins should follow after the only other actor to score back-to-back wins, Tom Hanks, because the types of roles, the execution of performances, and even the actors themselves seem to mirror each other. Both had previously been nominated for Best Actor once before (Tracy's was only the year before his two wins for a 16 minute performance in 1936's San Francisco). Both stars were huge box-office draws and some of America's favorite actors. Unfortunately, neither won for their best performances, winning with roles that are more of a character sketch or idea than fully-formed characters. There's the political agenda part (Hanks in Philadelphia and Tracy in Boys Town) and then there's the more memorable, magical character that changes the lives of those around him (Hanks as Forrest, Forrest Gump and Tracy in his first win for playing a Portuguese fisherman named Manuel in Captain Courageous). The life-changing supporting role (and really that's what this performance is as young Freddie Bartholomew is the film's main protagonist) that exists solely to inspire our film's lead is a clichéd movie staple. And Tracy, with the small amount of screen time and limited material, is never able to rise above what's given to him. It doesn't help that the American Irishman from the midwest is outfitted with a mop of laughable curly hair and an accent of indeterminate origin in an attempt to make him more foreign (none of which help in convincing us that he's anyone other than Spencer Tracy). His scenes with Bartholomew have a fatherly warmth to them as there's a reason why these types of stories are often told - they're effective. But Tracy's Manuel is like a childhood memory - pleasant, sweet, but a bit muddled and not quite as good as we remember.
My Grade: C

DREW:
What do you get when you saddle one of the most natural and charismatic actors with an uncomfortable looking mop of a wig and an accent that is so unauthentic it sounds, well, uncomfortable?  That said actor becomes less natural and charismatic.  It’s such a sad thing for me to say, especially since I absolutely ADORE Spencer Tracy as an actor.  I’ve stated before here, but if I had to come up with a list of my ten favorite actors of all time, he’d be on it in a walk.  He was one of the first classic actors I ever fell in love with, and his nonchalant way of completely breezing through his films with such internalized and subtle delivery of emotions always gets me.

Even in this mess of a performance, buried beneath the absurdity, he still gets to me; sort of.

To deny that Tracy gives this his all would be a shame.  I mean, he actually manages to make Manuel’s intentions, motives and interactions feel genuine despite the fact that we never actually connect with Manuel, but are always seeing Spencer Tracy attempting to be Manuel.  I think that will always be the downfall of this particular performance.  Tracy’s inability to actually be Portuguese limits the audience’s ability to connect with him.  Why in the world did they ever decide to cast Tracy in this role?  Why in the world did he accept?  It makes no sense to me, and while I understand that Tracy was a VERY charming man, why in the world did the Academy decide that he needed to win an actual Oscar for this failed attempt at method acting.

It doesn’t help that Freddie Bartholomew, who is the real lead in the film, steals every scene they are in together.  Sure, Harvey is annoying, but Bartholomew is extraordinary as the young man in need of guidance.  HE should have been nominated for the Oscar instead.
My Grade: C

JOSH:
Tracy won his first Best Actor Oscar for playing Manuel, a simple Portuguese fisherman who develops a friendship with a wealthy boy he rescues at sea. I can see how a film like this gets multiple Oscar nominations, but Tracy gives probably his worst performance here. It all comes down to the accent for me. His accent work is jarring, and it makes his character almost unwatchable. Apart from that, Tracy is his usual self, giving a warm, touching performance. Unfortunately, the accent derails Tracy's efforts, which would've been more effective without it.

Did Tracy deserve to win?

I haven't seen Charles Boyer in Conquest, but Tracy wasn't better than Paul Muni in The Life of Emile Zola or Fredric March in A Star is Born. That said, the best performance was Robert Montgomery's electrifying work in Night Must Fall.
My Grade: C+

MARIO:
Who I was rooting for:  Fredric March, of course. Okay, prior to this project, I didn’t know who that was, but honestly, I’d give Tracy the award just for spending all that time with Harvey. Goodness.
The role:  Tracy plays Manuel, the Portuguese fisherman equivalent of Mr. Miyagi.
Watch for:  Manuel threatens Jack after Harvey confesses that he was the one who messed up Jack’s fishing net. It gets so intense I thought someone was getting thrown into a shark’s mouth. You know, had there been a shark nearby. With its mouth open.
YayI go now and fish with my father.
Boo: The accent took a long time to be tolerable, and those made up songs were pretty awesome/terrible. But honestly, after awhile, I actually liked both.
Summary: Does Tracy only work with annoying kids? It seems that way to me. All kidding aside, I enjoyed Tracy’s take on Manuel, even if it seems a little cartoony (at least early on) by today’s standards. He’s likable, he’s kind, but he’s stern and principled, too. I really enjoyed his relationship with the kid, and felt that they had a genuine connection. But a bit like Boys Town, Tracy’s character, though the crux of the film, seems secondary to the plight of the kid. Regardless, in each film, Tracy delivers.
My Grade: B+

SHANE:
For his first Oscar, Spencer Tracy played a Portuguese American fisherman named Manuel who reforms a spoiled brat after saving him from drowning in the ocean. It’s a quaint performance, inspiring the young boy through sheer force of his “joie de vivre”. Much like Anthony Quinn in “Zorba the Greek”, he’s really just there to guide the central character to a better appreciation of life. Manuel is written as a simpleton, without much by way of character depth. Tracy brings some complexity to the role however, conveying compassion, grace and worldly wisdom. I give him extra points for creating a fairly believable accent as well.

Overall, it’s a decent performance but nothing special in my opinion. Funny enough, my preferred winner is someone we've already discussed with moderate enthusiasm – Frederic March in “A Star Is Born”. Similarly to James Mason in the 1954 version, his character arc really moves me. 
My Grade: B-


ALEX:
The Performance
Father Flanagan is the type of character I’m not drawn to in the slightest. He’s a man with no flaws, no real conflict, no great mystery – a saint who can do no wrong. Many of the faults I had with Boys Town can be found in its script, but concerning Tracy’s performance, there’s simply not enough punch to give it life. Sure, Father Flanagan has trouble securing funds for his large community for troubled young men, but those problems weren’t handled in a way that motivated me to invest in the film. Look, as an old timey, feel good film from the ‘30s, Boys Town sets out to do exactly what it intends. But the film simply isn’t for me, and it doesn’t nearly tap into Tracy’s full potential. 

The Field
I would’ve given it to James Cagney for his work in Angels with Dirty Faces.
My Grade: C-

ANDREW:
If Manuel in Captain Courageous feels like a sketch of a character than I'm sure Tracy was wishing he had even half of that artistic material at his disposal when he tackled the stick figure-like outline of Father Flanagan in Boys Town. Playing the real-life priest that started a community for wayward and downtrodden boys in Omaha, Nebraska, Tracy basically plays the most saintly person that's ever lived. As such, he is completely forbidden from making the character even remotely interesting. He has no flaws, no moral dilemmas, and all the rough edges that any actual human being would posses have been finely sanded down until we're left with the harmless wooden figurine that is Tracy in this film. Rumor has it that the studio was worried about Tracy's drinking problem and didn't want him in the part to begin with, but he really wanted it and promised to sober up to play the part. Perhaps in trying not to slip up it made him forget that he was actually supposed to do more than just hit his marks and say his lines. Tracy seems so sedate throughout the entire film it's no wonder Mickey Rooney shows up halfway through to hijack the rest the movie from him with his mugging. The film was such a huge success that Tracy's win seems about right. But as Tracy says (repeatedly...) in the film, "There is no such thing as a bad boy." If only the same could be true about bad acting...
My Grade: C-

DREW:
While my fellow bloggers have already pointed out that the character of Father Flanagan isn’t really much of a character at all, what it benefits from is the fact that Tracy is allowed to just be himself, and he WORKS.  No, this is not the best performance to ever win the Oscar (and the fact that it actually beat out James Cagney is rather ridiculous) but it is a soft and centered performance that really feels genuine and heartfelt.  You believe Tracy is Flanagan and you believe that Flanagan is this saintly.  It’s not the most interesting character, because of that saintliness, but Tracy really delivers to the audience exactly who this man was.

It is a shame that in both of Tracy’s Oscar wins, he was upstaged by his younger co-star, but he does get a few points deducted for letting Mickey Rooney steal the show, and while I’ll be one of the first to say that Rooney was a natural ham, he was actually really, really good here.

For me, this is a classic example of how a great actor can make a nothing character feel like something worth paying attention to.  A lesser actor would have put the audience to sleep or made Flanagan a complete forgettable bore, but Tracy has just the right amount of charisma to make it all feel special enough, memorable enough.
My Grade: B

JOSH:
Tracy won his second Best Actor Oscar for playing Father Flanagan, a humble priest who runs a home for troubled boys. This is the type of sentimental film that Oscar voters love, and Tracy fits right in. He plays off Mickey Rooney's showy performance like a pro, offering a mannered performance that never feels inauthentic. Tracy had the ability to inhabit a role without "acting," and he does so as the understanding, patient and nurturing priest. While the role is somewhat limited, Tracy does some great things with it.

Did Tracy deserve to win?

Apparently, Robert Donat is terrific in The Citadel, but I haven't seen his performance. While I like what Tracy does in Boys Town, I'd easily give James Cagney the Oscar for his iconic performance in Angels with Dirty Faces.
My Grade: B+

MARIO:
Who I was rooting for:  I’ve only heard of one of the other actors -James Cagney- so maybe I’d have pulled for him. But damn it, Tracy is a charming guy…
The role: Tracy plays real-life Father Flanagan, a man dedicated to saving and rehabilitating the shattered lives of countless young men in 1930’s Nebraska.
Watch for:  Father Flanagan, the compassionate and caring man that he is, knocks out a gangster in one glorious punch.
Yay:  Father Flanagan is essentially a Jedi. *waves hand*You do want to donate to Boys Town…
Boo:  That little game of ‘hot-n-cold’ with Pee Wee made me a little uncomfortable at times. And by that I mean, very uncomfortable all the time.
Summary: Being this was my first movie starring Spencer Tracy, I was excited to see this cinematic legend. And while the character of Father Flanagan is truly an incredible human being, the role doesn’t really lend itself to acting. Sure, Tracy is as likable and compassionate as any actor could be, but as much as I loved the character and the performance (it’s as soothing a role as any I’ve ever seen), there doesn’t seem to be much to it. He believes in every kid, all the time.  There’s not a lot of room for growth. In fact, it almost seems like this movie is about Mickey Rooney’s Whitey character, more so than Tracy’s Flanagan, as irritating as that may be.
My Grade:  B-

SHANE:
Just like Tom Hanks last week, we have another case of back-to-back wins. In “Boys Town”, Tracy plays Father Flanagan, a kind man who helps young boys so they could have a better life. Sound familiar? Yes, he’s once again playing a savior of wayward boys. Talk about typecasting!

I’ve never been a huge fan of “Boys Town” and the script does Tracy no favours. The character lives by the belief that “there is no such thing as a bad boy” and it’s a constant indicator of the film’s overripe sentimentality. I guess the preachy nature of the story suits his role as a priest, but I often found it grating.

Whereas Tracy enriched the role in Captains Courageous, here he’s just resting on his laurels. I feel like any competent actor could have given this performance. It’s just so…average. I’m not familiar with the rest of the Best Actor field that year (I’ve seen “Pygmalion” but don’t remember Leslie Howard much) so I can’t comment on his Oscar-worthiness. This seems like a low benchmark though.
My Grade: C

FINAL SCORE:
There is a number assigned to each letter grade that helps us give a score to each performance. The highest number (and A+) would be 20 points. An F would warrant 0 points (a D gives you 5). So these are the scores for each performance as well as a collective score (which will be used at the end to rank each individual actor).

Spencer Tracy received a total of 65 points for his performance in Captains Courageous.
Spencer Tracy received a total of 59 points for his performance in Boys Town.

This is a collective total of 124 points.

As a point of reference, the highest collective score you can attain is 240.

Apparently, we saved the worst for last, because Spencer Tracy received the lowest total score!

Well, this may be the end of the individual discussion, but Wednesday I'll be posting a final complete ranking of all actors and performances and a few stats from the series.  So stop back on Wednesday to see the final post!  And thanks again guys, this really would not have been the same without you!

18 comments:

  1. This was such great fun, thanks you guys!

    I hope you do Best Actress, too, because that would enable me to comment more :)

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    1. If we do Best Actress, would you be interested in being part of the panel?

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    2. Sure! It would be my honor! :)

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    3. Awesome! Do you have a Twitter account? We can PM on there and I can get your email and send you details.

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    4. No, Twitter is not my friend :)
      You can just email me at dfo@partyheld.de :)

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  2. Thanks for having me in the roundtable Drew! I enjoyed watching all the movies and discussing the performances with all you guys.

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    1. I so enjoyed having you a part of this Shane. You know I've been a fan of your blog for a while now, so having you on the panel was a real joy!

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  3. I'm a big admirer of Tracy, he's not in my top 10 Golden Age actors but he'd be in the next 5, and firmly believe he should be a double Oscar winner just not for these two performances. Bad Day at Black Rock and Inherit the Wind are the two of his nominated work that I think are deserving with Judgement at Nuremberg also a strong contender.

    I struggled through Captains Courageous once and at the end thought...he won for that!? God it was awful and so was he. It's ironic that an actor renowned for his minimalist style wins his 1st for such a fussy overdone performance. Montgomery was excellent in Night Must Fall but Fredric March was great in A Star is Born and should have gotten his second statue for it.

    He's better in Boys Town, how could he not be, but the role isn't a challenge. Father Flanagan deserves awards but Tracy didn't for portraying him. Donat was terrific in The Citadel and his loss probably contributed to him winning the next year for Mr. Chips over Gable in GWTW but Cagney should have gotten this for Angels rather than having to wait until Yankee Doodle Dandy.

    Loved this whole series, it was enormously entertaining and I'm sure a lot of work to put together, and hope you do a Twice a Best Actress soon!

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    1. Joel, I'm so glad that you've followed this series and enjoyed it so much!

      For me, I have a real soft spot for Tracy's work in Father of the Bride and would have given him to win there (of his nominated works) as well as for his performance in Fury, early on in his career. Sadly, these two wins are just too hollow.

      Cagney would have made a wonderful win in 1938, but for me his shining moment came in Yankee Doodle Dandy, so I'm glad he has that Oscar (although he is one of those actors who should have been a two time winner).

      I have some details to iron out for Twice a Best Actress, but I'm determined to make that happen as well!

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  4. thanks so much for including me in this! it helped me out with some of my oscar blind spots and it was great fun sharing with everyone!

    i actually grew up in omaha and remember when we took a field trip to boys town. if only i had known that tracy's oscar was there - it would have been the highlight of my trip. instead all i remember is that i wore my DICK TRACY t-shirt and i bonded with our tour guide because she had a DICK TRACY pin on her jacket. just seems fitting since the story goes that after Tracy was forced to give his statue to father flanagan, the replacement one given to Tracy by the academy apparently had his name misspelled as "Dick Tracy"...

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    1. That's a really cool story, and some Oscar trivia I wasn't aware of. Forced to give up his Oscar, huh? That's ridiculous!

      And it was such a joy having you, my friend! Thanks so much for participating.

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    2. I think he wasn't forced but I read that the studio promised to donate the Oscar fo the real Boys Town but Tracy said he wanted to keep it - so the Academy decided to offer him a replacement.

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    3. I love all these Oscar tidbits!

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  5. Thanks for inviting me to the party! It's been a blast!

    Tracy's wins really didn't do him justice. It's a shame more actors can't win for great work, like Brando and Day-Lewis.

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    1. It really is a shame.

      What's also a shame is that Russell Crowe lost the Oscar in 01 to Washington, because I really wish we could have talked about him :-D

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  6. I love Spencer Tracy and I could have seen him win for Woman of the Year, Adam's Rib, It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World but not for these 2:) I thought Robert Montgomery did an excellent job and I love Leslie Howard in Pygmalion which is one of my favs. So I went back and wrote for each one and looked up some more. This is quite good and fun to read. Love all the comments and reviews

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    1. Thanks Birgit! I'm glad you enjoyed this! We loved putting it together :-D

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