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In 1983, television producers David Heeley and Joan Kramer approached Katharine Hepburn for a favor. The actress had been the subject of their documentary Starring Katharine Hepburn (1981), a retrospective produced at New York's public television station WNET. For their next project, the duo had similar sights on Spencer Tracy and they were looking for a narrator.
Their timing was fortuitous, since the critical and public acclaim heaped on Hepburn after her virtuoso performance in On Golden Pond (1981) had made the notoriously private actress more relaxed about her personal affairs, including the illicit yet lasting twenty-five year affair she'd had with the married Tracy. (It also helped that Tracy's widow Louise had recently passed away.) Additionally, a bruising car crash, a developing tremor, and a hip replacement had made the famously spry 76-year old Hepburn more aware of her own mortality. She told Heeley and Kramer she wanted to do more than narrate their documentary: She insisted on testifying about all aspects of the man she still considered, sixteen years after his death, to be her one great love.
The project became, after a three-year gestation, The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute by Katharine Hepburn (1986). Although Hepburn serves as the documentary's narrator and guide, she's not the only voice chiming in about Tracy's unpretentious, intuitive performances in features like Fury (1936), Inherit the Wind (1960) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). A cavalcade of co-stars ranging from Joan Bennett (Me and My Gal, 1932) to Lee Marvin (Bad Day at Black Rock, 1955) to Sidney Poitier (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, 1967) share anecdotes about Tracy, that, while personal and unique, all reflect his no-frills, get-it-right-in-one-take approach to acting, a philosophy Frank Sinatra recalls distilled down to him as "Know your words, find your mark, be on time." Scenes from movies (including an extraordinary pas de deux between Tracy and Mickey Rooney in Boys Town (1938)) illustrate a masculine screen presence that Hepburn likens to "a baked potato": pure, of the earth, and dependable.
But what's most remarkable about this documentary is not seeing Tracy in action, even against Hepburn in films like Pat and Mike (1952) and Adam's Rib (1949), but watching what may be the only recorded account of the bullet-proof Hepburn revealing her vulnerable side. She's palpably giddy while standing at the steps on the MGM lot where she first met Tracy, recounting how, in her high heels, she stood eye to eye with the 5' 10" star. (She assured him she'd wear flats for their next picture together and he said "Don't worry, I'll cut you down to size.") There's even more pathos in an extraordinary coda where she reads a letter she'd written to Tracy after his death, acknowledging that their fabled partnership was marred by Tracy's alcoholism and self-torment but that she misses him all the same.
The Spencer Tracy Legacy premiered at a private event (a scholarship fundraiser for his alma mater American Academy of Performing Arts) held at New York's Majestic Theater on March 3, 1986, and was aired on WNET a few days later. It earned two Emmys for the production team, but more importantly Hepburn was deluged with sympathetic cards from well-wishing fans grateful for the honest glimpse she'd shared about her life with Tracy.
Producer: David Heeley, Joan Kramer
Director: David Heeley
Screenplay: John Miller
Cast: Joan Bennett, Angela Lansbury, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Widmark, Joanne Woodward, Mickey Rooney, Frank Sinatra, Robert Wagner, Katharine Hepburn and other co-stars.
C-87m. Closed Captioning.
by Violet LeVoit
Mann, William J. Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn. Macmillan, 2007.