A Vanity Fair article argues he was -- but ask yourself why you care, says Ty Burr

By Ty Burr
Updated March 15, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: Tracy and Hepburn: MGM/MPTV

Was Spencer Tracy bisexual?

Was Spencer Tracy bisexual?

Does it matter?

It does to writer Amy Fine Collins, who in the April issue of Vanity Fair (the one with Hollywood legends like, er, Penélope Cruz on the cover) passes on the Golden Era beans spilled by the late Richard Gully, assistant to Jack Warner and general man about Tinseltown. Among the sly bombshells dropped to Collins by Gully (who died last fall at 93) are: the fact that Louis B. Mayer once ran over a man and killed him only to have a companion take the rap, the identity of the man who (supposedly) actually shot JFK (Giancana lieutenant Johnny Roselli), and the ranking of actor Lee Marvin in the most splendidly endowed man in Hollywood sweepstakes (third, after playboy Porfirio Rubirosa and ”F Troop” stalwart Forrest Tucker).

But, surprisingly, it’s Gully’s casual aside about Tracy’s sexuality that has caused the most media spillover and concomitant reaction. (Gully also claimed that ”Tracy was never sober. I don’t think he functioned as a man. He and Katharine Hepburn had chemistry only onscreen.”) The New York Daily News reported March 12 that Hepburn is livid over the Collins article, telling a ”well placed source” that ”it’s bunk,” and quotes the actor’s daughter, Susanna Tracy, as saying ”Anybody who knew him is just going to laugh. Oh Lord! It’s just absurd.”

Well, everyone once thought that Cary Grant was the epitome of hetero elegance, and it’s fairly well established now that he swung whichever way he pleased in his early days. And, personally, I’m still trying to wrap my brain around the now documented fact that comedian Danny Kaye once had a passionate affair with Sir Laurence Olivier. The point is that anything’s possible, especially when you’re talking about the early, unbuttoned glory days of Hollywood, when successful actors — a species not normally noted for their adherence to quotidian morals — had the luxury of time, money, parties, and sunshine.

Questions of sexual preference aside, Tracy clearly was a complicated man, and not a very happy one. He was prone to fits of black depression. He was Catholic enough to never divorce his wife, despite his longstanding relationship with Hepburn and at least one earlier serious fling ( with Loretta Young on the set of ”Man’s Castle”). He had ongoing problems with the bottle, culminating in an episode where he trashed the set of a film he was making during a late night visit to the soundstage.

None of which matters when you watch Tracy in a movie: He had the extremely rare knack for making his acting invisible. He was always a craftsman rather than a star, and his awed peers knew it. (Sample quote: ”Spence is the best we have, because you don’t see the mechanism at work.” — Humphrey Bogart.) That bifurcation — the serene surface only occasionally hinting at the turmoil beneath — could serve as a metaphor for all of Hollywood during the Golden Age. We in the audience saw of the stars only what the studios and movie magazines wanted us to see — a sanitized vision of Olympians at play.

The reality, of course, is that they were human beings, with all the messiness that goes with it. But we weren’t paying to see the reality, were we? The reason we loved these people — the reason we still build cargo cults around movie actors — is that they seemed much closer to dreams than anyone we actually knew.

There’s another thing. Since the classic studio era has passed, it has become fashionable to ”out” many of its stars and directors. This is a cheap thrill, to be sure, and in some cases it actually adds insight to the historical record. But it also casts a harsh light on our own age’s neurotic need to pin a dead celebrity to the specimen board of yes or no sexuality. As mainstream culture grapples with the burgeoning gay frankness of the past decades, too many people get obsessed with putting famous names in one of two boxes, ”gay” or ”straight.”

What we sometimes forget and what the Hollywood of the 1930s knew — precisely BECAUSE everyone had to present a rigidly wholesome face to the public — is that gender identity tends to be fluid. Most people are NOT either strictly ”gay” or ”straight” but somewhere on the infinite points between the two; furthermore, where you find yourself on the graph can change over the course of a lifetime or a day, regardless of whether you act on it or not.

Maybe Spencer Tracy acted on it. Maybe not. Me, I don’t much care; I’ll stick with late show reruns of ”Man’s Castle” and ”Fury,” thank you. And if you care, do me a favor. Ask yourself why.