Before you read this column today, go watch Spencer Tracy in Father of the Bride or A Guy Named Joe, or Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, or Bad Day At Black Rock, or Adam’s Rib, or Judgment At Nuremberg, or Inherit The Wind.
Katherine Hepburn said to Spencer Tracy “you were, really, the greatest movie actor. I say this because I believe it and I’ve heard so many people of standing in our business say it – from Olivier to Lee Strasberg, David Lean, name it. You could do it, and you could do it with that glorious simplicity, that directness.” Elizabeth Taylor said, “His acting seemed almost effortless, it seemed almost as if he wasn’t doing anything, and yet he was doing everything. It came so subtly out of his eyes, every muscle in his face…” Richard Widmark said “It’s what every actor tries to strive for – to make it so simple, so real that anybody in the audience can say, ‘Oh, I could do that.’”
And this is Tracy himself giving advice to young actors on how to achieve success. “Come to work on time, know your lines, and don’t bump into the other actors.”
It’s advice that has come to mean more and more to me as I’ve matured as a writer. Tracy’s acting was the epitome of simplicity, of naturalness, of easy reality, and that what I try to do in my writing.
I’m not Spencer Tracy, though. It’s not easy for me to find my mark and remember my lines. Mostly I sweat like Jake LaMotta in the 13th round, bobbing and weaving and dodging the weedy dialogue, the pusillanimous paragraphs, and the purple prose screaming for attention. I’m not that quick on my feet; they deliver their fair share of jabs, upper cuts, and low blows to my brain and end up on my computer screen. And yeah, sometimes I want to throw up my hands, cry uncle and give in to the exhaustion, just go down for the count and let the fight be over.
But I don’t. I delete, and delete, and delete, and write again, and struggle to find the right words, because words are important, and good stories are made up of words that don’t obfuscate or complicate the story, but reveal the truth of it.
There’s a story from the Talmud, the written scholarship of Jewish law. A Gentile went to the rabbis of his city, saying to each that he would become a Jew if the rabbi could teach the whole Torah while standing one foot. Every rabbi chased him away, saying that it took years of study; what he asked was impossible. Finally this Gentile met with Rabbi Hillel, and, standing one foot, repeated his request. “Teach me the whole Torah while I stand here like this and I will become a Jew.” Rabbi Hillel said “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor. All the rest is commentary.”
And I’ll try not to bump into the other actors, Spence!
*Keep It Simple, Stupid.
TUESDAY MORNING: Emily S. Whitten
TUESDAY AFTERNOON: Michael Davis