There is an old story about a stage actor having problems with the director William Wyler because his performance was too flamboyant. After each take Wyler said: ‘Next time, less.’ Finally, in exasperation the actor exploded: ‘If I give you any less now, I won’t be doing anything!’ ‘Now you’re getting the idea,’ said Wyler. In this sense Spencer Tracy was the movie director’s dream. One of the big figures from Hollywood’s golden age, he has always commanded admiration for his technical command of the difficult craft of movie acting. He was nominated for nine Academy Awards for Best Actor (the same number of nominations as Laurence Olivier – together they hold the record) and won two of them. If you turn off the sound on a Tracy film and watch how he builds up his performances, you can easily see him as a consummate watchmaker: innumerable bits of ‘business’ all carefully worked to create the illusion of naturalness.
Yet it is possible to mount a case that Tracy has been overrated simply because of his technical facility. The case for the prosecution would rest on five counts. First, he overuses minimalism, and there are roles where one wants a touch more dramatism but Tracy does not provide it.