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The Ultimate Cary Grant Pages - www.carygrant.net


Film Comment - January/February 1987

Cary Grant 1904-1986

by Richard Corliss
(submitted by Barry Martin - Thanks Barry!)


"You know what wrong with you?" a frustrated Audrey Hepburn demands of Cary Grant in Charade.  She leans into him, her anger suddenly swooning into adoration, and murmurs.  "Nothing."  As far as Hollywood's honors society was concerned, nothing was precisely what was wrong with Cary Grant.  His resume boasted no Shakespeare, his nose wore no putty, his performances betrayed no sweat, his directors had no complaints, his films stoked no controversies.  And so he won no competitive Oscar.  That most men wanted to be Cary Grant, and most women wanted to have him, mattered not to the solons of the Motion Picture Academy.  Their insulting assumption was that Grant didn't achieve this character, he was born with it.  He was always just - and just magnificently - Cary Grant.  

Well, pooh on them.  He deserves to be cited along with the medium's top pioneers.  Edison developed the movie camera, D.W. Griffith discovered the closeup, the Brothers Warner brought sound to feature films, and Cary Grant - not his directors, not Paramount or RKO, not his fans - invented "Cary Grant."  Surely it was a creative triumph to have fashioned the movies' most enduring symbol of masculine grace, wit, and edge.  At the very least, he deserved a patent for producing a heart-throb machine that a couple of generations of audiences fell in love with.

Grant did his sculpting from some pretty raw elements.  At 13 he ran away from his factious working class home and hooked up with a troupe of acrobats.  By 16 he was in New York, where he carried advertising signs on stilts and worked as a Coney Island lifeguard.  Sure, he was always plenty gorgeous, but so were Fredric March and John Locke and Robert Taylor and Nils Asther and a hundred more glamour-studs.  Grand had other handicaps: a cutting tenor voice that refused to sake its Liverpool origins, some indifferent early scripts, and swirling rumors about his sexual preferences.  (Which was the true charade?  The poofter regalia he and Randolph Scott would don for a costume party, or the manly brio of his screen image?)

None of this mattered - and none of the later failed marriages or charges of wife beating or reported experiments with LSD - so comforting was our notion of "Cary Grant."  This creature took 27 films to be realized in shadowy form (the insouciant ghost in Topper) and two more to perfect (the jaunty divorcer in The Awful Truth).  But by then he was on a roll that hardly let up for a quarter century.  Some of us prefer the Grant who swam the straits of deboair roguery, in Holiday, His Girl Friday, Penny Serenade, and The Talk of the Town, to the more daring performer testing his audience with a gallery of nerds (Bringing Up Baby), macho aerobats (Only Angels Have Wings), and pratfalling farceurs (Arsenic and Old Lace).  But his celebrity soon made it tough for him to wriggle out of his suave sanctity and into a good scowl.  By 1941, he literally could do no wrong.  When cast in Suspicion, he forced the jettisoning of plot and logic because no one would believe that Cary Grant could scheme to poison his wife.

Hitchcock misused him again in Notorious (where Grant must go all stiff and envious as Ingrid Bergman vamps Claude Rains) but found the key for his star with To Catch a Thief.  There, Grant has to prove he is not stripping the bejeweled necks of the Riviera glitterati, and Grace Kelly has to pretend she cares whether this silky hunk is a common thief.  Exuding her unique aristocratic sexual musk, Kelly allows Grant to see her to the door of her hotel room, then plants lips to lips in the most economical and forthright display of lust seen in public to that day.

Grant was, of course, only amused by the Princess' tactics.  He had darker work to do for Hitchcock, in North by Northwest.  He and Eva Marie Saint are slinking toward a mutually mistrustful tryst.  In a sleeping car on the Twentieth Century Limited they circle each other in a mating dance that is also a war dance.  As he goes to caress her, his hands suddenly seem huge - King Kong mitts - and we realize that every tool of seduction he possesses is also a lethal weapon.  For all these years, all these films, he has been holding his sexual power in check.  He knows it can wound, kill.  And his audience realizes that the secret of Cary Grant's popularity was not energy but Olympian restraint.

Oh yes, he could act too - do the big Oscar-nomination-grabbing scene, as in the long take of his plea for custody of his and Irene Dunne's adopted child in Penny Serenade.  Did fine, partly because the character's anxiety twinned nicely with Grant's discomfort at pulling out all the thespic stops.  But this was not the most valuable lesson he would teach.  The true subtleties of acting and character, of revelation and concealment, took place in the arc of admiration that bound Grant to his audience, and set him apart.  The definitive movie idol, "Cary Grant" was a two-dimensional fiction that could be seen but not touched.  To see him was to love him.  To love him was never to know him.


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