She is tired. She has the sniffles. She has never been less interested in a blind date. But then: up-angle, backlight, and there he stands in her doorway, impeccably tailored, elegantly casual in manner - a perfectly beautiful man with, as she soon discovers, a singular style of speech. He is confident without being overbearing, confidential without being intrusive, quite inimitable despite the fact that the actor playing her visitor had one of the most imitated voices of this century. Never in the history of movies has a leading lady more quickly overcome her languors in order to get ready for romance. The year was 1958. The film was a comedy called
Indiscreet. And by this comparatively late date, neither Ingrid Bergman nor anyone else encountering Cary Grant, onscreen or off, had any alternative to bedazzlement as a response to him.
Better than anyone else, Grant understood that his public persona was a fiction, and a highly stylized one at that. "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant," he liked to say. "I want to be Cary Grant." Indeed, in a strange way, it had been his lifelong ambition, though at first he could not have given a name to his goal or, as he also admitted, define it with any accuracy. "I don't know that I've any style at all," he once told an interviewer. "I just patterned myself of a combination of Jack Buchanan [late debonair English musical-comedy star of the '20s and '30s], Noel Coward and Rex Harrison. I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be and I finally became that person. Or he became me. Or we met at some point." In any event, Grant apparently felt that the
process of self-invention on which he worked with so little visible strain but with such devotion reached apotheosis in Indiscreet, for he would later name it his favorite among the 72 feature films he made.
It is an agreeable enough film, of course. But did he really believe he was better as the urbane diplomat than he was as the playboy in comically desperate pursuit of marital reconciliation in
The Awful Truth? Or as the
absentminded paleontologist in Bringing Up Baby? And what about scheming Walter Burns in
His Girl Friday, one of the funniest misanthropes ever recoded by the camera? For that matter, what about
Gunga Din, The Philadelphia Story and Only Angels Have
Wings? Or the unforgettable work for Hitchcock - Suspicion,
Notorious and, possibly best of all, North by
These films, and several almost as good (mostly dating from Grant's golden era, from the mid-'30s to the mid-'40s), relied on his mercurial essence for their effectiveness. In a farce, there was often a bit of malice about him; playing romance, something wary, even near misogynistic in his relationship with a woman; and in every genre he imparted a sense of the fragility and impermanence of human arrangements. Not that such subtleties ever prevented him from taking a pratfall, or dressing up in drag, if necessary.
In later years, he decreed much of this work "tinny" and claimed a certain estrangement from the daring
young actor who had accomplished it. What he seemed to be saying was that he had not yet purified those performances of autobiography, had not yet completed the process of total reinvention that was the largest promise acting held out to him as a young man. Born Archibald Leach in bleak Bristol, England, son of a drinking, defeated father and a mother who was placed in a madhouse when he was ten, he was a lonely, latchkey child, who decided on a life in show biz the first time he visited backstage. "A dazzling land of smiling, jostling people .. classless, cheerful and carefree," is how he later described what he saw.
His first job, at age 14, confirmed his hunch, for he caught on with Bob Pender, who managed a troupe of boy acrobats as if it were a kindly, disciplined, extended family. Young Archie learned acrobatics, mime and,
above all, the joys of camaraderie and the need for collegial generosity. At the height of his career, he would remain the least narcissistic of actors, always willing to share scenes and to take a chance with some undignified business if someone thought it would work.
He came to the U.S. with Pender's company and decided to stay on. He failed his first screen test, then got a contract, his "nom de screen" and not much more from Paramount, where he made nearly a quarter of his films and no strong impression. He was noticed opposite Mae West and Marlene Dietrich, but it was in 1936, on a loan-out for an RKO flop,
Scarlett, that he finally "felt the ground under his feet," as George Cukor, the film's director, would put it. He played a type he had known in his past, a Cockney con man with a chipper way of expressing a gloomy view of human nature. Here, for the first time, he achieved that quicksilver quality that was the basis of this stardom and, ultimately, his legend.
This last is what people came to know best in recent years. It was the logical extension of his screen character as he had finally refined it, a healthy spirit who kept his troubles and even his memories to himself. Grant quit films in 1966 after
Walk, Don't Run, a relative failure. After that, the public saw only the odd, tastefully tantalizing glimpse of a man minding his own cheerful-seeming business, playing a graceful front man for Faberge cosmetics, doting on his fifth wife, Barbara, and his daughter Jennifer, 20, by his marriage to Actress Dyan Cannon. It was more than usually shocking in his sudden death of a stroke last week as he prepared for a charity appearance in Davenport, Iowa. One thought he might even elude mortality.
But, of course, he had - long since. The hasty media images by which we fed our curiosity about his years as a celebrity will fade. But the films of his younger manhood, in which his subject was not charm but its fragile and illusionary nature in a world where brutality often masquerades as farce - these will abide to delight and possibly even haunt the future. Some distant day, audiences may even come to agree with a minority of Grant's contemporaries that he was not merely the greatest movie star of his era but the medium's subtlest and slyest actor as well.