Imagine being Cary Grant. Generation after generation of men the world over have fantasized just that, casting themselves in their ultimate debonair daydream while for six decades women imagined being with Cary Grant. Even kids born after he retired from movies can be heard trying their three-word imitation of his clipped velvet delivery: "Judy Judy Judy." John F. Kennedy thought Grant should be the star of his life story. He once starred in a movie called
Mr. Lucky, and indeed he seemed, on screen, the luckiest man alive, the embodiment of all our big-city dreams of charm and elegance and effortless accomplishment. "You know what's wrong with you?" Audrey Hepburn purred to him in
Charade. "Nothing." Cary Grant himself once admitted that even he wanted to be Cary Grant.
That perfection is now a memory. In Davenport, Iowa, last week, where he was planning to make a public appearance at a tribute, the 82-year-old star of 72 movies succumbed to a stroke. The
world has lost a quintessential romantic icon, probably the most purely likable leading man in the history of the movies.
In retrospect, the Hollywood movie is unimaginable without Grant. Subtract his body of work from the history books and it seems
as if half the truly indispensable entertainments vanish. The screwball comedy was built around his beleaguered candor - who else could have been so silly and so sexy opposite Katharine Hepburn in
Bringing Up Baby, so craftily suave winning back Irene Dunne in
The Awful Truth, such a master of machine-gun timing in His Girl
Friday? When casual aristocracy was needed for The Philadelphia
Story, only Grant's diffidently seductive style would do. But as the macho flier in
Only Angels Have Wings, he could make sourness a sate of grace, and he isn't afraid of showing a cold manipulative streak as he imperiled Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock's
To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest and in Stanley Donen's
Charade. That list just scratches the surface. How can we forget he was the young man Mae West invited to come up and see her in
She Done Him Wrong, the fighting adventurer in Gunga Din, the
conjurer of four-hankie heartbreak in Penny Serenade and An Affair to
Remember, the dapper aging playboy in Indiscreet?
It was perfectly fitting for a medium built on illusion that this paragon of wit and class was a lower-class kid from Bristol named Archibald Alexander Leach. Born in 1904, he was the son of a pants presser. When he was nine, his mother suffered a breakdown and was institutionalized; he would not see her again for 20 years. At 14, young Archie discovered his calling when he entered the
world of music-hall theater as a combination acrobat, dancer and pantomime. At 16, he came to the United States for the first time, though it was not until 1931 that he arrived in Hollywood, where Paramount signed him to a contract and told him he must change his name. Cary Grant was born. "I guess I just patterned myself on a kind of combination of Jack Buchanan - he was the reigning musical-comedy star of those days - and Noel Coward," Grant explained last year. "I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person. Or he became me."
His love affair with the audience was easier to sustain than his marriages. His first, in 1934, was to actress Virginia Cherrill; his fifth, and final marriage, to Barbara Harris in 1981. In between were the heiress Barbara Hutton, actress Betsy Drake and actress Dyan Cannon, who bore him his only child, Jennifer. His luridly publicized divorce from Cannon, with its revelations of LSD experiments and allegations of abuse, was Grant's closest brush with sandal,
but nothing in the long run could taint his image in the public's eye. After making his final film,
Walk, Don't Run in 1966 - one of the rare movies where he wasn't the romantic interest - Grant entered the world of business, serving on the board of directors of four companies, Faberge, Hollywood Park, MGM/UA and MGM Grand Hotels.
Like other actors who convey the illusion that they are just "playing themselves," Grant found that his awesome talents were chronically undervalued in Hollywood. He never won an Oscar for his roles, but received a special Academy Award in 1970 for his life's work. Now it is easy to see how indelible his light touch always was, how enduring his invisible art. Grant's genius was for making his work look easy, and by doing so he gave audiences a glimpse of a particular, worldly paradise. Impossible to imagine the century without a Cary Grant. Who would we hold up as our urbane measure?