Cary Grant said:
“To play yourself—your true self—is the hardest thing in the world. Watch people at a party. They’re playing themselves…but nine out of ten times the image they adopt for themselves is the wrong one.
“In my earlier career I patterned myself on a combination of Englishmen—AE Matthews, Noel Coward, and Jack Buchanan, who impressed me as a character actor. He always looked so natural. I tried to copy men I thought were sophisticated and well dressed like Douglas Fairbanks or Cole Porter. And Freddie Lonsdale, the British playwright, always had an engaging answer for everything.
“I cultivated raising one eyebrow and tried to imitate those who put their hands in their pockets with a certain amount of ease and nonchalance. But at times, when I put my hand in my trouser pocket with what I imagined was great elegance, I couldn’t get the blinking thing out again because it dripped from nervous perspiration!
“I guess to a certain extent I did eventually become the characters I was playing. I played at someone I wanted to be until I became that person. Or he became me.”
These are fascinating statements. He was box-office gold for decades, and the Cary Grant persona was a consciously created phenomenon. He did it. The studios didn’t do it, the marketing folks didn’t do it, the man didn’t even have an agent, for God’s sake. Grant, through a period of trial and error, tried things, kept those that worked, discarded those that didn’t. The fact that he seemed so easy and commanding onscreen is just one of the many miracles of Cary Grant.
It is even more startling when you watch his early roles, before he hit paydirt with The Awful Truth. Later in life, he expressed mild annoyance (in a gentlemanly manner) when Mae West would give herself the credit for “discovering” him. She had, indeed, pulled him out of the crowd to be the eye-candy in first She Done Him Wrong, then in I’m No Angel.
It’s interesting to watch She Done Him Wrong now because Cary Grant had not “found himself” yet. He’s good-looking, but in a kind of soft, generic way (or as generic as he could be). He’s there for West to drool over. There are certain hints of the persona-to-come, clearly visible in She Done Him Wrong: his strange ramrod way of walking, the miasma of crankiness that would become such an important and funny part of who he was (nobody was crankier than a cranky Cary Grant!), and then, in the last moment of the film, when he leans in to kiss her, the humorless do-gooder character he has been playing up until this point suddenly says, in a low growl, “You bad girl…” before going in for the pounce. The movie closes on that line. It’s a rather blatant example of the star power that was to come, the effect he would have on audiences, but he hadn’t yet found the “vehicle.” This is not entirely the fault of the directors or the studios. Grant said it himself. He didn’t know who he was yet. He had a lot of vaudeville experience. He was an acrobat. He had spent time being the “straight man” in comedy teams. He was handsome. He had a thick Cockney accent. He was oddly un-placeable. If he had remained in the “eye candy” roles, he would have had a short and uninteresting career.
What an honest admission to make: “I played at someone I wanted to be until I became that person.”
The most delightful thing about Cary Grant to me is that he was a goofy comedian and character actor trapped in the body of a gorgeous leading man. It adds a variety to his work (has any actor ever had as spectacular a run as he had in 1938 and 1939?), and no matter how many times I see all of those movies, he still makes me laugh out loud. Excited. That’s the word. I watch Bringing Up Baby maybe once a month, on average, and it doesn’t matter that I’ve seen it more times than I can count, I still find myself getting excited about upcoming bits: “Oh, he’s about to slip on the olive!” or “Oh, he’s about to plunge into the river!”, whatever it is. The movie just gets better with repetition.
I love him. What can I say.
Cary Grant was a cautious man. A notorious tightwad. He managed his own career, at a time when such a thing was unheard of. He did not align himself with one studio. He freelanced. Unprecedented. He negotiated his own deals, and decided what he would do next. He was his own man. Billy Wilder, a good friend, was, to the end of his life (at least evidenced by his book-length interview with Cameron Crowe), bummed out that Grant never appeared in one of his movies. It seems like that partnership would have been a slamdunk. Wilder always had Grant in mind when he planned a film. He wanted Grant for the part Bogart eventually played in Sabrina, for the part Gary Cooper played in Love in the Afternoon. Despite their long friendship, Grant always hesitated. It is a mystery as to why, and according to Wilder’s recollections, even Grant didn’t have a clear answer.
He didn’t put himself in just anyone’s hands (although, like I said, it seemed like he was meant to be in a Billy Wider film!), and once he became a gigantic movie star, he really only trusted one director to “mess” with his persona, and that was Alfred Hitchcock. Grant worked with Hitchcock four times (Suspicion, Notorious, To Catch a Thief, North by Northwest). North by Northwest is, perhaps, the most blatant example of Hitchcock not only utilizing the typical Grant persona, but subverting it, turning it inside out. There seems to be a vicious delight in how Hitchcock decimates the slick man we see at the opening of the film. “What else can we throw at him? I know! Let’s make Cary Grant scramble in the dirt under the ears of corn. Let’s give him no way out. Let’s watch him squirm.” Not to mention the fact that Hitchcock makes Roger Thornhill a kind of decaying mama’s boy, a slick smooth ad man but with a blunted emotional makeup (which, of course, is then awakened over the course of the film). If you think about who Cary Grant was at the time he made that film, the biggest star in the world, known for his elegance and handsomeness and enduring romantic appeal, you can see what a risk he took with North by Northwest. But those risks were out of character for him, and reserved for an elite few he trusted. Billy Wilder’s frustration rings through the ages. “Why won’t you trust ME?”
George Cukor wanted Cary Grant for the part of Norman Maine in A Star is Born. Grant said no. Cukor was stunned and said, “You were born to play this part, Cary.” Grant replied, “And that is precisely why I won’t play it.” Cukor never really forgave him for that, but in that moment with his old friend Cukor, you can see the intractability of the man. He would not reveal what he did not choose to reveal, and that was final. There are many great “what if” moments in Grant’s career, because he did turn down so many parts, and Grant as Norman Maine is the most compelling. I have actually spent time imagining in my head what that would have been like.
Enough. I could talk about the man all day.
I had to be brutal in choosing “5 for the Day”, because I kept getting swayed toward other parts, other roles I loved. I’m a big fan of the weep-fest Penny Serenade, for example. Even with all of the swelling violins and schmaltz, he reveals something in that character that he never had before, and never did again. He’s doing some quite subtle work there, and I love every second of it. But the ones I chose I feel show the development of the Cary Grant persona, how a bit came out here, a bit came out there, until finally, he emerged from the chrysalis, as though he had been fully formed all along.
1. Sylvia Scarlett (1935, George Cukor): What a weird little movie this is. Katharine Hepburn and her father are on the run from an embezzlement charge. To hide out, she cuts off her hair, dresses up as a boy, and somehow, they decide to form a traveling troupe of actors and acrobats, who cavort through the English countryside. Along the way, they encounter Jimmy Monkley, played by Cary Grant, a Cockney conman, who helps them put up the show, and there are great (and strange) scenes of the outdoor stages they have rigged up, with Grant and Hepburn in puffy Pierrot costumes, tumbling and somersaulting around the stage. This is early Grant here, so it’s not a done deal that he will “get the girl,” and as a matter of fact, the film does not go in that way at all. But Grant steals the picture.
Hepburn said it herself many times, that she was not particularly good here, and Grant is the reason to see Sylvia Scarlett. Up until that point (with a couple of notable exceptions), he had played the generic leading man about which Mae West reportedly said, “If he can talk, I’ll have him.” Those types of roles didn’t “release” Grant, though. He seems to be wearing an ill-fitting suit. The FACE fits the part, but the personality bucks against it. In Sylvia Scarlett, however, he got to loosen up, show his physical prowess, be a bit wacky and undignified. Grant said about that role, “Sylvia Scarlett was my breakthrough. It permitted me to play a character I knew. Thanks to George Cukor. He let me play it the way I thought it should be played because he didn’t know who the character was.” Cukor said (and I love this line): “Sylvia Scarlett was the first time Cary felt the ground under his feet as an actor. He suddenly seemed liberated. It was very exhilarating to see.” Grant is so compelling here that he tips the balance of the picture, in a way that is not quite right for the film. Monkley feels like the star of Sylvia Scarlett. He is a conniving criminal, but you sense the heat between him and Hepburn, and you want them to get together. It is how it should go. But that was not the story being told. So the film is really the “birth” of Cary Grant. Never again would he be the second-banana.
2. His Girl Friday (1940, Howard Hawks): Hawks’ manic newspaper drama represents Grant at the height of his verbal powers and comedic gift. He is on fire here. As Walter Burns, the fast-talking workaholic, every conversation is a linguistic battlefield. The script was one of the longest in Hollywood at that time (just in terms of page-length), but Hawks had everyone speaking so fast and simultaneously that five pages of dialogue would be played in 45 seconds. It was controversial at the time, because the studio heads thought that nobody would understand what was being said, since everyone kept interrupting everyone else. But Hawks knew what he was about. He crafted the dialogue specifically so that the beginnings and endings of each sentence were irrelevant filler, so if you didn’t hear them, it wouldn’t matter. Therefore, the interruptions didn’t halt the flow of the story, it just added to the frenzied mania of that newsroom. Nobody could go faster than Grant. The best part for me about his acting here, though, is what he is doing between the lines. This is why he is such a damn good actor. He has a lot to handle here, and the dialogue is complicated, fast, and intricate. But it feels like a free-fall: once a scene begins, all bets are off and he seems to be improvising every second of it. He has internal reactions to things Rosalind Russell has said, he is always sparring, dodging, listening. That much dialogue could make it difficult for some actors to remember to listen. Cary Grant never forgets to listen. The first scene between him and Rosalind Russell in his office is, yes, a masterpiece of fast dialogue. But why I love it so is because it is also a tour de force of listening. All done at breakneck speed.
3. Only Angels Have Wings (1939, Howard Hawks): I’ve got a couple of films on my “favorite movies of all time” list, and this one has a permanent spot at the tippity-top. Everyone is awesome here, Thomas Mitchell, Rita Hayworth, Richard Barthelmess, Jean Arthur, but to watch Cary Grant as Geoff Carter, strolling through that film at his cranky apex, is to witness “a thing of beauty and a joy forever” (to paraphrase John Keats). Pauline Kael in her essay on Cary Grant, “The Man From Dream City,” analyzes the importance of this particular role in the Grant lexicon. Grant was a leading man. But he was not a Clark Gable kind of leading man, who pounced on the girls he wanted. Instead, Grant held back. He felt that he should stand still in romantic scenes, and let the girls come to him. It made him more powerful. This was a conscious decision on his part, and you can see it come up time and time again throughout his career. He understood himself, and his “creation,” better than anyone. There’s a late-night scene in the bar between Cary Grant and Jean Arthur which is a perfect example of his strange passiveness in the face of romance. Not passive as in limp or ineffective, but he doesn’t move in on her. He makes a pretty blatant play: “Want to come up to my room?” he asks her. But watch how he says it. He does not smolder with intention. He’s remote, opaque, and it almost comes off as a gentle challenge: “Can you take it, dear? Could you take being with someone like me?”. There’s a sadness there, too. He would love to find a girl who could “take” being with him, but so far they’ve all let him down. It’s a beautiful moment. In Cary Grant’s long career, I have many treasured moments from him, but that scene in the bar, late at night, with Jean Arthur, is my favorite.
4. Notorious (1946, Alfred Hitchcock): Hitchcock sensed a darkness in Cary Grant, something that sparked his imagination and made him think it would be interesting to put him in a suspenseful film. Their first film together was Suspicion, where Cary Grant plays a sketchy guy married to a woman (played by Joan Fontaine) who begins to suspect that he is a murderer. It’s a good film, with an unsatisfying ending (Hitchcock was angry about it, it was forced on him), and you can see both Hitchcock AND Grant making an attempt at subverting the Grant persona. What would it be like to have Grant come off as slightly shady, untrustworthy, potentially dangerous? Hitchcock loved to mess with audience expectations like that. Suspicion was not wholly successful, it did not have the courage of its convictions, but in Notorious, the second Hitchcock-Grant pairing, they got it right. If I had to look over Grant’s career, I would have to say that his portrayal of “Devlin” is the most revealing, the most disturbing. It stands out. He’s almost universally unpleasant here, a cold man, fearful (openly so: “I’ve always been afraid of women,” he says to Bergman), and willing to throw the woman he loves under the bus—for the sole reason that she will then not know how much he loves her. He is so chilly here.
Devlin likes to think he holds his cards close to his chest, but that could not be farther from the truth. There is an almost frightening lack of self-awareness in the guy, which Grant nails. It adds to the tension in the audience, because it’s frustrating to see a man refuse to perceive what is really going on with him. Brilliant. Because of how he has played the entire film, with an emotional distance that borders on cruelty, the last scene in Notorious, when he finally shows up to rescue the woman he loves from the Nazi mansion, is breathtaking. Devlin has suddenly understood. He knows who he is. He has stopped being afraid. He loves her. Love is not easy for this man. He is damaged. Broken. We don’t know why, and it doesn’t matter why. He has fallen in love with someone, and instead of it being a pleasant experience, it is actually harassing and annoying. You can feel him refusing to let his heart open, even though it will cost him his own happiness. When he enters the bedroom upstairs and sees Bergman, ill and near death on the bed, the tenderness that suddenly pours out of him is almost unbearable to watch. Grant has never been better. He doesn’t betray the character he has been playing in the rest of the film by easily pouring on the romance as though the floodgates have opened. Instead, he holds her close, her head flopping back in her near-coma, whispering to her urgently to stay awake, stay conscious, and when she finally asks him, “Why didn’t you tell me you loved me before?” he says, “I was a fat-headed guy full of pain.” Take a look at how Grant says that line. It takes courage to reveal what he reveals in that moment.
5. Charade (1963, Stanley Donen): One of the things that is interesting about this film, matching up a young Audrey Hepburn with a Cary Grant who was 59-years-old, is that Grant understood in his bone marrow that the only way this would work, the only way this romance would not be creepy, is if she were the initiator. She had to come to him, she had to pursue him. Grant was explicit in his feelings about this, in initial meetings with Stanley Donen. Grant, although he himself liked younger women in his real life, knew that an audience might have a problem with that, and so he wanted to make sure that he never pursued her. Smart actor, and also all of a piece with the rest of his leading man career, where, although he was always dominant (the man was Cary Grant after all), he hid behind a mask of passivity, standing back from his leading ladies, as they repeatedly fell all over him.
That was how it worked for him. He always remained a little bit remote—sometimes because he was playing an abstracted workaholic (Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, to some degree), or because there was something in him that was damaged, and he didn’t want to be hurt again (Notorious). Hepburn swoons over Grant. She stares up at him with gaga eyes, tracing his dimple with her finger (“How do you shave in there?” she asks, a question many of us probably have wished to ask as well), and it’s a very interesting example of how to utilize someone’s massive star-power. By that I mean, Cary Grant was always Cary Grant. Sometimes he highlighted one aspect, sometimes another, but you could never get away from the fact that the guy was a gigantic star. Charade, a movie I adore, openly admits this fact. He didn’t have to play against his giant fame, he didn’t have to pretend he was anything other than what he was: a hugely compelling still-vital still-gorgeous man, beloved by pretty much everyone. He wears that mantle with ease (not a small task), and without his subtlety of understanding of who he was in films, and what was expected of him, the film would not work. He’s nearing the end of his career at that point. Grant didn’t want to become the old guy with four lines in a movie. Charade shows, however, that Grant probably could have gone on indefinitely. The fact that he CHOSE to stop acting is just another indication of how smart he was, how protective he was of what he had created and nurtured.
Grant, as his best characterizations showed, was always his own man. He had a reason for everything he did, and he didn’t feel compelled to have to explain himself. If it didn’t feel right, he didn’t do it. That may have led to some pretty serious missed opportunities, but Grant seemed okay with that. He may not have revealed it all to us, but that’s part of his eternal appeal. The mystery remains. What is left is the work.
I’ll give the last word to Billy Wilder, because, as I mentioned, I can still feel his frustration from the afterlife, of all the movies he MIGHT have made with Cary Grant.
“On film, Cary Grant could walk into the room and say ’Tennis anyone’ like no one else. You don’t value the skill until you see a less skilled actor try the same thing. It’s pure gold.”
House contributor Sheila O’Malley blogs about film, literature, photography and life at The Sheila Variations.