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Love on the Run: Cary Grant @ BAM

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Love on the Run: Cary Grant @ BAM

“Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.”

—Cary Grant, née Archie Leach

Viewership is by nature bisexual. It compels us to take on the perspectives of men desiring women, of women desiring men, of lesbians and gay men desiring each other, and of the omnipresent (a-)sexual outside observer. Art doesn’t hold a mirror up to nature; it creates its own nature, and allows us to enter other people. Yet pun aside, bisexuality isn’t only a form of lust. It’s also a lifestyle. One can be bi in one’s tastes for avant-garde and for commercial art, for health food and for junk food, for football and for ballet. It suggests an ability to turn two differing states of mind into one—openness—and then to occupy the space between them as well.

As a new BAM retrospective (the second part, following one last year) shows, Cary Grant may have been the most bisexual Hollywood star. This is more referring to how he lived onscreen than to how he lived off it, though we think about both when we watch him. We know—or can find out easily enough, at carygrant.net—that the man had two names, the name he was born with (Leach) and the showbiz name he took on legally, the “C.G.” inspired by Clark Gable; that he grew up a poor vaudevillian but played a rich man in films; that the British boy became an American citizen, and bent his Cockney accent into something more mid-Atlantic; that he was part Jewish, part Christian (giving an extra-special awkwardness to the 1942 comedy Once Upon a Honeymoon, showing July 16, when the Nazis mistake him and Ginger Rogers for Jews); that he shuttled between studios; that he was married multiple times, and that he was dogged by rumors of gay affairs to boot.

The constant, persistent dual identities, though, all synched up to the Grant onscreen, who consistently straddled plains. When he began making films in 1932, Paramount thought him a conventional romantic lead and plugged him into films accordingly to woo women as disparate as Sylvia Sidney, Marlene Dietrich, and Mae West, but it didn’t work. Grant seems adrift in his earlier movies partly and paradoxically because the studio kept tossing him lovely life rafts. Yet his best moment in the series’s opening film, 1932’s Thirty Day Princess (July 9), isn’t his last romantic embrace with Sidney, but rather the tiny little moment at a frothy, fancy club. She asks him if someone broke his heart, and he practically throws away the answer, “Someone is going to,” then shifts his face.

The standard clinch and kiss didn’t suit Grant; he looked much more comfortable moving away from or between women, simultaneously stiff and impotent, a man apart. This distance, in fact, is what made him desirable. Bisexual may not be the right word for him so much as bilateral—he literally kept moving, and the camera raced to keep up with him alongside the women. Manny Farber singled out Grant’s His Girl Friday performance as an example of how, arms and legs akimbo, ducking and diving, an actor can literally dictate a film’s space. And the way that Grant dictated space, more often than not, was sexual.

His pacing was sexual, too. Grant, like many of the other greatest, brightest stars—Bogart, Cagney, Stewart, Kate Hepburn—commanded attention with beauty and elocution, yes, but also with his ability to control a movie’s pace, both by speeding it up and by slowing it down. Among classical Hollywood’s directors, Howard Hawks could push a pace the best of anyone, and so became Grant’s man Friday. The Hawks theme and style are one outfit that suited Grant perfectly; a male bubble is punctured by female invasion and flees, deflated, from her as fast as possible. BAM showed two Grant-Hawks films previously (His Girl Friday and the dazzling corn of Only Angels Have Wings) and follows them now with I Was a Male War Bride (July 18), Monkey Business (July 28), and Bringing Up Baby (July 13). The latter film is a miracle of speed, as Grant plays a paleontologist assembling a stable, ordered, dead thing—a dinosaur skeleton, or his life—which the crazy Katherine Hepburn sends collapsing to the ground.

David Thomson is right when he claims that Grant was Hepburn’s best screen partner, as they dash like Formula One cars trying to outrace each other (by contrast Hepburn’s later costar, Spencer Tracy, moves like a Winnebago). Grant’s tendency to flip his lid and flee, and flee expressively—leaping full into the air spread like a trampoline—made him ideal for screwball comedies, one of the most popular film genres of the ’30s and early ’40s, whose essence consisted of strong women assaulting men. Grant and his best screwball partners—Hepburn, Irene Dunne, and Ginger Rogers—altered each other physically, and the physical shifts suggest relationship shifts. (An example from Monkey Business: Grant stands above a seated Rogers, dictating, until she gets up dancing, and he bends a little following her.)

In film, the way that people move in relation to each other often suggests the power between them. The tension of watching Grant in comedy comes from watching him try to control space, and the joy comes from watching him adjust or even break his space once another person invades it. The fact that the other person is usually female makes the threat explicitly sexual, but a physical relationship is always simultaneously a sexual one, especially for someone both as free in his movements and as possessive of his clothes as Grant is. Pauline Kael once noted that the most tender relationship in a Cary Grant movie—and, by no coincidence, the most harmonious sharing of space—isn’t between Grant and a woman, in fact, but between Grant and his Indian manservant in the adventure film Gunga Din (July 22).

Kael was also right in arguing that Grant couldn’t wear any one costume for long. The reason he wouldn’t work in a noir film, where the detective wears a perpetual overcoat for protection, nor in a western, where the cowboy’s weighted by guns, is the same reason he has to keep racing in counterpoint to his clean business suit, and why he has to burst through the scenes in his movies that require him to wear drag. (A Bringing Up Baby character asks why Grant’s wearing a dress, and he yells, “I just went gay all of a sudden!” The point of the line isn’t the “gay,” but the “sudden.”) Yet there were a few genres that he could move between like clothes, or locations, or identities. The difference between comedy and drama is largely pace—you can watch this difference unfold over a film like 1957’s An Affair to Remember (July 23), where Grant and Deborah Kerr’s joy turns to sadness as their moves towards and away from each other slow down.

Alfred Hitchcock, Grant’s other great director (jaunt through North by Northwest July 11), also understood pace. A masterful example of their work together: One of the most celebrated kisses in movie history lasts a bittersweet, agonizing length. Grant and Ingrid Bergman meet in Notorious’s (July 25) hotel room. They embrace, and then he pulls away, slowly, to answer the telephone; she follows, her head resting on his shoulder, and the camera follows them, slowly (Hitchcock said that he wanted the audience to be part of a ménage a trois). They kiss again, and again, but Grant places the telephone between them as a physical barrier. It suggests an emotional one as well.

“This is a very strange love affair,” she says.

“Why?”

“Maybe because you don’t love me.”

The scene isn’t so different from His Girl Friday’s ending, where Rosalind Russell’s eyes fall over Grant as he dazzles both her and the phone; the major difference is that His Girl Friday moves too quickly for us to do anything but hop onto the woman’s enchantment, while Notorious’s steady roll leaves us aware and rational enough to feel deeply sorry for her. We might ask whether Grant’s character in either of these films—or in any of his movies—can love people, or simply collects them. To try to answer would be to impose interiors on exteriors, which is seemingly a mistake, but really what every viewer does while watching a film. However we orient ourselves, we bring our sexual fantasies to Grant. We form him as much as he informs us. So it’s easiest for everyone if his films end with a kiss.

BAMcinématek’s Cary Grant series runs from July 9 - 29. For a complete series schedule, click here.