Essays: Cary Grant |
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Cary Grant

by Peter Bogdanovich

Cary Grant was the first superstar I ever met. It was an odd experience, walking into an office at Universal – this was in 1961 – and confronting a man who didn’t know me but whom I’d known for as long as I could remember. He’d just come out of a long story conference, his hair was messy, he hadn’t shaved for a day or so, and his dark slacks and white shirt looked as though he’d slept in them. Clifford Odets was a mutual friend – he was still alive then – and he had asked Cary to see me, so we talked about Clifford for a while, and I don’t remember a word of what was said. My mind was flooded with images from all the Cary Grant movies I’d seen – and I had this uncanny desire to be terribly honest and open with the man, at the same time realizing this might easily put him off. It’s a feeling I’ve had with several movie stars I’ve met – knowing them so much better than they could ever know me – and finding it impossible to satisfactorily bridge the gap. All I could think about was how like his movie self he was – the same charm, humour, the totally uncalculated yet unmistakable air of mystery. I kept thinking, “He’s just like Cary Grant.” The only difference I noticed was that I’d never seen him laugh on the screen as he did in life – because in person he really laughs, his eyes tear, and he looks joyous.

It must have been a thrilling conversation from his point of view – this kid staring at him and trying not to be completely moronic. If he noticed, I certainly never did – he was graciousness itself. I guess he was used to the reaction he was getting from me – he’d been a star by then for about twenty-five years – and must have encountered a lot of gawking. (He told me some years later that people often come up and ask him to say something – anything – they just want to hear him speak.)

Of course, it wasn’t his celebrity that impressed me; I can think of several stars who wouldn’t have affected me one way or another, but Cary Grant has always been among my three or four favourite actors, and certainly one of a handful of the great personalities. What sets him apart from all the rest, however – something especially pertinent in this time when the studio system has all but disappeared – is that Cary was the first movie star to go free-lance. From the time his Paramount contract ended in 1936, Grant was never again signed exclusively with any studio. Therefore, unlike any other film star (until the early Fifties), he himself picked the scripts and the directors he cared to work with; no executive assigned him to pictures, he was not forced to do anything he didn’t want to. Grant was responsible for his material, and formed the arc of his career, shaped his movie persona through his own choices as men like Bogart or Cagney or Tracy or Cooper were not as free to do. It’s significant, in fact, that his unique characteristics did not begin to be seen till after his Paramount tenure was over. Until then, he was little more than a likable, slightly awkward, perhaps too good-looking, and fairly conventional leading man in a string of largely forgettable pictures. If some remember him opposite Mae West in She Done Him Wrong or Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus (a couple of the good Paramount assignments), it is because he is so surprisingly unlike the Cary Grant that was to evolve.

We begin to notice the difference first in George Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett in 1935, and two years later, already almost perfected, in Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth. By 1938, with Cukor’s Holiday and Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, the name Cary Grant became synonymous with a certain character – a kind of cockney brashness combined with impeccable taste and a detached and subtle wit. What made him so desirable as a player and so inimitable (and there’ve been many counterfeiters through the years) was a striking mixture of farceur’s talents and matinee idol’s looks. Which other star could express anger by whinnying like a horse (as he did first in Bringing Up Baby) and still retain his masculinity? Who else could do a cartwheel to express a love of life (as in Holiday) and make it seem so utterly right? He had a way of saying the most lacklustre line that would make it seem witty (see something like Dream Wife sometime).

He became such an accomplished master at comedy, both high and low, that his dramatic talents have been generally overlooked. However, the emotional depth and range of his work in films like Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings or George Stevens’ Penny Serenade or Clifford Odets’ None But the Lonely Heart should dispel any doubts. Even a minor but likable melodrama like Richard Brooks’ first film, Crisis, is heightened considerably by the sense of truth and the professional skill he brings to his role; he plays a surgeon – watch him in the operation scenes and you will believe he has done it a thousand times. Given the right script and even an indifferent director, Grant’s personality can transform a film like Mr. Lucky into something altogether memorable and affecting. When all the elements are right, his presence becomes an indispensable part of a masterpiece: Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, Notorious.

The ideal leading man, the perfect zany, the most admirable dandy and the most charming rogue: except perhaps in his earliest years at Paramount, he was never allowed to die at the end of a film and with good reason – who would believe it? Cary was indestructible.

Yet, by 1965, he had never won an Academy Award. That year, accepting the Oscar for co-writing a Grant vehicle called Father Goose, Peter Stone was perfectly succinct: “My thanks to Cary Grant,” he said, “who keeps winning these things for other people.” Five years later, when the Academy finally gave him an honorary award for his whole career (it was the evening’s highlight and the only TV appearance he’s ever made), Grant gave an especially gracious and spirited thank you speech, prominently mentioning several of the best directors he’s worked with. It was quite a list, and no accident either, but rather a monument to his good taste as well as his ability – for he has worked with more good directors than any other star in pictures: Hawks (5 times), Hitchcock (4), Stanley Donen (4), Cukor (3), McCarey (3), Stevens (3), Raoul Walsh, Frank Capra, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Blake Edwards, Garson Kanin.

Each man brought out different facets of Grant’s fascinating personality; I have asked several of them about certain particularly delightful moments in their Grant films, often getting the same reply: “That was Cary’s.” Hitchcock, whose reputation at least (though I know it’s not true) is of a director who cares little for actors, told me, “One doesn’t direct Cary Grant, one just puts him in front of a camera.”

Cary hasn’t made a film since 1966, when he did Walk Don’t Run, in which he let Jim Hutton and Samantha Eggar have the love interest, while he played their matchmaker, a role that had been done originally by Charles Coburn in the first version of that story, The More the Merrier. It was not an unlikable movie, but audiences didn’t care to see him in that sort of part. There is a moment in the movie when Cary gives Miss Eggar a glass of champagne and a kiss on the hand that must have made everyone yearn to see him go further – it was certainly the most romantic bit in the picture. But Cary had decided he was too old to play opposite young women, and, in fact, I would guess the relative failure of Walk Don’t Run prompted his unannounced exit from the movies. If people only wanted him as a romantic figure and he felt he was too old, the only thing to do was quit. How does one convince him he’s wrong?

I told Cary recently that I’d love to get him into a movie again, and he answered jokingly that if there was a role for an old fellow in a wheelchair, maybe he’d do it. No matter that he only looks about fifty years old, and that most women I know (young or old) become slightly moony at the mention of his name. Nothing to be done – he is off in the international business world and fascinated by it, he claims. Perhaps he is happy, but the movies have lost someone quite irreplaceable. Too soon. He can argue that he’s done everything in pictures, and of course he has, but I do wish he were still at it. Personally, I’d give anything to have him in a movie, as I know many directors would, and I’m sure audiences would not be unhappy to have that special style and unique sophistication before them again. He must be to them, as he was to me that first time I met him, an old and dear friend. We miss him.

April 1972 

In 1985, for his eighty-first birthday, I sent Cary a little Styrofoam caricature of himself with a bunch of helium balloons attached (an idea I’d borrowed from a present Maria Shriver sent me): It seems so fitting for Grant – didn’t he always make us feel lighter than air? A few days later I got a call from Cary – and his lovely bride, Barbara – which quite bowled me over: He had loved the present! “Barbara and I just got back from Barbados,” he cried excitedly over the phone, “and we walk in – it’s my birthday so there’s all these presents al over the place, you know – and sitting up on the piano is this little Cary Grant!” he said the name as though it were not his own. “We put him on the dinner table!” He sounded like a kid – ever-young Apollo, the cine-mythographers might say, or the swiftest, most charismatic Mercury ever to grace the screen.
Cary also has often behaved as an angel in my life, been wise and helpful in his comments and advice, and deeply sympathetic at moments when most others had turned away. I realized the other day that our first meeting had taken place twenty-four years ago, which made me feel considerably older and made Cary seem younger – as usual.