Editor’s Choice January/February 2007

Becoming Cary Grant

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"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.” That meeting—when Archie Leach, the Bristol-born son of a part-Jewish suit presser, came to be fully assimilated by his creation, Cary Grant—amounts to one of the great events in the annals of twentieth-century culture. It created what the critic David Thomson (in A Biographical Dictionary of Film, the finest reference book on the movies) flatly declares to be “the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema.” And it’s a joy to watch: although the meeting was years in the making, you can actually see it come to fruition in a single movie, Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937). Grant’s performance in that film was, in every sense, transformative.

In 1931, Archie Leach—onetime latchkey kid (when he was nine he came home from school one day to find his mother missing; his two-timing, alcoholic father had secretly committed her, despite her apparent sanity, to the Country Home for Mental Defectives; she would be lost to Grant until he was thirty-one) and erstwhile vaudevillian (from fourteen to twenty-three he’d performed as an acrobat, juggler, stilt walker, and mime; his experience in acrobatic troupes honed his phenomenal physical grace and exquisite comic timing, and inculcated in him his universally praised generosity and team-spiritedness as a performer)—interrupted his well-paying if unremarkable Broadway career to try Hollywood. The execs at Paramount put him under contract and told him to come up with a screen name; he chose one that conjured the image of the man he wished to become.

An insipid, undefined pretty boy on screen, he appeared in twenty pictures in four years, nearly a quarter of the films he’d ever make, and failed to distinguish himself—though he woodenly received Mae West’s most famous, and most misquoted, line: “Why don’t you come up some time and see me?” Indeed, his pervasive, obvious discomfort in these creaky movies is the only evidence of his innate intelligence and taste as an actor. But in 1936, something clicked when he played a supporting role in Sylvia Scarlett. Though it was a mess of a picture, he shone as a Cockney swindler, a character close to his roots, rather than the stilted Valentino he usually played. The film’s director, George Cukor, recalled that the nearly thirty-two-year-old Grant “flowered; he felt the ground under his feet.”

In middle age, Grant would write that in his youth he had lacked “daring and abandon,” as well as “confidence and the courage to enjoy life.” But now he abruptly came into his own. With his contract soon to expire at Paramount, he resolved to choose his own roles and shape his own career. In one of the gutsiest gambits in Hollywood history, he broke from the studio system, becoming the first freelance star in the modern era. He soon made Topper, a flat, “sophisticated” trifle, but one that made oodles of money and displayed Grant’s heretofore unrevealed feel for light comedy. That same year, though, he also made The Awful Truth—and seemingly from nowhere the Cary Grant persona gloriously appeared, fully formed. All at once there was the detached, distracted wit; the knowing charm; the arch self-mockery; the bemused awareness of his audience, with whom he was sharing a joke (a quality that made him simultaneously cool and warm); the perfectly timed stylized comedic movements—the cocked head, the double takes. And, not least, the good-natured ease combined with a genius for pitiless teasing (see the hilarious, similarly agonizing interrogations, in The Awful Truth and three years later in His Girl Friday, to which Grant’s character subjects his former wife and her suitor—the latter played on both occasions by that brilliant stooge Ralph Bellamy—regarding their anticipated provincial home life).

Moreover, he suddenly created a new hybrid, combining qualities that hadn’t before mixed in the movies. He was oddly unplaceable: C. L. R. James, the brainy Trinidadian Marxist theorist and cricket writer, noticed at the time that Grant appeared both American and quintessentially English; at once subtle and rollicking, he seemed to James to anticipate nothing less than “a new social type.” Moreover, Grant had lost his jejune, matinee-idol look; he now married an extraordinary, intelligent handsomeness with an attractiveness beyond the sexual—one equally appealing to men and women—that’s best defined by Pauline Kael’s memorable description of its effect: “We smile when we see him, we laugh before he does anything; it makes us happy just to look at him.” Only the year before, in Suzy, he’d performed his pomaded-playboy act opposite Jean Harlow. Indeed, before his performance in The Awful Truth, the romantic types available for leading women to play against had been pretty limited. There was that slightly smarmy “Continental” sort; the sophisticate who seemed a bit neutered (think William Powell), or more than a bit (Leslie Howard, Ronald Colman); the aw-shucks, vaguely smug rube (Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper); and the smoldering hunk (Clark Gable).

Now, though, Grant found a novel way to treat women in film: he clearly related to his heroine as a sexually attractive woman—and also as a witty, intelligent, and idiosyncratic one. Often he conveyed this by adopting the seemingly obvious but previously overlooked strategy of simply listening to her. (With both his male and female costars, Grant would emerge as probably the best—that is, the most unobtrusively generous—listener in Hollywood; watch his affectless performance while he takes in Stewart’s three-plus-minute drunken harangue in The Philadelphia Story.) The result was that Grant allowed the actress’s performance to emerge and flourish. He thus transformed his leading ladies “into comic goddesses,” as Kael nicely put it—a feat that was something of a miracle in the case of the cute-’n’-toothy Irene Dunne, or the self-important, inherently humorless Katharine Hepburn.

Moreover, with his sui generis accent (an amalgamation of low-born and refined, of West Country lilt and hard Cockney, overlaid with the clipped patter of baseball talk), his subtle phrasing, and the clean bite of his diction, he delivered lines with a precise sparkle never equaled (see in The Awful Truth how with cheery malice he turns the throwaway offer to sprinkle “a little nutmeg” on his rival’s eggnog into a threat). But he also joined a gift for quick, clever, complex dialogue with a brilliant comedic physicality. That physicality itself was at once delicate (watch him punctuate a joke by simply bending a knee or arching an eyebrow) and broad (James Agee wrote that the silent comedians “combined several of the more difficult accomplishments of the acrobat, the dancer, the clown, and the mime,” a skill set that was lost with the advent of the talkies; Grant more or less single-handedly recovered it, and could execute clumsy pratfalls without forfeiting his uncanny grace).

In his blending of the urbane and the rambunctious, he found a way to be true to his own background, which he plainly adored, while reconciling that background to the vision of a suave man-about-town that he had aspired to as a working-class young man. Although Grant’s early Hollywood image seemed a denial of his former self, he kept Leach very much with him after he came into his own: he always spoke matter-of-factly and lovingly of his working-class origins, and he savored playing Cockney characters—see Sylvia Scarlett, Gunga Din, and the uncharacteristically sober None But the Lonely Heart, his most personal film; his references to “Archie Leach,” of course, would be an affectionate running gag in his pictures. The key to his appeal was that, as Kael noted decades ago, his “romantic elegance is wrapped around the resilient, tough core of a mutt, and Americans dream of thoroughbreds while identifying with mutts.”

When Cary Grant assimilated Archie Leach, he began what would be the most spectacular run ever for an actor in American pictures: in four years, he made The Awful Truth; Bringing Up Baby (in which the worldly charmer plays to perfection a character teetering and most unworldly); Holiday (he’s an exemplar of uncomplicated decency in this, one of his most understated comic performances); Gunga Din (Grant plainly having the time of his life, horseplaying in the Raj), Only Angels Have Wings (in which he plays a cool, often cruel, romantic lead, prefiguring his 1946 role as the withholding, manipulative, and—to Ingrid Bergman—enthralling Devlin in Notorious); His Girl Friday (America’s Rules of the Game—if our civilization vanished tomorrow, nearly all of its best and most distinctive aspects could be reconstructed from the slangy, sassy grace of this film’s dialogue); The Philadelphia Story; and Suspicion (the first of his four movies for Hitchcock, who later called Grant “the only actor I ever loved in my whole life”; Grant risked his entire carefully wrought image and career here, as he established that the line between charmer and sociopath is very fine indeed).

In this period, he won his permanent hold on America’s, and the world’s, imagination and affections, and he would remain one of the most popular leading men in the movies for nearly the next thirty years, a reign never matched. Though Richard Schickel wrote that Grant sparked “a delight so innocent and perfect that the attempt to analyse its sources seems an act of ingratitude,” such efforts to comprehend this ultimately ungraspable self-invention have nonetheless proved irresistible. Grant, in fact, has probably inspired more interesting and intelligent writing than any other star of the sound era.

But it took a while. James’s speculations, quoted above, were only published posthumously, and the best film writer during that most glorious period of Grant’s career, Otis Ferguson, never wrote an extended or penetrating assessment of him (nor did Agee). Although pretty much universally esteemed by the critics, Grant possessed, as Thomson discerned, a “technical command … so complete it is barely noticeable.” Kael’s effort to define Grant’s elusive allure in her seminal 1975 essay, “The Man from Dream City” (reprinted in When the Lights Go Down), changed all that. And that same year, Thomson’s entry on Grant in his masterwork issued a call for the most serious critical consideration of his persona and acting, which Schickel provided in 1983 with Cary Grant: A Celebration, an unusually astute and ambitious coffee-table book. That former boy genius Peter Bogdanovich, a close friend of Grant’s for twenty-five years, has written sweetly and perceptively, if briefly, on Grant (most memorably in his winning Who the Hell’s in It, published in 2004), though I long for him to write the kind of graceful monograph on Grant’s body of work that he did years ago for Howard Hawks’s and John Ford’s oeuvres. Most important, Grant is the subject of one of the best full-length biographies of a Hollywood actor, the incisive and considered Cary Grant: A Class Apart (1996), by Graham McCann, a Cambridge don. (Probably because an academic house published it, the book was largely and unjustifiably overlooked in this country.) Tom Wolfe was obviously hankering to define Grant’s charisma in his delightful and thin 1963 profile “Loverboy of the Bourgeoisie” (reprinted in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby), but the young dandy was obviously floored by Grant’s easy social grace and above all by “the … clothes, all worsteds, broadcloths and silks, all rich and underplayed, like a viola ensemble.” (Wolfe, unlike, say, Gay Talese, writes much better profiles when he’s mean.)

But style does betray the man, and looking at Grant’s is a clever way to approach him (as Kael observed, his clothes formed “almost an intrinsic part of the Cary Grant persona”). Of course, he is, along with Fred Astaire, the best-dressed actor in American movies. But whereas Astaire favored the small, very high armholes of the fitted Savile Row look, Grant’s suits, while usually English tailored, had a more relaxed, slightly American cut—a transatlantic fusion that gave him a silhouette both clean and nonchalant. Grant achieved his easy look and manner only through meticulous planning and attention to detail (from his years in vaudeville he learned to choreograph his performances with clockwork precision—he was always known as a perfectly prepared actor), and he believed that the right presentation on- and offscreen was the result of 500 details—hence his corrective missives to his shirtmakers when his collar points were an eighth of an inch too short. Gorgeousness requires the soul of an old lady.

I knew all this without referring to Richard Torregrossa’s Cary Grant: A Celebration of Style (foreword by Armani, afterword by Kors), which I guess means that this book is superfluous. But the author very nicely synthesizes a lot of material on Grant—much not directly related to things sartorial—and has produced a smooth and very well-illustrated primer. He does, though, get some little things wrong: on page 49, that’s Dan Tobin with Grant (in The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer), not Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Savile Row suits between the wars were not called “sack suits.”

And Torregrossa stumbles when it comes to one big thing. He devotes four pages to explicating what’s wrong with ventless jackets, how Grant came to eschew them, why double vents look best (they don’t), and the ways Grant modified his vents. He then holds up that perfectly tailored slim-line suit Grant wore during his cross-country travails in North by Northwest as an example of the star’s preference for customized vents. Torregrossa is talking here about the most famous suit in pictures. Todd McEwen wrote a smart and stylish Granta essay on it (North by Northwest isn’t a film about what happens to Cary Grant, it’s about what happens to his suit”). GQ has declared it nothing less than the best suit in film history. It’s ventless.

Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor.
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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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