By Richard TorregrossaBulfinch
By Graham McCannFourth Estate
By Richard SchickelApplause Legends Series
"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.”