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.)