Friday, June 24, 2011

Mr. Leading Man

It is hard to know where to begin with Cary Grant.
It seems obvious the Bristol-born Englishman should be the subject of this site’s second actor profile, but finding the right words to describe the precise constellation of his career is challenging. Born Archibald Alexander Leach in 1904, Grant went to Hollywood in 1931 where he first broke into films as a kind of rubber-man actor, one whose limbs and face could be invisibly tugged by directors intent on physically punishing the lead in their film in order to provoke howls of laughter from audiences. He was wacky in the vein of Charlie Chaplin, with impeccable physical timing and an uncanny ability to simultaneously make the absurd less ridiculous and more funny.
Grant, the physical comedian
Although his two outings with Mae West – She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel – are probably where his star burst into being, I am partial to Arsenic and Old Lace, which I view as something of a finale to Grant’s early comedic period (although by 1944 he had already played the dark and ultimately indecipherable antagonist in Alfred Hitchcock’s highly underrated Suspicion). Arsenic and Old Lace’s preposterous plot allows Grant enough space to showcase his full array of talent. Mortimer Brewster’s character could be stodgy, but Grant’s incredible ability to amuse and charm ensures that Brewster is always accessible and never aloof from the audience. That Grant continued to play similar elites for much of his career and never come across as snobby or unapproachable is a testament to the delicacy of his performances and his ability to connect with moviegoers, regardless what the plot demanded from him.
Anyone doubting the skill and depth of this achievement should consider the ease with which we accept Cary Grant as Cary Grant. What I mean by this is that a great deal of acting is about making the effort of the performance appear effortlessness – and nobody does this like Grant, an actor who disappears into his on-screen persona so deeply and convincingly that separating the two is difficult. I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be and I finally became that person,” Grant said. “Or he became me. Or we met at some point.” Thus, his famous attempt at self-effacing humor – “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant—even I want to be Cary Grant” – is much more than just a joke. It is a revelation that Grant was pretending to be Cary Grant and the acting reached such a point that nobody knew the difference anymore, himself included.
Regardless of method, Grant eventually became Hollywood’s perfect leading man, capable of playing the lead in a romantic comedy or the protagonist of an action-packed thriller. Whatever the script called for, Grant’s cool and capable demeanor and his stylized delivery fit the bill. Critics said James Bond is a character every man wants to be and every woman wants to be with, but the same could be said of Grant by the time he reached the height of his fame in the 1950s. Perhaps this is why he was briefly considered to portray Bond in Dr. No?

Personally, I doubt Grant could have pulled of the cruelty called for in playing the famous British spy, but he comes damn close to something like it in Notorious, an incredibly underrated film where he casually pits Ingrid Bergman against her husband. In addition to being a great spy film, Notorious showcases a facet of Grant’s acting – specifically, his ability to play darker roles – that most directors unfortunately chose not to pursue (Hitchcock being the solitary exception). In this sense, the claim that Grant traded introspection for affability is accurate. Throughout his career, his roles never allow him to reveal even the slightest amount of indecisiveness or insecurity. Indeed, Grant maintains his masculine poise even in the films where the plot revolves around his character being caught up in stratagems beyond his knowledge or control (see North by Northwest, Arsenic and Old Lace or To Catch a Thief).
On the run, Grant still seems in control.
Tall, dark and handsome in every way the phrase is meant to be understood, Grant cut a lean figure in his slightly-baggy suits. His perfect hair and well-manicured appearance walked right up to the line of the dandy-ness, but never quite crossed it. Personality plays a large part in separating him from Hollywood’s insufferable beauties. For all his looks and charm, Grant never took himself seriously – either in life or on the screen. His aforementioned willingness to engage in the absurd and poke fun at himself is precisely why we like him so much. It is impossible, for example, to imagine Humphrey Bogart climbing into a shower with a suit on and washing himself with soap to amuse Audrey Hepburn the way Grant does in Charade. Bogart is too stoic, too straightforward. In contrast, Grant is lighthearted and never too serious, even when gun is pointed at him and his life appears to be on the line.
Forever classic
Like a lot of other great actors, Grant missed out on winning an Oscar through the competitive process, so the Academy gave him an honorary award in 1970. The notion that Grant could have died unrecognized by film’s most-esteemed critical body boggles the mind. Among all the epitaphs written about him, I propose to add the following honorary title: Mr. Leading Man. Whatever the script, whatever its location and plot and action, there was a time when a producer could pick up the phone and secure the services of Cary Grant, and in doing so, know that one the most important roles in his film was in the best of all hands.

Key Performances:
North by Northwest
Arsenic and Old Lace
Bringing up Baby
The Philadelphia Story


  1. SKW, your blog post about Cary Grant was superb! You really captured Grant's many facets as an actor and a man. It's remarkable how Grant went from a childhood of grinding poverty (great anecdotes about that in the commentary of CHARADE, among others) to being one of the most polished, durable, and likable leading men in cinema. I think the only reason he never won an Oscar in competition was that he made it look so easy. But he'll always be an icon, so as far as I'm concerned, he got the last laugh!

  2. It's always amazed me that someone so suave and sophisticated could have such awesome, comedic timing. Cary Grant is brilliant! Great post.

  3. Ah yes Grant, one of classic Hollywood's biggest stars. I have seen him in few films and I'd like to see out more of his work. Terrific blog post very well written!