Cary Grant was by common consent the greatest comic actor in the history of sound-era American film. As any theatrical professional will tell you, a great comic actor is a great actor, period. This, however, is not a conviction universally shared in Hollywood, which is why Grant never won a competitively awarded best-actor Oscar, not even for one of the rare films in which he essayed dramatic roles. Indeed, only two of his performances, in the uncharacteristically dark Penny Serenade (1941) and None but the Lonely Heart (1944), were nominated.
Nevertheless, everyone who worked with Grant was in awe of his gifts, though the top critics of his own day, James Agee and Otis Ferguson in particular, did not appreciate his singularity. Not until 1975, nine years after his retirement, did Pauline Kael publish “The Man from Dream City,” a New Yorker profile in which she wrote shrewdly of his appeal to audiences: “We didn’t want depth from him; we asked only that he be handsome and silky and make us laugh.”
But there was more to Grant than his fabled charm. In that same year, David Thomson declared him to be “the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema,” a judgment that is too categorical—James Stewart could also lay claim to the title—but is certainly defensible. For in addition to the farce-flavored romantic-comedy roles that were his trademark, Grant was capable of drawing on deeper wells of emotion in such films as None but the Lonely Heart, Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings (1939), and, above all, Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), in whichhe gives a performance centered not on charm but jealousy and guilt, one that shows what he could do when challenged by a major director, a pair of top-tier co-stars (Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains), and a role devoid of humor.
Not only was Grant a great actor, but he was also a great star and remains one of a bare handful of Golden Age screen actors whose fame has outlived them. In 2019, for example, Oliver Peoples, a maker of upscale glasses, introduced “Cary Grant Eyeglasses,” an estate-authorized line modeled after the sunglasses that Grant wore in such films as North by Northwest and inspired (according to the catalogue) by “the sophisticated characteristics that passed from Grant as a person to Grant as an actor and back again.”
Part of the fascination that Grant exerted on moviegoers lay in the fact that he made no secret of having created his “sophisticated characteristics” out of whole cloth. Whenever fans told him, “I always wanted to be Cary Grant,” his reply was: “So did I.” Even his not-quite-English accent was a fabrication: Everyone knew that he was an Englishman whose real name was Archie Leach and that he had grown up in a working-class neighborhood, apprenticing himself to a troupe of acrobats and coming to America to tour in vaudeville. After a successful screen test, he moved to Hollywood in 1931 and signed with Paramount, changing his name to do so. By 1937, he was a full-fledged movie star, one whose fans never tired of trying to figure out.
Unable to reconcile the two sides of his personality until middle age, Grant lived an uneasy, anxious private life, marrying five women and divorcing four of them. But unlike Stewart, who used the fear he had known as a World War II bomber pilot to heighten the intensity of his postwar acting, Grant sought only rarely to draw on his own interior turmoil, just as he usually steered clear of straight dramatic roles.
As Scott Eyman writes in Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise, his newly published biography:
Most movie stars are fine with parts that reflect aspects of their actual personalities, which lessens the gap that acting has to fill. But with occasional exceptions, Grant wanted to put as much space as possible between Archie Leach and the construct known as Cary Grant. This would inevitably create a terrible disconnect and make living with himself, let alone with other people, nearly impossible.1
This appraisal hints at the astuteness of Eyman’s book, a soberly written, meticulously researched primary-source biography salted with tasty nuggets of trivia (Grant, it seems, loved the music of Count Basie and Bill Evans, the acting of Pam Grier, and McDonald’s hamburgers) that answers every possible question raised by his subject’s work and life. Notably, Eyman finds no persuasive evidence that Grant and Randolph Scott, who actually shared a home for a few years, were ever lovers. Like all Hollywood biographers, he cannot help but deal awkwardly with the need to discuss all 72 of Grant’s feature films in one way or another, and a few of his critical judgments are unpersuasive. Still, to read his book is to come away with a much firmer understanding of what Grant did on screen—and how he lived off screen.
MOST of Grant’s anxieties are easily traced to his childhood. Born in 1904 in Bristol, a crowded port 125 miles from London, he was the son of an alcoholic tailor’s presser and a neurotically smothering mother. “I never spent a happy moment with them under the same roof,” he said years later, and his early life with Elsie Leach further persuaded him that “women like to control you.” Unwilling to be controlled by Elsie, whose behavior had grown increasingly erratic, Elias Leach committed his wife to an insane asylum in 1915 and simultaneously withdrew emotionally from their son.
After that, Archie longed only for escape. He dropped out of school in 1918, joined the acrobatic troupe, and left home for good. Coming to the U.S. in 1920, he performed on his own for a decade, learning priceless lessons in timing from appearing regularly in front of live vaudeville audiences and polishing the physical-comedy skills (he was a master of the pratfall) that would light up his screen comedies. He also invented a classless mid-Atlantic accent slightly flavored with Cockney to conceal “my lack of education.” In time he shifted into musical-comedy roles, but he already knew that he wanted to be a movie star, and in 1931 he moved to Hollywood, never again to act on a stage.
As usual, it took time—five years and 30 films—for the studios to figure out precisely “who” Grant should be on screen. Then, in Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937), an explosively funny screwball comedy co-starring Grant and Irene Dunne, all the elements coalesced and the Cary Grant “character” snapped into sharp focus, leading to a string of first-rate films that established him as a star, including Bringing Up Baby (1938), Holiday (1938), Gunga Din (1939), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), My Favorite Wife (1940), and The Philadelphia Story (1940), the last of which also stars Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart and in which Grant displays to perfection his ability to blend into an ensemble of equally talented actors.
Most of these films exemplify what George Cukor, one of the major Hollywood directors who worked with Grant most frequently, said about him long after the fact:
You see, he didn’t depend on his looks….And that made it all the more appealing, that a handsome young man was funny; that was especially unexpected and good because we think “Well, if he’s a Beau Brummel, he can’t be either funny or intelligent,” but he proved otherwise.
In addition, though, Grant was funny in a highly individual way. His experience as an acrobat allowed him to fill his performances with unexpected touches of slapstick, which he used to underline the basic plot mechanism that underlay nearly all of his comic performances: He liked to play a charming, dignified man who allowed an attractive woman to lure him into farcical situations that gradually strip away his dignity. An example is the scene in The Awful Truth in which Grant, who is divorced from Dunne’s character but still loves her, hides behind the front door of her apartment so that her new boyfriend will not know that he is there. Brilliantly staged by writer-director Leo McCarey, the sequence is a Feydeau door-slamming farce in miniature, played out on a set with only one door to work with instead of the customary three or four.
Just as striking, and similarly prominent in this scene, is the way in which Grant (in Eyman’s words) “played every emotion…with a touch of acerbity.” It is this sharp, detached edge that is among the most distinctive qualities of his comic performances, and that points to a largely unrealized side of his talent: Grant commanded a wide emotional range that brought serious drama within his reach. As David Thomson put it, “there is a bright side and a dark side to him, but whichever is dominant, the other creeps into view.” In Only Angels Have Wings, for instance, he plays an angry, disillusioned airplane pilot who keeps his emotions under the tightest possible rein, even when his closest friend dies. Nowhere in the film does Grant resort to any of his comic tricks: He plays it absolutely straight and is at all times believable.
As good as Grant was in Only Angels Have Wings, it was not the kind of performance he liked to give or (one suspects) felt comfortable giving. Fully committed to light comedy and recognizing that he profited from working with strong directors such as Howard Hawks and McCarey, he seized artistic control of his career by signing multiple short-term contracts with Hollywood studios instead of giving any one studio exclusivity, further insisting on having approval of the scripts he shot and the directors and actors with whom he worked. As a result, he appeared in an unusually high percentage of first-rate movies, and on the rare occasions when he decided to venture outside his comfort zone, the results were always impressive.
One of those occasions was None but the Lonely Heart, written and directed by Clifford Odets, who had become America’s most distinguished young playwright in the 1930s with stage dramas such as Awake and Sing! in which he portrayed immigrant working-class family life on New York’s Lower East Side. In None but the Lonely Heart, set in London’s East End, Odets shows us a different kind of family, one very much like the broken home in which Archie Leach had grown up, teeming with pride and resentment. Grant freely admitted that the character he plays in the film was himself when young, and every scene in which he appears is redolent of remembered misery.
Even more impressive is Notorious (1946), the second of four films Grant made with Alfred Hitchcock, a spy story in which the actor once again sheds his comic persona, this time to play an angry man in love with Ingrid Bergman and consumed with misguided sexual jealousy (or, as his character puts it in Ben Hecht’s screenplay, “a fat-headed guy full of pain”). Never again would Grant give so dramatically intense and compelling a performance: It was as if making Notorious had purged him of the need to challenge himself.
INDEED, after Notorious, Grant stuck to various kinds of romantic comedy, passing up other roles in which it is easy to imagine him having given noteworthy performances, including Harry Lime in The Third Man and Norman Maine in Cukor’s 1954 remake of A Star Is Born.
Several of the films that he did make prior to his retirement in 1966, most notably Houseboat (1958) and Father Goose (1964), were pitched to family audiences, often to delightful effect (Grant was wonderful with children, on screen and off). Others were “sophisticated” sex comedies, including To Catch a Thief (1955), Indiscreet (1958), and That Touch of Mink (1962), some of which were memorable—To Catch a Thief is one of Hitchcock’s most entertaining romantic thrillers—and others purest fluff. But few deserve to be ranked alongside the best of the films Grant made between 1937 and 1947, the decade during which he established himself as a peerless light comedian.
Two of Grant’s later films, however, rise to that level. Indeed, Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) is arguably the greatest of all his films, one in which Ernest Lehman, the screenwriter, transplants Grant’s now-familiar comic persona into a spy movie about an innocent man who becomes entangled by accident in a CIA plot to arrest a Russian agent (James Mason) and suddenly finds himself running for his life from city to city, assisted by a coolly beautiful blonde (Eva Marie Saint).
Lehman told Hitchcock that he wanted to make “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures…with glamour, wit, excitement, movement, big scenes, a large canvas, innocent bystander caught up in great derring-do, in the Hitchcock manner.” Accordingly, North by Northwest is a vade mecum of Hitchcock-style plot devices, some lifted from earlier Hitchcock films such as The 39 Steps and Notorious. But it could just as easily be described as “the Cary Grant picture to end all Cary Grant pictures,” for Lehman made equally shrewd and knowing use of the now-familiar “Cary Grant character,” gradually stripping him of his urbane self-possession and putting him in mortal danger while playing for laughs most (if not all) of his escapes from the spies who pursue him. He even recycles the central conflict of Notorious, causing Grant to become so jealous of Saint that he unwittingly places her in no less mortal danger. The result is a thriller indistinguishable at times from a screwball comedy, one that gave Grant countless opportunities to shine and all of which he exploited to ideal effect. If any one movie sums up Cary Grant, this is it.
Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963) is a rom-com-cum-thriller in the manner of North by Northwest about an innocent woman (Audrey Hepburn) who gets caught up in the machinations of a murderous group of thieves and is saved by Grant, with whom (of course) she falls in love. Charade is no match for Hitchcock at the peak of his powers, but Donen and Peter Stone, his screenwriter, come surprisingly close to the mark, and Grant, though he was a quarter-century older than Hepburn, is no less surprisingly convincing as her romantic partner. At 60, though, he had come to believe that he was too old for such roles and had said what he had to say as an actor, and he made only two more films, Father Goose and the mediocre Walk, Don’t Run (1966) before retiring. He lived on for another 20 years, having come at last to terms with both sides of his bifurcated personality—a development he attributed to having undergone LSD therapy under the supervision of a doctor—and died a happy man.
Thanks in large part to his own keen understanding of what he did best on screen, Grant left behind an unusually rich film legacy, far more consistently excellent than that of, say, Clark Gable or Spencer Tracy, two contemporaries who were equally celebrated in the ’30s and ’40s but have now faded from the collective consciousness of the public at large. Not so Cary Grant. As Eyman’s book makes clear, like Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart, and John Wayne—and no other male actor from Hollywood’s Golden Age—Cary Grant has achieved cultural immortality.
1 Simon & Schuster, 559 pages
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