Cary Grant: Star’s Career (Part One)
One of Our Site’s Most Widey Read articles
Part One (Read Part Two Tomorrow)
My new book, Movie Stardom, examines the careers of America’s 100 top movie stars. We are running a series of articles about the career and stardom of John Wayne (a contemporary of Grant, younger by three years only).
In the next month or so, we will be publishing articles about various aspects of movie stardom and several profiles of Hollywood’s greatest stars.
“Do you know what’s wrong with you?” Katharine Hepburn asks Grant in Bringing Up Baby? “Nothing,” she says before he has a chance to respond.
In his long and successful career, Cary Grant represented the epitome of the elegant, suave, and urbane man. He became the eternal fantasy of the seductive man–daft, sophisticated, marvelously dressed. In his best work, he displayed a combination of charm, energy, and even devilishness.
Grant was the sound era’s most durable and most accomplished romantic-comedy actor. Frank Capra, who directed him in Arsenic and Old Lace, thought Grant was ”Hollywood’s greatest farceur.”
The essence of Grant’s screen image was defined by two dualities: His ability to appear very attractive and less attractive, young and old at the same time. Hitchcock took advantage of Grant’s light-dark dichotomy in the way he cast him in his movies (beginning with Suspicion and Notorious).
George Cukor’s greatest casting frustration was his failure to persuade Grant to play Norman Maine, the alcoholic actor down on his luck in his 1954 version of A Star Is Born (opposite Judy Garland). Grant rejected the role because it was too similar to his real life at the time. Cukor thought that Grant’s duality would be perfect for the role, later successfully played by James Mason, an actor who looked like Grant (which Hitchcock used to great advantage when he cast both men as hero and villain in North By Northwest.
Grant’s long-enduring career was based on his miraculous ability to defeat time. He never looked really young (even in the 1930s), and he never looked really old. Often, it was almost impossible to determine his characters’ age, which was deliberately vague, in an effort to appeal to both younger and older moviegoers.
From Rags to Riches:
Born in Bristol in 1904 as Archibald Alexander Leach, Grant was the product of a poverty-stricken environment. He ran away from home at 13 to join a traveling acrobatic troupe as a song-and-dance man and juggler. His interest in showbiz began when he first discovered the backstage workings of a professional vaudeville theater. Soon thereafter, he became an apprentice electrician without pay.
Determined to break into show business not as a stagehand but as an entertainer, he drafted a letter to The Bob Pender Troupe, which consisted of teen-age boys trained as acrobatic comics. He signed in his father’s name and enclosed a photograph that made him look 16. His bluff paid off and he got a train fare to Norwich, where he was offered a contract.
Grant began his career at Paramount in 1932, playing second fiddle to Gary Cooper, the studio’s major star. In l937, after five years of mostly routine pictures– except for the campy Mae West comedies–he became Hollywood’s first successful free-lance actor. Refusing to sign exclusively with any studio, Grant became responsible for his own career, carefully choosing scripts and directors. Unlike Bogart, Cagney, Tracy, and Cooper, Grant was never forced to do anything he didn’t want to.
Remarkably, Grant’s distinctive screen persona took shape without the help of the studio’s publicity machine. He gave his best performances when he was on his own: The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, and His Girl Friday, all made after 1937.
Hollywood was a terrific working ground for ambitious actors: Grant made 7 films in 1932, 6 in 1933. Between 1937 and 1941, Grant made no less than 15 movies, more than one fourth of his output. Seven of these films have become classics. They included the aforementioned titles, as well as Topper,Holiday, Gunga Din, and The Philadelphia Story. Most of his work in the late 1930s and 1940s was either for Columbia or RKO.
After Notorious (1946), Grant was not to make a first-rate picture until he worked with Hitchcock again in 1955 (To Catch a Thief). Between 1957 and 1959, he made 7 movies, including An Affair to Remember and Indiscreet, and North By Northwest, one of Hitchcock’s finest thrillers that for many critics represented the pinnacle of Grant’s work.
Charade, in 1963, was the last splendid movie Grant made. The Stanley Donen stylish romantic thriller should have been his swan song. It was the last movie in which Cary Grant played Cary Grant, the urbane, polished lover who doesn’t need to take himself seriously because the girl (Audrey Hepburn) will. His performance in this picture was a career-summation, expressing his trademarks of seamless calmness and elegant smoothness.
Grant’s Screen Image
Grant was an actor known not for his versatility or ability to submerge his personality into his roles, but rather for his skill to maintain the image of the handsome, witty, well-groomed man. Clothes were always important to Grant, who turned up for years on various best-dressed men list. He wore his own clothes when making a movie, using 14 to 16 suits per film.
Almost without exception Grant played a character that he had devised and honed to perfection. As he once explained: “When I appear on the screen I’m playing myself. I pretend to be a certain kind of man on screen, and I become that man in real life.” Grant’s advice to younger stars was: “Adopt the true image of yourself, acquire technique to project it, and the public will give you its allegiance.”
But Grant’s range was not as limited as his detractors sometimes claimed. He could be a dramatic actor (None but the Lonely Heart), and in his youth, he could embody conventional action heroes (Gunga Din, Destination Tokyo). However, despite occasional success in dramas, it was clear that the public preferred to see him in comedy. It was a comedy that made him a star (The Awful Truth), and comedy that placed him among the screen’s immortal stars.
Grant Screen Persona: Contradictions:
While sporting a British accent, his was not the stuffy, upper-class kind. Grant’s persona was kind of classless—he was comfortable among the working class but not out of place among the rich and famous.
The name Grant became synonymous with a kind of cockney brashness combined with impeccable taste and a detached, subtle wit.
He was able to mix elegance and good manners with silliness and foolishness in the same film; often in the same scene.
He was handsome without being narcissistic. Unlike pretty faces like Robert Taylor or Tyrone Power, Grant used his good looks as integral part of his strong screen persona.
Grant was able to toy with his own dignity without ever losing his grace.
Unlike Clark Gable, a contemporary who embodied a more aggressive sexual image, Grant appealed to women without threatening the men.
Grant did not play the boyish type but rather the suave mature lover who boasted worldliness and glamour. Even in the star vehicles, She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel, Grant was not a passive sexual foil to the independent and spirited Mae West. At the peak of his career, he worked with Irene Dunne, making three classics with her: Two comedies, The Awful Truth and My Favorite Wife, and a drama, Penny Serenade. His other important leading lady was Katharine Hepburn, with whom he made four films: Sylvia Scarlett, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, and The Philadelphia Story.
Of the actors of his generation (Cooper, Gable, Bogart, Taylor, Power), Grant was the least touched by age. Many thought that with years he had become even more attractive. He retained his romantic appeal to the end of his career by appearing opposite much younger actresses: Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief, Sophia Loren in Houseboat, Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest, Audrey Hepburn in Charade, Leslie Caron in Father Goose
- Nebraska: From Alexander Payne
- Behind he Candelabra: Liberace Biopic
- Hangover Part III
- Blood Ties
- Inside Llewyn Davis: Top Coens, Cannes Highlight
- Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of Plains Indian)
- Fast & Furious 6: Thrilling Joyride
- Angelina Jolie Double Mastectomy–Talk of Cannes Film Fest
- Bling Ring, The
- Before Midnight: Hawke and Delpie at Mid-Age
- Stories We Tell
- Great Gatsby: Luhrmann’s Jazzy Spectacle