He didn’t reinvent acting like Brando, he didn’t fatten himself up like Robert De Niro or starve himself like Christian Bale
Here is the simple truth about Cary Grant: he was the best and most important actor of the last hundred years. He didn’t reinvent acting like Brando, he didn’t fatten himself up like Robert De Niro or starve himself like Christian Bale. He wasn’t burly like Gable, and he didn’t smolder like Mitchum. Instead, he played slight variations on the same character for the majority of his career, he wore a suit better than anyone in Hollywood, and he made acting seem like living. Over the course of his long career, Grant fixed standards of what it meant to be “debonair” and “a man about town” — everything he did, on screen and off, seemed inflected with panache and grace. Or, as my professor from undergrad used to sum him up: “The man knew how to wear clothes.” Indeed he fucking did.
But the phrase “knew how to wear clothes” is a loaded one. To “know how to wear clothes” is another way of saying that Grant embodied class, which is to say high class: Grant wore well-tailored clothes, and he knew how to hold himself in them. But he came from nothing, and the way he wore clothes was just as much of a performance as his refined trans-Atlantic accent, his acrobatic slapstick routines, and his masterful flirtation skills. When a tailor returned a collar point even an eighth of an inch too short, he sent it back. He understood that only through attention to seemingly meaningless details could a quasi-orphaned vaudevillian become one of the most enduring and beloved stars of the 20th century.
Rumors of Grant’s bisexuality swirled around Hollywood for years: was he a man-about-town who liked to have sex with men-about-town? But as evidenced by the story of Rock Hudson, Hollywood was adept at covering queerness with a varnish of hyper-heterosexuality, and women fell at his feet both onscreen and off. As will become clear, it was and remains unclear whether Grant actually was bisexual or whether he simply reveled in messing with anxieties sparked by two men living together. It seems unlikely that Grant, a practiced comedian, would not have been amused by befuddling as many gossip columnists as possible.
But all that came later. Grant, born Archibald Alexander Leach, spent the early years of his life in an unhappy home in Bristol, England. At age nine, Leach’s father put his mother in a mental institution. He soon remarried, abandoning young Archie to the care of the state. Leach was expelled from school at 14 and joined a traveling stage troupe, quickly mastering the art of stilt-walking. In 1920, at all of 16, Leach and the troupe left Britain for a two-year American tour, from which he would never return. He joined the American vaudeville circuit, spending a significant chunk of time on the St. Louis stage and refining the acrobatic, juggling, and miming skills that would serve him for the rest of his entertainment career. You might laugh, but the sort of immaculate movement control required of a vaudevillian is the same sort of control necessary for intricate flirtation. This is why football players are such bad flirts and ballet dancers and unicyclists, however weird, are such good ones.
After a stint on Broadway, Archie Leach moved to Hollywood, signed a contract with Paramount, and changed his name to Cary Grant. From the beginning, he was cast as wealthy and sophisticated, playing very young, very rich, and very boring opposite Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus in 1932. Then Mae West (who deserves about five posts of her own — I mean REALLY, this lady was happening) selected Grant to play her love interest in back-to-back films — She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel. The latter was a monster hit, but West was the main attraction; Grant was just window-dressing. Yet this window-dressing nevertheless attracted women, including his first wife, Virginia Cherrill, whom he met at the premiere for Blonde Venus. The relationship had the reek of a studio-arranged affair, especially when the two divorced a year later amid rumors that Grant had become depressed and disillusioned with his ready-made romance.
Grant was pretty to look at, but seemed to lack charisma. So Paramount let him loose, freeing him to sign as an independent with Columbia and RKO, which cast him in a smattering of comedic roles, including Sylvia Scarlett (1935) opposite a cross-dressing Katharine Hepburn.
Grant’s comedic potential was clear, and Columbia paired him with Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth. I’ve seen nearly every classic screwball, but none bring down the house quite as effectively as The Awful Truth. Like so many screwballs of the ’30s, it centers on what Stanley Cavell terms a “comedy of remarriage”: the film starts with a divorce, then spends the remainder bringing the couple back together. (Sweet Home Alabama = 21st century comedy of remarriage.) In The Awful Truth, Irene Dunne has left Grant for a new, very Oklahoman suitor. Two summers ago I saw it in Austin, and the crowd was basically rolling in the aisles, because the only thing that T
exans like more than BBQ are jokes at Oklahoma’s expense.
There’s a brilliant moment when Grant, out to dinner with Dunne and her Oklahoma suitor, watches as the two take the dance floor. Oklahoma boy starts with some fancy dance moves that clearly embarrass Dunne. She has no choice but to keep up, and super awkwardness ensues. But the camera keeps cutting back to Grant, casually sitting at the table — he watches the couple with slight disgust, but then, as the dancing gets more and more ridiculous, his disgust turns to glee. (Start at 4:00 for maximum ridiculousness.)