Cary Grant: suave, kooky, intense, inimitable

Born 100 years ago, he was the man women loved and men wanted to be


January 18, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

Cary Grant was born 100 years ago today in Bristol, England. The fantasy life of England, America, and all of planet Earth would never be the same. In his 34-year big-screen career, he epitomized -- and for many, defined -- the man of the world.

When Frank Sinatra presented an honorary Oscar in 1970 to Grant "for his unique mastery of the art of screen acting," Sinatra said, with legend-to-legend sympathy, that he earned it "for being Cary Grant." Actually, he earned it for acting Cary Grant: the urban cavalier with a quick tongue and cunning moves. As Grant himself once remarked, "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant; even I want to be Cary Grant."

The first part of that statement is true today, 17 years after Grant died of a massive stroke (on Nov. 29, 1986). He's still executing pinpoint repartee and arabesque-like pratfalls in our heads.

Grant put his persona through as many mutations as a star profile could bear. It didn't matter whether he was playing a Cockney soldier in Kipling's India in Gunga Din (1939), a mail pilot in South America in Only Angels Have Wings (1939) or a sporty Main Line Philadelphian in The Philadelphia Story (1940). It didn't matter whether his character was exuberant or gruff or befuddled. Whatever the specifics, one thing would always be certain. He would be the center of attention -- not just as an actor dominating the scene, but as an artist making sense of it.

Trained in acrobatics, pantomime, music hall farce and musical comedy, Grant was the opposite of a Method actor. He inhabited a scene as a prize journalist would: from the outside, but with an alertness and responsiveness that pierced to the core.

Journalists owe him a special debt because, as Walter Burns in His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks' version of The Front Page), Grant gave a fresh pressing to what by 1940 had become a rumpled newspaperman's image. Here was the editor / reporter as literary buccaneer, as political mover and shaker, as manipulator and genius. Grant's Walter Burns was a man who, no matter what his failings, had his finger -- and sometimes his whole fist -- on the pulse of the nation.

Visually, Grant cut a bold figure, from the slashing tilt of his hat to his dancer's toe. No actor was better at seeming to pull away in three directions at once. It was a trick he pulled off by angular poses and even more by the ability of his brilliant, mysterious eyes, curling brow and expressive mouth to hint at a solid center of gravity. At bottom was an animal elan and vitality that Grant had polished into the height of acting civilization.

Grant was the rare star who was both a man's man and a ladies' man. Any boy who sees Gunga Din at an impressionable age becomes a Grant fan for life. Grant's boisterous good spirits get at the root of buddy-buddyhood. Watching him carouse, you can believe that boozing and brawling can wipe away any artificial boundaries to fellowship.

But in romantic comedies -- whether Bringing Up Baby (1938) or The Awful Truth (1937) or The Philadelphia Story (1940), whether playing a misfit suitor swept up by love or a husband trying to sustain or renew marriage -- Grant portrays heterosexual romance as the greatest challenge and the most fun any man could have. No other actor helped so many actresses look their best, from Mae West, Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman and Rosalind Russell (in the '30s and '40s) to Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren, Eva Marie Saint and Audrey Hepburn (in the '50s and '60s).

Romantic and resilient

To borrow from Woody Allen's Bananas, Grant's characters weren't worried about whether they were better able "to give" or "to receive." In his movies, romance is a glorious give and take. Fittingly, women have given Grant his closest critical attention -- whether they've been feminists like Molly Haskell, whose book From Reverence to Rape cites Grant more often in the index than any other actor, or mavericks like Pauline Kael, who wrote a great tribute to Grant and called it "The Man from Dream City."

Grant came to the United States with a music hall troupe in 1920 and never looked back -- he became an American citizen during World War II. Kael saw Grant and his new country as a perfect fit: "Cary Grant's romantic elegance is wrapped around the resilient, tough core of a mutt, and Americans dream of thoroughbreds while identifying with mutts. So do moviegoers the world over."

Grant's combination of power and finesse came from being born and bred in Great Britain's lower class and always striving to rise up from it. Grant was a suit-presser's son who was originally named Archie Leach; he once admitted he modeled his adult persona on Noel Coward's high-style swells. But he never lost his scrapper's spunk.

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