Better than AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars: 6

To see my running list of the hundred greatest movie stars in American film history, click here

We’ve reached the top 10! At this point, every star gets their own post.

6) Cary Grant

On the Mount Rushmore of Hitchcock movies, there are four pictures which would have their faces inscribed in the rocky mountains of Essex. The first: Vertigo, the consensus greatest movie of all time. The second: Psycho, an enormously influential horror movie and an enormous influence on box office practice as well. The third: Rear Window, as perfect a reflexive cinematic text as you could ask for. The fourth spot is up for grabs, at least compared to the other movies etched in stone, but I think the world would clamor for Mount Rushmore to make it to Mount Rushmore. North by Northwest is generally given as the most purely entertaining film from the Master of Suspense, and while I have other preferences I don’t think I’d argue too much to the contrary.

North by Northwest would be hugely entertaining with virtually any of Hitchcock’s lead actors carrying top billing. Laurence Olivier would have been fascinating, though a little standoffish, in the part. Jimmy Stewart would have been very good, of course, though he was better suited to those slow-burning, relatively laconic Hitchcock movies than he would have been to something this up-tempo. Henry Fonda fit the tragedy of The Wrong Man more than the thrill of this wrong man, Farley Granger was not quite charismatic enough, and while Joseph Cotten would have been lovely, it would have been a film lacking the boldness which makes it so beloved. Gregory Peck could have dodged that crop duster and Joel McCrea could have pulled Eva Marie Saint into the train bunk. But none of them could have made this movie as entertaining as Cary Grant, a man whose performances prove that entertainment is an art form unto itself. There are not that many high dramas or melodramas in Cary Grant’s oeuvre, at least not ones that rise to the top. Nor are there so many roles where he plays the villain. (It is not a coincidence, I think, that Grant’s most famous villainous role is in a Hitchcock film, Suspicion, nor do I think that Grant’s most successful role outside of type, as the G-man with a stiff upper lip in Notorious, is also Hitchcock. They got each other.) Grant excelled in comedies, and he excelled in thrillers with comedic asides, and I struggle to think of a more perfect man for romance. In short, where we want to have some fun, darn it, Grant was there to guarantee we had it.

As a performer, the primary appeal of Cary Grant is in the perpetual virginity of his frustration. Someone who gives the impression of having been frustrated and often can still be very funny, which is the reason people like Seinfeld or, in movie terms, why I adore Jack Lemmon. Grant’s ability to treat every vexation and roadblock like it was the first one he had ever faced is unique. This is where the good looks, the voice which politely but firmly insists that he has been to boarding school (and that his boarding school was better than yours at making lawyers and lacrosse players), and his comfort wearing tailored clothes come in. Of course this would be the first time someone as patrician as Grant would walk into such a problem; why shouldn’t romantic disappointment, misadventuring farce, or running from the cops be so strange to him? North by Northwest is not even the best example of this particular flavor of “Ugh!” even if it is one of the most exotic. There’s a string of movies with strung-out titles in the late 1940s—The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, I Was a Male War Bride—where Grant absolutely nails this newly troubled type. Inevitably, someone convinces Grant that the best thing to do is to steer directly into the maelstrom of troubles he’s accidentally begun to navigate. Thus, he finds himself not merely “dating” a high school student in Bachelor but attempting to foist her attentions off on someone more age-appropriate by acting like every other junior year rube. The title of Male War Bride kind of says it all, but the film goes from putting him in the sidecar to putting him in a dress to pass as, well, you see the trouble. As for Mr. Blandings, the story of an ad executive who gets himself into hot water when he decides to buy property in semi-rural Conneticut, absolutely everything conspires against him over the course of his building project. Most of the good lines belong to other people in this movie, primarily to Melvyn Douglas, the army of contractors and builders, or the women of Jim Blandings’ family. (This is an endlessly quotable movie, but Sharyn Moffett tersely drops what has become one of my favorite proverbs during a breakfast quarrel: “Can’t squeeze blood from a turnip.”) What Cary Grant owns is the look of wild-eyed exasperation, the way that the whites of his eyes seem to bug out of his head with the vigor that we mortals off the screen can’t quite finagle. He owns, in that instantly recognizable voice of his, the setups to punchlines that he’s the butt of. To wit:

Douglas: “What’s a ‘Zuz-zuz’ water softener?”

Grant: How should I know?

Douglas: You’ve got one.

The laugh belongs to Douglas, who gets the double-whammy of a matter-of-fact “You’ve got one” and the chance to use the heretofore unspoken phrase “Zuz-zuz.” But the feeling, the reason why this is funny at all, is Grant’s harried “How should I know?” Perhaps this is why Grant felt non-threatening despite all those natural advantages he had that make the rest of us look bad; he was just British enough to understand that being at the expense of the joke is funny too.

A Cary Grant comedy threatens to give him a hard time. A Cary Grant thriller threatens to give him a hard time and then shoot him afterwards. In both Mr. Blandings and North by Northwest, he plays one of the Mad Men; a last-second assist helps Jim Blandings save his job at the end of the movie, while a last-second assist helps Roger Thornhill save his life. The withering, self-deprecating humor is emphatically there in the thriller. Once he’s already evinced some not inconsiderable talent at not getting murdered, the feds ask him to volunteer to get back in there and do his part to expose the scam. He is not excited about the plan. He has responsibilities, he tells “the Professor.” “I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives, and several bartenders that depend upon me,” Grant tells Leo G. Carroll, “and I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself slightly killed.” It’s there in the way that he totally upends an auction in the successful effort of getting himself arrested; my personal favorite part is when he gets the auctioneer on tilt, lulls him into a false sense of security with a genuine bid on an item, and then almost immediately starts screwing around again. He even does a pretty good two-handed conversation all by himself. No, I haven’t been drinking, he tells his mother on the phone. No, two men made me drink a whole bottle of bourbon. No, they didn’t give me a chaser!

As a romancer, Grant was adept at multiple kinds of making love. In the early ’30s, he does a pretty good job of standing still while Mae West entwines her come-ons around him. The negging, browbeating approach that makes for funnier comedy if not for solider marriages still comes off as reasonably charming in the early ’30s and ’40s; the domineering Grant is still a sexy guy, and we see him paired off with Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell, and Irene Dunne giving variations of this strong-willed man with adequately soft hands. Once again, it’s with Hitchcock that we see Grant in full flower as a lover. In North by Northwest, a film which takes a little break in the middle to hear an awful lot of pillow talk between Grant and Eva Marie Saint, it’s just one form of sweating it out replacing it another. I never do remember the full intensity of those sequences until I watch the film again, but suffice it to say they are steamy with one another. And then there’s Notorious, a picture which proves that lying about what you want your girlfriend to do for the government is the most fun a guy can have without taking his clothes off. The romance between Grant’s Devlin and Bergman’s Alicia is sudden, but the kisses and nuzzles that they share are anything but. It’s not sloppy between them. The lights do not highlight stray beads of saliva left by their lips on one another, but all that does, short of making a ghostly sort of tickle on our own faces in the dark, is whet our palate for more. At the end of the picture, Grant symbolically carries Bergman through the doorway, going the opposite direction. Maybe he’ll introduce you to the joys of the flesh a little earlier than he’s supposed to, but Cary Grant will always make an honest woman out of his partner.

One thought on “Better than AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars: 6

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s