The body never lies.
Instead, it keeps score, with our very gestures and walk and physical eccentricities speaking to the traumas and desires we’d like to keep hidden. But there are some people so aware of this truth, and the power of self-mythology, that they can almost transcend it, using their bodies to reflect not the person they are but the person they want to be. Archibald Alexander Leach, born in 1904 in Bristol, England, was one such person. He was able to transform himself from the working-class son of Elias James Leach and Elsie Maria Kingdom Leach—from the latter of whom he reportedly inherited his beauty and moods—wrecked by the horrors of his childhood domestic terrain, into the silkenly confident, uproariously funny, physically assured Cary Grant, one of the greatest stars Hollywood has ever had.
It is axiomatic, perhaps, that Cary Grant was as much a creation as the films he starred in. His grace was learned in part while working the vaudeville circuit as a young man, beginning as an acrobat traveling Europe and the United States in the 1920s, exhibiting a hunger and precision he carried into his film career. His voice—with the cinematically rooted mid-Atlantic accent, clipped and fast as sparked dynamite—was born from nowhere. He scrubbed away from the surface the markers of his Bristol childhood to become an aristocratically inflected portrait of the masculine ideal of the Western world, the man who had it all.
But Grant’s manner and movements always carried echoes of his past—those working-class rhythms bleeding through—and the ideal he formed for the world, we now know acutely, did not reflect the private man. That confidence? It was largely a concoction. Grant was notoriously anxious and riddled with self-doubt. In his recently released, achingly thorough biographical tome Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise, historian Scott Eyman details the sharp divide between Archie Leach and Cary Grant—noting his issues with anxiety and depression, his ambivalence toward and distrust of women, and most importantly, where these issues were born in part from: his father forcefully committing his mother to a mental asylum she didn’t need to be in while lying to the young Archie by saying she died. It was only as an adult, somewhat new to the fame that would rewrite the course of his life, that he learned the truth.
So when we watch Grant grow supine leaning over to catch a glimpse of the wife he thought was dead (Irene Dunne) as an elevator door closes, arch shock on his face, in My Favorite Wife (1940), or jump up with emphatic mania shouting “I’ve gone gay all of a sudden” while wearing a fur-lined peignoir in Bringing Up Baby (1938), we know that lightness and ease—that essence of Cary Grant—is not just about the character or the star or who he was as a human being but a masterful blending of all three, a hard-won persona he carried into public life as well. Grant himself was aware of the divide between his public and private selves, commenting later in life, “I have spent the greater part of my life fluctuating between Archie Leach and Cary Grant, unsure of each, suspecting each.” It is easier to track this duality and its effect on his performances in Grant’s darker-hued dramas, which show how cold he could be, like the towering and slippery Alfred Hitchcock masterwork Notorious (1946). But what can we learn when we set his life against his considerable work as a comedian, both boldly physical and romantically seductive? This doesn’t bog down his witty comedic performances but instead makes them even richer texts to consider, for how they show us both the gaps between Grant’s public and private selves and his artistry as an actor and creator of the identity he tried to live his life by. In many ways, his comedic performances are the most revealing of his career.
Grant’s comedic work is, in a word, effervescent. It is easy for me to get lost in the manic grooves of His Girl Friday (1940) or the utter lunacy of The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947). To watch Grant is to come to an understanding of just how expressive our bodies can be. Grant treats his as a canvas on which ideas of desire, power, class, and masculinity are painted. His physicality, at first blush, is marked by a poise that speaks to a bodily confidence and control most actors dream of. But what makes him so amazing within this context isn’t his considerable beauty or his charm, although each is important. Instead, it’s how he subverts the expectations that come with his suave, glistening surface with pratfalls and acrobatics, perfectly timed, that allow him to be silly, even foolish, but retaining an assured sensibility that means he never becomes the fool. Beyond the supreme quality of his physicality and the way he used his voice, there’s the way he looked at and related to women in the romantic comedies he appeared in that provide these works their wonder. This grows all the more remarkable when you consider the vexing and complex ways he related to women in life.
But Grant wasn’t an immediately formed star. Few are. It takes time to feel out the persona you’re destined to project on-screen. Paired with Mae West in the 1933 sexual comedies She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel, we meet a Cary Grant who has yet to live up to the legends that soon attach to his name. He’s handsome, undeniably. He wears clothes with a marked understanding of their power. But there’s no dimension, no depth. He fails to capture the imagination here. Part of the problem is how his role functions. He’s only meant to look good and hit his marks. He functions, like men often deliciously do in women’s pictures, as an accoutrement to the real story, which is about her. It took another four years for Grant to become, on-screen at least, the man we have come to revere in the uneven and mostly forgettable Topper. But it is the delightful screwball confection The Awful Truth, also from 1937, that his star persona and its wonderful possibilities in comedy truly crystallizes.
The most evocative composition in Leo McCarey’s film comes about five minutes into the story. Grant plays Jerry Warriner with bemused yet growing annoyance as he hosts a small get-together at his home while his wife, Lucy (Irene Dunne), is curiously and notably absent. When she bounds into the home with “darling” exuberantly leaving her lips, he wraps her in a kiss, which we see from behind. The camera then takes a vantage point from the opposite side of the couple. He is wrapped in Lucy’s embrace, her magnificent white fur coat obscuring the lower half of his face, so we see the reaction to the other man Lucy has brought home with her in the lurching of his eyebrows. Jerry and Lucy Warriner don’t seem all that happy together. But they don’t want either moving on to someone else either, which is where the film roots its humor.
Early in the film, when Lucy is entertaining the affections of poor Ralph Bellamy’s Oklahoma momma’s boy, Daniel Leeson, Jerry decides to crash their dinner with a woman he’s been talking to who sings at the club. “I just met her,” Jerry says with amusement as he watches his once-date sing while her dress gets blown up in what’s supposed to be an uncomfortably racy number. What comes soon after is even better when Jerry slyly tells Daniel how much Lucy loves to dance, after Grant makes a hilarious “what the hell?” face to Daniel’s suggestion that she doesn’t. His eyes volley between the newly minted couple; the more uncomfortable Lucy grows, the more mischievously delighted Grant plays Jerry. It starts as a simple waltz between Lucy and Daniel until the tempo picks up and he starts haphazardly dancing in ways she struggles to enjoy or keep up with. As her embarrassment deepens, Jerry smiles serenely, gets up from his chair and finds one closer to the dance floor to better watch this mayhem, all in one fluid motion.
The persona Grant embodies in The Awful Truth, which he would continue to play within, subvert, and expand upon throughout the decades of his career, is one of refinement. Everything from his slicked hair to the way he wears suits speaks to the grace of the character, his romantic bona fides, his unending allure. He’s who everyone wants to be and be with. It’s important to understand that Grant was a pioneer, crafting a persona and stardom at a time when the medium and its business were still fresh. The mold of the modern male movie star hadn’t been set. He created it. Grant was keenly aware of his own creation and what it took to maintain it. Yes, there was his charm and his talent. Yes, there was his shrewd business sense. But there was magic too. Something as tricky to capture as smoke in your hands. And Grant’s skillset as an acrobat—the timing, the understanding of audience expectation, the physicality—is integral to this persona as well. In many ways, Grant is at his best in comedy when his smooth veneer is disturbed.
About forty-eight minutes into The Awful Truth, Cary Grant falls flat on his face. Literally. He’s snooping to see if Lucy is having an affair with her opera instructor, Armand (Alexander D’Arcy). He’s tripped by Armand’s servant. His tall and lean body falls smoothly to the floor face first, legs propped against the door that when opened will provide his answer. He gets in a skirmish with the servant trying to open the door when they both bust in, entangled, to see Lucy giving an opera performance. But that’s only the beginning of his pratfalls. Jerry tries to quietly sit down, thumbing his hat and sheepishly looking over the small audience. He leans back in his chair only to fall over completely, his limbs tangled in the chair and end table he brings down with him. As he tries to gain his bearings and stand, he only creates more of a ruckus. His brow sweats. His clothes get ruffled. His hair unfurls from its unmoving sheen, revealing curls resting along his brow that leave him looking as disheveled as a man like Grant can ever look. In The Awful Truth, Grant’s persona reveals itself to be a marriage of opposites and complications: a supreme sense of control and confidence with the ability to undercut that with silliness; a man who seems to tower above the rest in charm and gallantry yet always feels human thanks to the humor he laces through pivotal gestures. Grant was able to create a conspiratorial relationship with his audience, letting us in on the joke and creating an intimacy all stars need to survive. The next year he would best the already considerable physical artistry he uses here to bring his character to life in Holiday (1938).
George Cukor’s Holiday is ostensibly a romantic comedy but has a touchingly melancholic heart. Here, Grant doesn’t play a rich and powerful man as he does so convincingly in films like That Touch of Mink (1962). Instead he calls upon his own background, fashioning Johnny Case as a common man. “I’m a plain man of the people,” he tells his exceedingly rich fiancée Julia Seton (Doris Nolan). Johnny doesn’t know much about Julia. He didn’t know her family were the powerful and well-connected Seton banking family. He just knows how he feels about her. But their romance is riven by the class dynamics. Enter, Julia’s iconoclastic sister, Linda, played with remarkable sincerity by Katharine Hepburn. Cukor and his collaborators don’t make an ostentatious display of what we can expect to happen—Julia and Johnny falling in love. Instead, it’s a suggestion that runs and grows through the film, thanks in no small part to Grant’s physical presence. There’s a moment early on, when Johnny has just met Linda and she reaches out her hand with a half-eaten apple. “Want a bite?” she asks in that brittle voice that Hepburn made legend. He bends down without hesitation and takes a bite. There’s something immediately intimate about how Grant moves in spaces with Hepburn that speaks to his character’s growing fondness for Linda. His body language is open, even yearning, when he’s around her. His eyes soften when she supports his beliefs in not being run down by work, forever hustling, and instead getting out of the banking game after making a small nest egg. Julia doesn’t understand. As Linda says earlier, money is the family’s god. “There’s no such thrill in the world as making money,” Julia says, parroting her father’s beliefs. It’s an especially hilarious statement considering she’s inherited her money and not worked a day in her life.
Grant’s physical boundlessness appears early on. Johnny has just visited his older friends, Professor Nick (Edward Everett Horton) and Susan Potter (Jean Dixon), ecstatically telling them about his newfound love with Julia. “You know me, fellas. When things get tough, when I feel a worry coming on, you know what I do”—then, dressed in a full suit, coat, and hat, Grant does a front flip with ease, landing on his feet. He smiles and blows a kiss at his friends, hitting directly in the center of the frame as if it were a kiss meant for us.
Julia and Johnny’s engagement is meant to be announced at a New Year’s Eve party in the Setons’ grand home. Grant looks crisp and refined, almost at ease amongst the Seton family, if not for the worry marking his brow. However, he soon finds himself, decked in tuxedo and tails, performing acrobatics with Linda in the upstairs playroom instead of at the party downstairs with his fiancée. In the playroom, entertaining an audience of the Potters and the alcoholic but kind brother, Ned Seton (Lew Ayres), Linda and Johnny vault from the coach. Johnny helps her stand on his shoulders, still decked in a marvelous gown, of course. They lean then perform a forward tumble. I always find myself mesmerized by Grant, despite the fluttering greatness of the performances around him. He adds little touches to the character—the curiosity in his manner as he straddles a kid’s bicycle, the light behind his eyes whenever he looks at Linda, the lightness of his gait despite the heaviness of the character’s life—he has been working since he was twelve. Actors who understand the meaning of their bodies are able to create shapes and postures that take us from reality into the land of archetypes and fables and myth. And it’s in this territory that essential human truths can be found. Grant demonstrates this better than the pallid stars we are meant to be entertained by today. In doing so, he is able to consider the terrain of desire—how it’s found, kept, and sometimes lost—as well as add new texture to the expectations placed on Western masculinity. Grant isn’t guarded with his emotions as an actor, although there is sometimes an air of mystery to him; instead he wears them with an understanding of their preciousness. In Holiday he moves through space with a precision that reflects a trenchant understanding of character. But even though his acrobatics don’t extend into his later career with the same force as in Holiday, his physicality remains lucid and enchanting.
Another important part of Grant’s physical presence, aiding in the comedies and running through his career, is perhaps the most important—how he looks at women to communicate the lust and complications that come with romance. That quality is on full display in the 1958 Stanley Donen production Indiscreet, where Grant not only delights with physically attuned comedic aplomb but enchants as a romantic lead. In films like To Catch a Thief (1955), Grant is the one being chased by the woman, a tactic that highlights his allure. In Indiscreet, the chase is mutual, albeit the flirtation is set off by famed actress Anna Kalman, played by a luminous and hilarious Ingrid Bergman, reuniting with Grant after their previous collaboration in the markedly different Notorious and her comeback following her denigration on the floor of the U.S. Congress for her affair with director Robert Rossellini. When Philip Adams (Grant) is introduced, walking into Anna’s apartment and life, he takes up space in the frame of the doorway that shows just how well Grant knew the power of drafting the right silhouette and posture. When the two lock eyes it’s clear immediately that they fancy one another. He extols her work on stage, while she wipes cold cream off her face. This moment reveals the immediacy and force of Grant’s persona as a romantic lead but also how he gives his romantic partners room to shine, playing with both his image and his character. He has everything it takes: the lightning bright charisma, the gallantry and respect that allows the woman to feel as real as his character. But ultimately it comes down to those chocolate eyes.
Indiscreet, at first, is a charming and breezy romantic comedy charting the beginnings of Philip and Anna’s relationship. Their dynamic is complicated by Philip’s home life—he’s married and can’t get a divorce despite being separated from his wife. Anna decides she doesn’t care and goes along with the subterfuge necessary for the relationship to work and her career to remain unscathed. There’s a telling moment when Anna prostrates herself on Philip’s lap, “Could you possibly get a divorce and marry me?” In a flash the ease of his body vanishes, he tenses up as quickly as the words escape her lips. But then Indiscreet reveals itself to have more cutting humor when the film takes another turn: Philip isn’t married at all. He’s been lying to Anna because he has no interest in being married. She finds out. Instead of telling him off in anger she devises a scheme to wreck him emotionally. This allows Grant to lean into the comedy of the story. Grant could have easily peaked during the time of the screwball comedy, which made him a star. But he found a way to transition from decade to decade, refining his skills and elaborating the dynamics of his persona, without losing sight of the attributes that made him Cary Grant.
There’s a devilish scene late in the film where Anna pretends she doesn’t know the truth as she attends a gala alongside Philip, her sister, and her brother-in-law. Philip is wholly unaware of what’s going on, never quite catching Anna’s face when it falls from her put-on joy into festering anger. Grant dances with abandon—jumping into the air as if a ballet star decked in an evening suit, swinging Anna around without much care of how she lands. He’s giddy and silly in a way a child can be. But even with his inconsideration, Grant is able to make Philip seem like the ultimate catch with a charm that elucidates the beauty of flirtation and romance. It’s this skill that makes the romance feel real and allows the end notes of the film to sing.
How Grant treated women in life proved to be far more complicated and fraught than the romantic treatises he was able to create on-screen. While Eyman notes his sterling rapport with co-stars like Irene Dunne, Grace Kelly, and Ingrid Bergman, this wasn’t exactly the norm with regards to his relations with women, romantic and otherwise. Frances Farmer, who appeared with him in The Toast of New York (1937), noted that he was “an aloof, remote person, intent on being Cary Grant playing Cary Grant.” Despite being an integral figure in putting Grant on the map with appearances in She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel, Mae West was the recipient of many disparaging remarks from her former leading man, who considered her his worst costar. “I don’t like artifice on a woman,” he said during one of his “A Conversation with Cary Grant” appearances in the 1970s. It’s an especially rich statement considering how much Grant’s life and on-screen persona utilized the artificial.
His treatment of his wives and other romantic partners is even more uncomfortable to read about. His narcissism, temper, and possessiveness were reported by many, including his first wife, Virginia Cherrill, who “preferred to talk about the Cary she loved, not the Cary that occasionally frightened her,” Eyman writes. Grant’s ambivalence coupled with his need for intimacy but distrust of it from women is undeniably born from the horrifying circumstances of his childhood home and the ordeal his mother went through. But even after his years of therapy and LSD treatments, which he credited with giving him the tools necessary to integrate his warring selves, Grant still seemed unable to see women as full people. “I am not proud of my marriage career. It was not the fault of Hollywood, but my own inadequacies. [. . .] My wives have divorced me. I await a woman with the best qualities of each. I will endow her with those qualities because they will be in my own point of view,” he says. Eyman blessedly doesn’t glide away from addressing the problem with this mindset, “The idea that women have no intrinsic qualities other than those imposed on them by a man is hard to surpass.” I bring up Grant’s complex and complicated relations with women not to disparage him but to paint a fuller picture of just how well-crafted his star persona and acting performances are. That gap between the man Archie Leach became and the persona of Cary Grant may in fact be a chasm.
Lost in that chasm is the truth about Grant’s sexuality, particularly his relationship with Randolph Scott. I’m not interested in parsing out rumors or delving into conspiratorial gossip. But it’s hard to ignore the problems with Eyman’s biography on matters such as this and the women in Grant’s life. Like so many of the other biographies rooted in the personalities of classic Hollywood, it has a blinkered perspective. While Eyman is aware of Grant’s own misogyny, he can’t see his own. He often doesn’t take Grant’s issues to task enough or contextualize them historically. Eyman is not alone in these faults. In researching Grant I kept butting against a horrifying amount of homophobia and misogyny. Trying to make sense of Grant as a star persona and an actual human being grows complicated when you study the terrain of his published biographies, which undoubtedly comes to bear on how his legend has been shaped.
This isn’t a problem contained only by Cary Grant biographies and critical explorations but a larger one about who gets to shape our understanding of the history of Hollywood. Travel through classic Hollywood biographies and critical appraisals, especially from the 1980s, and you’ll find a trove of bigotry. How different would our understanding of Grant’s life and career be if not dimmed by the horrid perspective of those who have contextualized it? What could have been unearthed or explored if people from marginalized backgrounds were allowed the space and support to write about him in-depth?
Cary Grant, the man, will likely always be partially steeped in mystery. But as a comedic force—with his sparkling romantic sensibilities and platinum poise—his prowess will always remain legible and unmatched.
A series of Cary Grant’s comedies is playing on the Criterion Channel now through February 28, 2021.
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