Cary Grant was beautiful right down to his hands. He was perfectly formed – his head, his hair, his skin. He was almost supernatural. A magnificent male animal. Camille Paglia
With a career that spanned the better part of the twentieth century, Archibald Alexander Leach, aka Cary Grant (1904–1986), is indisputably Hollywood’s romantic leading man par excellence.
In a 1975 New Yorker profile, Pauline Kael anointed Cary Grant ‘The Man from Dream City’ – the actor with the ‘longest romantic reign in the short history of the movies.’
Kael was spot on in her assessment that Grant ‘must be the most publicly seduced male the world has known … and being the pursued doesn’t make him seem weak or passively soft’ but rather ‘glamorous – and, since he is not as available as other men, far more desirable.’
Across 72 films of varying quality, Grant’s appeal never waned. Women wanted him, men wanted to be him. Watch his great films of the 1930s and his face is deliciously soft and open. By the second major chapter of his career in the 1950s it had ripened, and yet he is more handsome and more desirable than ever before. Despite never falling out of favour, in 1958 Grant was voted the most popular male movie star of the year and had become a national monument.
On screen he was pursued by many of Hollywood’s finest leading ladies – Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell, Sophia Loren, Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, Ingrid Bergman, Deborah Kerr and Audrey Hepburn. Quite a few came back for seconds and thirds, even fourths. To all of them, he was irresistible. They lost control in his presence. They wanted him, they often broke from convention to follow him and he let them do the chasing. Note those two great, late films he made with Hitchcock – the innuendo-laden exchanges with Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest (1959) and the complete loss of control Grace Kelly demonstrates in his presence in To Catch a Thief (1955) as fireworks go off in her head and outside their window. Remember that the most forward of Hollywood dames, Mae West, hand-picked him for her 1933 film She Done Him Wrong, in which she famously purred, ‘Why don’t you come up sometime, see me?’ That it was Grant on the receiving end of this iconic line is often forgotten, but in the history of cinematic desire it’s a pivotal moment and just the beginning of our lust for him.
Surely, the phrase ‘tall, dark and handsome’ was coined for Grant. Was there ever an actor as dreamy, debonair and charming, as perennially tanned, a man who could wear a suit, especially a tuxedo, with such style and elegance, who could cast a spell with the delivery of a sophisticated, witty line? He made it all seem so easy and so natural. Others have tried – George Clooney, is often lauded, prematurely, by magazines as the heir to Grant’s crown – most have failed.
Escaping the poverty of his humble beginnings in Bristol by training as an acrobat, Archie Leach reinvented himself as Cary Grant in America. He rose to the top of Hollywood and stayed there for over 30 years, significant also as the first actor in the studio system to be a free agent, not tied exclusively to one studio, once his Paramount contract lapsed in 1936. In effect, he was a freelance actor, in total control of the parameters of his career and his identity. Famously, he once quipped to an interviewer, ‘You say everybody wants to be Cary Grant? Even I want to be Cary Grant.’ Was he always playing ‘Cary Grant’? I don’t know. But if he was, he played him well. It was a role that made him the man we know today; a role that effectively gave him life.
The screwball comedies of the 1930s made him a star. They helped his persona congeal. In these brilliant films – The Awful Truth (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940) and My Favorite Wife (1940) – our idea of Cary Grant becomes fully formed. There were those huge, dark eyes (boy, did he know how to use those eyes), the mid-Atlantic accent, the bright, warm smile and the distinctive dimpled chin. The camera loved them all. Here he could put his long, lean limbs to use and draw on his acrobatic, vaudevillian past. Grant was always an extraordinary physical comedian and the screwballs let him show off his brilliant timing, his spontaneity and playfulness. And the screwballs also gave him space to be urbane and romantic – not only funny, but wildly desirable too.
It’s all there in one of my favorites, a little seen gem, Holiday (1938) directed by George Cukor and pairing Grant for the third time with Katharine Hepburn (as down-to-earth heiress Linda Seton) perhaps his greatest equal in both charm and intellect. Watch that backflip he does in Linda’s childhood playroom in which she spends much of her adult life. As the freethinking Johnny Case, Grant is warm, open and outgoing and most importantly, never seems self-involved. This seems to me to be the real Cary Grant – a man who wasn’t afraid to look a little silly or even fully ridiculous if a backflip or bit of clowning around (in a gauzy negligee like he dons in Bringing Up Baby, for example) was required.
Grant didn’t lose this sense of fun. In a hilarious and utterly charming scene in Charade (1963) – one of the last films he made before he retired from acting in 1966 to devote himself to first-time fatherhood at age 62 – he showers fully clothed. He’s mature and debonair, virile and charismatic, but as playful as ever. Grant is one of the rare examples of a sex symbol that was also a goofball, and is all the more attractive for it. He was an elegant common man who gave women (and some men too, I’m sure) a taste of what we really want – to be swept off our feet while laughing hysterically. This ‘slapstick Prince Charming’ (to borrow again from Kael) is a dream date promising a good time filled with all the best life has to offer.
And even if you weren’t out on the town dancing and swilling champagne and exchanging witty banter until dawn, but just curled up with him on the couch reading a book, there’s always that face – a face that just became more and more handsome over time. ‘It’s a nice face,’ Eva Marie Saint coos across the dining cart table in North by Northwest. It’s a face that his co-stars couldn’t ignore while they were seducing him, and in Charade (1963), holed up in an elevator with a smitten Audrey Hepburn, it’s a legendary face that takes on a life of its own, when she cheekily fingers the cleft in his chin and asks what we’ve all been wondering for years, ‘how do you shave in there?’
Romantic Grant gives men hope they can win a lost love back. He does this in countless films (among them The Awful Truth, the sparkling gem, The Philadelphia Story, An Affair to Remember). But beware if you come up against him in a contest for a woman’s affection – you’ll never win while Cary’s around. Of course, it’s an unfair fight. On a night cruise along the Seine in the middle of Charade the camera peeks at lovers scattered around the riverbank and Grant tells Hepburn he taught them everything they know. As the greatest of all romantic leading men, he wouldn’t be wrong. And how can a woman say no – to that intellect, tailoring, elegance and goofiness. Cary Grant has it all. As his mesmerized co-star in Charade swoons, ‘Do you know what’s wrong with you? Nothing.’
Sylvia Scarlett (1935)
The Awful Truth (1937)
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
His Girl Friday (1940)
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
The Talk of the Town (1942)
To Catch a Thief (1955)
An Affair to Remember (1957)
North by Northwest (1959)