To Catch a Legend
By James Wolcott
Unlike many of Hollywood’s handsomest leading men, Cary Grant infused his immense good looks with a steely toughness suggesting dark currents beneath the charm. On the centenary of his birth, a documentary reveals the complex calibrations behind an eternal, matchless icon.
Handsome is as handsome does, but handsome often doesn’t do very much. The history of Hollywood is pillared with handsome leading men striking statuesque poses, wary of making any sudden moves for fear of cracking. Rudolph Valentino, with his passionate profile and soul-burning stare; Robert Taylor, who, whatever his role, always looked like a dashing aviator, complete with waxed mustache; Tyrone Power, who seemed stricken by his own beauty, its responsibility too much to bear; Franchot Tone, a noble dipstick in a string of MGM films in the 30s, including a couple of weepies with his then wife, Joan Crawford – each was a study in portraiture.
Of all the handsome Hollywood exhibits, none was glossier than Cary Grant. Admiring glances circled him like small planes his entire career. (When Audrey Hepburn pointed to the cleft in his chin in Charade and wondered how he shaved in there, it was as if she were inspecting an international landmark.) But Grant was more than smooth marble. No Adonis in a yachting jacket has ever moved with more herky-jerky, snorting, double-taking, gymnastic sudden acceleration and perfect landings on-screen. He could look blocky and executive – Cubism in a business suit – but he possessed a watchful, panther-like grace, the stealthy finesse of an accomplished imposter. When Hitchcock cast him as a cat burglar in To Catch a Thief, he captured the dual nature of Cary Grant. Behind that suavity hid the soul of a prowler.
On the centenary of his birth, Cary Grant is being honored and re-appraised in a new documentary written, directed, and produced by Robert Trachtenberg for Turner Classic Movies titled Cary Grant: A Class Apart, which will also be shown in non-competition at this summer’s Cannes Film Festival. It’s crowded with classy-looking dames, including Dina Merrill, Eva Marie Saint, and Jill St. John, along with several movie critics to provide some fiber. Born Archibald Alexander Leach in Bristol, England, in 1904, the future star was the offspring of an unhappy marriage, a lonely only child. When Archie was nine, his mother vanished from the household; he was told she was visiting a seaside resort. It would be a long getaway for her. In truth, she had suffered a nervous breakdown and was removed to a mental institution – the two would not see each other again for more than 20 years. (When they were re-united, she greeted her now strapping, successful son – who had brought her a fur coat as a gift – by goggling at his face and announcing, “Archie, I’ve never seen so many wrinkles in me life.” He was devastated. Mothers!) Entranced by the theater as a teenager after being taken backstage at the Bristol Hippodrome, Archie forged a letter in his father’s name requesting apprenticeship in a comedy troupe run by a former Drury Lane clown. “Archie Leach found his vocation early and stuck to it,” Pauline Kael wrote in her profile-essay “The Man from Dream City,” reprinted in her collection For Keeps. “He studied dancing, tumbling, stilt-walking, and pantomime, and performed constantly in provincial towns and cities and in the London vaudeville houses.” Archie’s movie idol was the swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks Sr.