[28 March 2008]
Cary Grant was famous for playing Cary Grant. His greatest role was his movie star persona. He brought that persona with him for every film part he ever did. Growing up a poor Brit named Archie Leach, taking rather interesting detours like becoming an acrobat, Grant eventually took the Hollywood studio system by storm.
He fashioned his own debonair ur-movie icon identity, and he perfected it. The sumptuous, lithe Cary Grant you get in famous movies such as Indiscreet, Operation Petticoat, The Grass is Greener, and That Touch of Mink (all included in this bare bones DVD box set, no extras to speak of) was the same Grant he played off camera.
Living in a persona is a hard task, as the travails in his personal life can attest. But, at least in the movies, it works masterfully for Grant. He had effortless style, witty banter, clipped, precise speech, and endless charisma. Latter-day inheritors of Grant’s O.G. mantle, such as George Clooney, can never really reach Grant’s apex, given today’s much more intense tabloid culture (which seems determined to poke holes in any star’s persona).
Each of these four films showcases Grant in top form, in the period from the late ‘50s to the early ‘60s. The two stand-outs are the films from director Stanley Donen, Indiscreet (1958) and The Grass is Greener (1960).
Grant is always superb, the poster boy for slicked-back charm, his horn-rimmed glasses raised like air quotes to show he is always aware of the irony of any role. What Grant brings to all of his parts is a sharp intelligence, the feeling that he is always one step ahead of his own dialogue. He’s almost doing a witty meta-commentary on the very roles he’s playing. Deep astuteness, active listening, impeccable timing, a reservoir of intention going on behind his knowing stare.
But some of his star vehicles stand the test of time better than others. The Donen films are grown-up movies in the sense that they explore compelling themes about relationships and they don’t patronize any of their characters while they’re doing it. Both are based on plays, which might be the reason why both have insightful dialogue—lightning quick and whip smart. Both are interested in why people fall in and out of love, why they choose to enter into and out of marriage. And what they have over the other two films in this box set is that they treat the women characters like full human beings with agency and intelligence. The sophistication of both films is refreshing.
In Grass, Grant is clearly amused by the fact that he’s playing the cuckolded husband. What he has to do is to remind his wife (played by Deborah Kerr) of his own well-worn appeal in order to win her back from an upstart suitor (a slightly less nimble Robert Mitchum). As he inhabits his urbane vibe, Grant makes the joke that he has hidden his light under a bushel a bit while playing house with Kerr, i.e., domesticity has dulled some of the fire. As soon as Mitchum woos her away, Grant must step up and deliver.
The film satirizes class and English versus American stereotypes in cogent ways. Grant and Kerr are petit aristocracy living in a castle they must open to the public because they are land rich and cash poor, while Mitchum’s American oil man gives Kerr the furs she yearns for in spite of herself. Grant’s ploy is to stage a duel with Mitchum and reactive Kerr’s sympathies for him.
Both Grant and Kerr play it like they’re all always in on the truth, no matter what the surface level chit chat is about, doing a take on why marriages can slip into ennui and what it requires to jump start them again. What would it be like to be a rich American? What would it be like to live as landed gentry in the very exclusive Brit aristocratic club? All the characters try on new roles, knowing that they’re just playacting at changing their own reality.
As in Grass, Donen’s Indiscreet is about sharp men and women navigating the tricky waters of love. Ingrid Bergman, who easily goes toe-to-toe with Grant, giving depth and maturity to their bond, plays a London actress who has yet to find a man of substance who is worthy of being her partner.
Diplomat Grant arrives on the scene, and they quickly learn that they have a lot to offer each other. From swanning around posh restaurants to sharing their thoughts and days, they let each other in to their rich inner lives. Like an intricate dance, they have to work through some gender role expectations and pressures of the era in order to see where their relationship is going.
While the main tone of the film is about the lives and loves of swanky Euro jetsetters, the film also has a goofy heart. In one scene, a madcap Grant whips out the tumbling skills in a group dance, the lightness of his feet conveying the lightness of his spirit. Nothing is dumbed down here, the dialogue cuts to the chase and hits the core of larger existential issues at times.
The same could not be said for That Touch of Mink (1962). While Grant and co-star Doris Day both sparkle, as does supporting actor Gig Young as an hilariously neurotic financial advisor, the tale of a rich Wall Streeter taking “stray kitten” Day under his wing is ultimately deeply patronizing and is at times insufferable. Will Day go away on a Caribbean vacation with a rich man who is not proposing marriage? Can he corrupt her? This “bedroom farce” isn’t funny or clever. It’s all about whether or not a pretty working woman, struggling to make a go of it in the big city, will give it up to a man in order to get ahead.
When Grant has to act like he believes he deserves sex from her because he’s bought her furs and flown her around on a jet, even he seems a little embarrassed by the wink-wink role. What’s meant to be arch comes off skeevy. She’s never an equal, and the film is dated and tired. It’s actually hard to watch at times, because she’s like a bright-faced toy who jumps when the much older man says jump, while all the men in the film are asked to buy into some supposedly common sense assumption that women are mostly pretty playthings and that’s it.
Supporting actress Audrey Meadows gets to mouth some critiques, but they’re half-hearted window-dressing. Someone make it stop. I know it’s supposed to be a classic and all, but wow, these actors are better than this material.
The other farce in this set fares a bit better. In Operation Petticoat (1959), directed by Blake Edwards, we find Grant playing a stern sub commander who has to learn to loosen up. Set during World War II, the movie follows Grant and his fast-talking supply officer, Tony Curtis, as they try to repair their broken sub. They’re waylaid by five army nurses who are stranded and come aboard, and the comedy turns serious when they come under an air attack and must try to make the glommed-together sub (now painted pink, har har) work well enough to save everyone.
While this movie is also patronizing to the women characters (How many jokes can Blake Edwards make about women’s breasts you ask? Lots says Blake, creakily.), the tone of the film works better because of the interplay between Grant and Curtis. Both play comedy with zeal, and the antic Curtis makes a good foil for the smooth Grant.
All of the films explore the battle of the sexes with varying degrees of success. They comment on the vicissitudes of married life, like people wondering whether a different partner would make them happier, and on dramatic attempts to achieve happiness, on men and women relating to each other. All reflect the gendered assumptions of their era. Some are just smarter about it than others, giving insights into the human character and modern marriage. But it is Grant who emerges victorious, no matter what the role. His coat of armor is his charm, and he inhabits it seamlessly.