It’s rare when a remake surpasses the original. Rarer still is the update that, for all intents and purposes, sets the continuing standard for a specific genre. Call it fate or filmmaking destiny, a decidedly brilliant bit of casting or a complete lack of forced manipulation, but for some real and legitimate reason, 1957’s An Affair to Remember has become the torchbearer for all five handkerchief dramatic weepers to follow. It’s so much the point of reference that Nora Ephron used it as contextual heft for her lightweight 1993 RomCom Sleepless in Seattle, and even then, it constantly overshadowed the modern star power (Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan) on hand. Want further proof of this revamp’s lingering supremacy. Warren Beatty and his real life Annette Bening co-starred in a 1994 redux, and yet no amount of authentic chemistry (or the appearance of the legendary Katherine Hepburn) could compete with what Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr created some four decades before.
The story finds wayward individuals Nickie Ferrante (Grant) and Terry McKay (Kerr) onboard a ship sailing from Europe to New York. He is a fledgling artist and a famed playboy, engaged to a rich heiress and doomed to be a kept man. She is a nightclub singer who also finds herself promised to someone else. Over the course of the journey, their feelings flower. A visit to Nickie’s aging grandmother (Cathleen Nesbitt) confirms the truth – they have fallen in love. Making a pact to meet at the top of the Empire State Building in six months, each goes about separating themselves from their current romantic situation. On the proscribed date, Nickie indeed makes his way to the location, certain that Terry will be there. She too is traveling to the promised spot, but a sudden tragedy leave her unable to complete the journey. When she doesn’t show, our hero is heartbroken. As time passes, resentment builds. Little does he know that, instead of standing him up, Terry is paralyzed and can’t walk, and wants to save Nickie from a live committed to a cripple.
While some might dismiss this as a “chick flick” or a lame Lifetime movie in disguise, don’t believe the mis-hype. An Affair to Remember is a fine piece of classic filmmaker misconstrued because of the power it has over the viewer – especially one specific gender of audience. Men do openly cry at this masterwork as easily as the devotees of Oprah’s Book Club, and it has nothing to do with an excess of estrogen. This is the rare case when all the cinematic stars align just right. Co-writer and director Leo McCarey was adapting his own previous hit (which featured the formidable 1939 star power of Charles Boyer and Irene Dunn), using the original script almost verbatim. He then sought out the perfect pair for his often shameless showpiece and landed two fantastic superstars. Grant is so great here that he makes an obsessive mancrush seem sensible, while Kerr was coming off The King and I. Together, they create the kind of onscreen sizzle that the current crop of Hollywood ‘heavyweights’ would renegotiate their deals with the Devil for.
This is a movie built on solid storytelling and narrative layering. We watch as Nickie and Terry first fall in love, as they take those intriguing little baby steps toward opening up their often heavy hearts. Neither character is completely free, and yet they both discover a love so open and pure that they believe, at least for an instant, that nothing can hold them back. When reality sinks in, it’s the first of many pitfall these lovers will face. But since McCarey is so skilled as a director (this is a man with a creative canon worthy of envy – just take a glance) and the screenplay is so polished and prescient, we believe in their ability to overcome. Even when the odds seem so solidly against them, we have faith in the magic their special kind of connection can create. Sure, it’s all made up and manipulative, but we fall under the spell just like a giddy, glassy eyed school girl.
At its core, An Affair to Remember is a film about never losing hope. Even when events turn tragic (it’s no spoiler to state that Terry ends up paralyzed), McCarey creates an atmosphere of promise so potent that we know these two will wind up together. Part of the allure of this film is watching the various plot machinations keep Nickie and Terry from their destiny: the initial event at the Empire State Building; the lack of communication (and the various sequences of harried handwringing that comes with same); the chance meeting at the ballet; the various secrets each keeps from each other; the painting; the final confrontation and accidental realization. McCarey is so adept at keeping things ordered that the often outsized emotions involved never threaten to overwhelm the story.
Of course, it helps to have two Tinseltown legends in the lead. If there was any justice in the often futile archives of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Cary Grant would have more Oscars than any other actor, living or dead. He is absolutely brilliant here, so suave and pseudo-sophisticated that, when his heart is literally breaking, the contrast is devastating. Many complain that Grant was often just playing himself, using his looks and personality as a means of getting over the more complicated characterizations. That’s bullshit. This was a true performer, someone who could fully use what he was given to glorify even the most mediocre project. Just watch him in films like North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, Bringing Up Baby, or His Girl Friday and argue that it’s the ‘look’ acting. You’ll be as foolish as your initial assertion.
Kerr is the perfect counterbalance, beautiful and yet fragile, formed out of the wishes of every melancholy single man. She is the perfect female audience member replicant, an easy to identify with woman who wants little more than to be appreciated and cared for. Her turn here is terrific, since it requires her to be the baffle for much of the movie’s bad feelings. She initially rejects Nickie, slowly lets him in, “rejects” him by failing to make the appointed rendezvous, and then hides the truth…all in a magnificent bit of movie martyrdom. It’s the kind of act that gets the anger building – and the tear ducts filling. By the time the two realize what fools they’ve been, there isn’t a dry eye in the entire genre. The primary reason that An Affair to Remember resonates still today is that the viewer can always put themselves in the situations on hand. While they may have an aura of late ’50s continental cool and calm about them, there is a universality to the storyline that’s impossible to shake.
An Affair to Remember is the flawless answer to that always nagging romantic question, “what if?” It challenges the viewer to elevate their own emotional state to near histrionics while experiencing the reserved realities of two people falling hopelessly in love. The various contextual elements added to the recent Blu-ray release (a commentary track, featurettes on the cast and crew) can’t take away from the gorgeous old school image or the pristine people populating it. Sure, some can call it syrupy or saccharine, but that’s their misplaced cynicism speaking. An Affair to Remember is a lot of things, but a contrived bit of campy trash it is not. It may have a couple of convenient plot contrivances here and there, but they serve a storyline that ends up reaping copious creative rewards. There’s a reason why this film is a classic. In this specific case, the term expertly defines the subject.