A Class Apart
By Graham McCann
Columbia University Press, $24.95
Reviewed by JOSEPH REED
Cary Grant was the consummate movie star. His appearances on screen made people want to be better than they were, behave better than they could, take on his perfection. Like much that came out of Hollywood, Cary Grant was the product of artifice, a made-to-order product.
This, of course, does not diminish Grant's value or his achievement. A Cockney youth named Archie Leach escaped from poverty and a broken home (a story not so different from Charlie Chaplin's). Once he had become Cary Grant (needless to say now, different from Chaplin), he became the love-object of millions of women and the sartorial and behavioral model for millions of men _ not to mention nonchalance and cool.
McCann's book is, at first blush, one of those Hollywood star-biographies; the author has run through clippings and articles and other books, mined them for useful stuff, arranged them chronologically and joined them together with new prose like so much paste. But certainly because of McCann, probably even more because of Grant, this book misses the low aim of such automatic non-books by as good as a mile. Even the author's rather habitual exchanges back and forth between Grant's fictional life (his screen roles and their lines) and Grant's flesh-and-blood life seem finally to be central to the book's argument. Seldom has a star worked so hard to make his roles a part of the persona his career is constructing. McCann's forceful real-life arguments (Why did Grant have so many marriages? Why was he so reclusive? Was he homosexual or bisexual or what?) and the book's essential reminders by line-quotation and plot-synopses force us to watch the movies in our heads again, so indelibly imprinted there by our memory of Cary Grant's performances.
Grant is a difficult and elusive subject. In many ways he is too good to be true (so the worst in us wants to find feet of clay); in other ways he is simply too mundane offscreen ever to have earned such power on the screen. Once we have seen him in one of these powerful roles, we have been changed and we think he can do no wrong. As one of his female co-stars said, "What's wrong with Cary Grant? Nothing."
Grant plays David Huxley, absent-minded paleontologist (defining for all time the absent-minded professor) in Bringing Up Baby. With him we lose our fiancee and our dinosaur bone (the movie and Grant keep reminding us the bone is an intercostal clavicle) and finally get our life back together just as our life's work (the reassembled brontosaurus) crumples to the floor because (we and) Grant must rescue Katherine Hepburn.
In Notorious, with Grant we marry Ingrid Bergman off to Claude Rains, the Nazi. With Grant we suffer for what we are convinced is a necessary ruse _ we're in the business of controlling operatives, and Bergman is an operative. But we are also (with Grant) in love with her and must in the end save her.
As Johnny Aysgarth in Hitchcock's Suspicion, we see Cary Grant through Joan Fontaine's foggy eyes and know he wants to kill us; with Roger Thornhill in Hitchcock's North by Northwest, we run from a law we know we haven't (but fear we must have) broken. Every film is a new conundrum, a new life, a new kind of perfection to emulate. No one was ever so cool, so confused, so beautifully dressed, so capable, so silly or so suspicious as Grant is in his various roles. he came to define only himself. Only Cary Grant is Cary Grant. But we still measure ourselves by that. This is a wonderful book because we learn new things from it, and it reminds us as well of the old.
He retired from the screen in 1968 and became involved in a new business career for Brut, a cosmetics company, advising them, traveling for them, doing public relations. He was awarded an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement (an award that has become known perhaps too familiarly as the "dying actor award"). But he didn't die. He had a daughter at the age of 62, married yet again, pursued several affairs, went on the road with a question-and-answer Conversation with Cary Grant show. Finally, at 82, he breathed his last _ good-looking in a new way, still popular, still remembered by millions. And through his films he still becomes every day remembered by more and more people born after he died.
Joseph Reed, born in St. Petersburg, is professor of English and American studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and the author of Three American Originals and American Scenarios.