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Cary Grant is still adorable

Cary Grant once quipped that everybody wanted to be Cary Grant. “Even I want to be Cary Grant”.

This, in essence, is what Grant was all that he made himself to be. Grant, who was born Archie Leach some 100 years ago (January 18 1904), created a completely new person, and perfected, over the years, being that person. Cary Grant.

Those who have watched Grant closely and have analysed his skills and persona say that unlike most actors who are not very different from their screen images, Cary was quite an exception. Grace Kelly, the legendary Princess of Monaco, remarked when she was shooting Hitchcock’s masterpiece, “To Catch A Thief”, that “the accent, the walk, the double takes – he invented them all”.

Grant himself said that often. “I was very conscious of my lack of education when I started. I did not want it to show, so I invented an accent. The walk I got from my days as an acrobat. The rest I stole from Noel Coward”.

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in "Notorious"

About 18 years after Grant died at age 82 (November 29 1986), I still remember him as elegant, suave, handsome, charming and, yes, a little dangerous. The definition of a perfect film star whose fans included even his leading ladies. Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Sophia Loren and Deborah Kerr among many more. Alexis Smith remembers how she almost swooned after being kissed by Grant in Cole Porter’s 1946 “Night And Day”. After he had kissed her in their first scene together, Smith was in such a state of excitement that she could not even remember her lines, let alone her name!

Years earlier, a young Alexis could never imagine when she watched Grant during a matinee that some day he would gather her in his arms for a wonderful kiss.

Grant evoked the same feeling in many of his screen women. Such was his mesmeric effect that many heroines of his day wanted to work with him again and again. Katharine Hepburn, Kerr, Loren and Bergman starred with him in several movies each.

But when Grant was asked time again who his favourite lady was, he preferred to act coy. He always had something nice to say about each one of them: “You are the sweetest smelling actress I have ever played with” he commented to one of his ladies.

However, in one of his final interviews, he revealed that it was Kelly who was the best, and that she was absolutely relaxed and had a razor-keen mind.

Yet, one could never get it out of him who his favourite director was. But, if one were to see his long list of movies, Alfred Hitchcock was the man who not only extracted the best out of the ridiculously handsome Grant, but also drew the actor time and again.

Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in "To Catch A Thief"

In fact, Hitchcock found and made a brilliant use of Grant’s dark side. When Hitchcock first met Grant, the auteur asked him, “will you commit a murder?” Grant agreed, and “Suspicion” was born. Joan Fontaine, the shy heiress loves her husband so much in the film that she allows him to murder her. Grant, who played hubby, had, Hitchcock was certain, the endearingly sinister quality to play the part. But the studio concerned would not let Grant be that, and at least three endings were made. Finally, the one that we got to see has Grant strangely innocent contradicting what came before.

By the time “Suspicion” was completed, there was little suspicion between Hitchcock and Grant: rather, there was perfect trust between them. Grant saw in the master the means to do serious cinema, and Hitchcock knew that the actor had the ability to be a great performer.

Yet, time and demand kept the two apart. Hitchcock was keen on casting him in “Spellbound”, “The Paradine Case”, “Rope”, “I Confess”, “The Birds” and “Torn Curtain”, but Grant just did not have the dates. Hitchcock wryly commented “once you decide to go after Cary Grant, the question of suitability takes second place to the question of availability”.

On the other hand, when Grant wanted to do Hitchcock’s “Dial M For Murder”, the studio was shocked at actor’s salary demand.

Nonetheless, Hitchcock always maintained that Grant was his favourite, and an ideal choice for any film. Hitchcock got Grant for “Notorious” under difficult conditions, and, at the end, the director was happy. He knew that only Grant with his unmatched charm could explore some of the dark corners of the character’s personality without alienating viewers. Incidentally, this has one of cinema’s most passionate love scenes: a seemingly endless kiss between Ingrid Bergman and Grant that was actually so much more!

A decade passed before Grant and Hitchcock came together in “To Catch A Thief”. Set in the sunny French Riviera, the movie further discovered Grant’s duality: With artful directorial touches, Hitchcock tells the story of a cat burglar coming out of retirement to catch another cat burglar. With abrupt fades to black, punctuated by mysterious notes, the auteur got Grace Kelly and Grant together for a magnificent piece of work.

But it was “North By Northwest” that turned out be truly brilliant, indeed a masterpiece. Here Grant was a Madison Avenue executive being chased by foreign agents: there were two truly remarkable scenes here. One, the crop duster chase and, two, the Mount Rushmore finale.

It was during the shooting of “North By Northwest” that Grant began talking about his therapy to get rid of a drug problem. Anyway, this was the last time that Hitchcock and Grant worked together: one writer avers that probably Grant after his treatment felt no need to go to dark places where Hitchcock alone had taken him.

Grant himself had a few dark patches to grapple with: he had an unhappy childhood. His mother disappeared when he was nine, and he found out years later that his father had placed her in a mental asylum. Grant looked after her for the rest of her life.

Grant’s marriages were problematic. He married five times; the first was to Virginia Cherrill, who played the blind girl in Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights”. When they divorced, she made a charge that Grant’s future wives would agree: the man was terribly possessive, because he was always afraid that they would leave him. Understandable for a man whose mother disappeared when he was a child. Grant’s wives were so stifled that they were compelled to escape. In 1981, he married Barbara Harris, who remained with him till he died a year later. Grant called her the great love of his life.

For, a Grant fan, his personal life mattered little. His professional work was superb, and it continues to be a rich and rewarding part of world’s truly inspiring cinema. His “An Affair To Remember” and “The Philadelphia Story” – helmed by men other than Hitchcock – have become immortal.

Would “My Fair Lady” been an even greater piece of celluloid had Grant acted in it instead of Rex Harrison? I would never know, but Grant refused to be Henry Higgins by declaring: “ The way I talk now is the way Eliza talked at the beginning”.

Similarly, would marital bliss have had a greater meaning in Grant’s life if Sophia Loren did say, “I do”? Grant fell in love with her in Spain during the filming of the 1957 “The Pride And The Passion”. They were cast together again in “Houseboat” the following year. But just before the wedding scene was filmed in the movie, Loren married Carlo Ponti.

Grant was disappointed and distressed, but he never let the turmoil and trauma in his heart seep into his head. He was always erudite, incredibly dressed, witty and desirable. And that is what he wanted us to see, and that is what he worked so hard to achieve and prefect.

Once Audrey Hepburn asked Grant “You know what is wrong with you”. Before, he could answer, she said, “Nothing”. This is about what one may offer as the last word on Cary Grant. He lacked “nothing”.

(Posted on this website on January 13 2005)

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