Cary Grant remembered for his humor, grace, class

An "American Masters" profile neatly sums up the subtle actor's self-made, multifaceted life
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
The Oregonian
Cary Grant was a lifelong example of a self-made man.

Every actor learns to wear the clothes, affect the speech and look natural in the world created for him. When the show's over, off come the duds, poof goes the character's world and the actor reverts to what passes for normal.

Not Grant. As a teenager who ran away to join a traveling show, he began creating roles for audiences and building a character for himself.

"I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person -- or he became me," Grant once said. "I have spent the greater part of my life fluctuating between Archie Leach and Cary Grant, unsure of each, suspecting each."

Various Cary Grants reveal themselves in an "American Masters" profile, "Cary Grant: A Class Apart," narrated by Helen Mirren and Jeremy Northam (as the voice of Grant), and written and directed by Robert Trachtenberg. In just 90 minutes "Class" does a neat job of summing up the life Archibald Alexander Leach constructed for himself and generations of movie lovers.

Grant personified fabulous looks, natural grace, effortless humor, a disarming naturalness and, above all, class.

Archie Leach came from a sad, impoverished, mean English childhood that could have been created in dark colors by Charles Dickens. He could have lived and died in menial work and perfect obscurity but for an undefined, overwhelming urge to escape his real world and make a place in a world he imagined from reading and seeing in plays.

He joined a variety show company at 14 and toiled steadily in show business until he retired from films in 1966 with "Walk, Don't Run." But he remained active and public-spirited, becoming a director of Faberge cosmetics company. When he died at age 82 in November 1986, he was on a tour of appearances he made more or less regularly simply talking about his career and answering audience questions.

One question came up in various guises often, "Who is Cary Grant?" His answer was always some variation on, "When you find out, will you tell me?"

"Class" does a very decent job of suggesting a reasonable answer without trying to be too specific or excessively analytical or speculative. In fact, partly because of his extraordinary star power from the late 1930s on, Grant was able to make a few films that touched on his own life, notably 1944's "None But the Lonely Heart," one of his few bombs.

"Class" makes a point that Peter Bogdanovich makes in his commentary in the recent DVD release of Grant and Katharine Hepburn's classic 1938 screwball comedy "Bringing Up Baby" -- a flop that hurt Hepburn but not Grant. When you compare Grant's work in "Baby" to his work in 1940's "The Philadelphia Story," you see what a subtle actor he was. He gave the impression that he was just playing himself, but "Class" shows in a deftly sorted set of clips that Grant was quite a good actor.

Commenting on Grant are friends and co-workers including Bogdanovich, Martin Landau, Ralph Lauren, Eva Marie Saint, Dina Merrill, film scholars Todd McCarthy and Jeanine Basinger, New Yorker critic David Denby, ex-wife Betsy Drake and widow Barbara Harris and many others -- including old filmed interviews with Howard Hawks and George Cukor.

Missing are ex-wife Dyan Cannon and their daughter, Jennifer.

"Class" shows that Grant fought his incredibly good looks, never hesitating to seem awkward and downright silly. He and Hawks prided themselves on how ludicrous they could make him look in "Baby" and 1949's "I Was a Male War Bride."

He was rather fearless with his reputation. He shared a house off and on for several years with gay cowboy star Randolph Scott. They knew of the gossip and ignored it, neither suffering at the box office. In one blithely pungent sentence, Drake says that they had a rich sex life, allows some leeway for his 43 years before he met her and says that she doesn't care, and it doesn't matter.

"Class" omits a factoid that has new currency thanks to Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator." Grant was a friend of Howard Hughes and maintained a room in his home that Hughes could use any time to elude reporters or anyone. It was Grant who introduced Hepburn and Hughes. Stingy with interviews about himself, Grant granted interviews to promote 1973's "A Touch of Class," produced by a company of which he was a board member. I was able to interview him and heard him say something I'd never heard from any other movie star.

I asked if he watched his old movies. He said yes; he didn't go out of his way to see them, but if one was on TV, he might watch it.

"I made so many, I'm bound to forget a few, so I can be in as much suspense as any other viewer," he said. "Audiences see characters in a story in normal sequence, but films aren't shot in sequence. I saw actors, sets, lights, cameras and crew members. I had no idea how a film would look until it came out."

Ted Mahar: 503-221-8228;