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The New York Times On Cary Grant

On the front page of the Weekend Arts section on Friday, the Times published an above-the-fold celebration of the work of Cary Grant so backhanded and begrudging as to be genuinely mystifying. The occasion was a retrospective taking place at BAMcinematek, and the author was Mike Hall, who usually writes about television. Hall begins by noting

To put on a Cary Grant series ... presents some special challenges. Grant made more than 50 movies as a leading man, but the only thing that ties them together is that they starred Cary Grant...

It's hard to know what to make of this contention, which could be directed at nearly any prolific actor. Is there something other than Robert Duvall's presence that "ties together" the 80 or so features in which he's appeared? One might imagine that Hall's point is that Grant played a wide range of roles, or appeared in a variety of disparate genres, or "disappeared" into his performances to an uncommon degree. But of course he didn't do any of these things, as Hall notes at the end of the very same sentence--which concludes "playing some version of his man-of-the-world persona, or of himself, which seemed to amount to the same thing"--and in a subsequent paragraph:

He had his screwball period and his Hitchcock period, each of which produced several great, giddy entertainments (like “The Philadelphia Story” and “North by Northwest”). But he avoided entire genres that didn’t suit him, like noir or the western, and much of his output consists of the sort of mainstream light comedy or melodrama that seems most dated today.

Already, it seems, we've come up with a great deal that "ties together" Grant's oeuvre. (I should note, too, that while it's true that Grant avoided hard-boiled detective films, any definition of "noir" that excludes such classics as Suspicion and Notorious is a decidedly narrow one.)

So if Grant's output can't be defined by its variety, how can it be defined? Hall tries again, suggesting that perhaps the unifying characteristic is mediocrity:

As Pauline Kael pointed out in her famous essay “The Man From Dream City” in 1975, most of Grant’s movies were mediocre or worse, safe choices made by a powerful but cautious actor who exercised an iron control over his own image.

It's the first of three citations of Kael, which is three more than all other film critics and historians combined receive in the piece. Moreover, while it's true that Kael was dismissive of much of Grant's oeuvre, and the career choices that resulted in it, Hall's summary of her magisterial essay is an extraordinarily harsh and limited one. (You can read the whole essay here.)

Indeed, with the exception of a comment about how Grant's latter-year romantic stardom paved the way for more recent Hollywood May-December couplings (though it could hardly have prepared us for the septuagenarian sexcapades of Jack Nicholson), the remainder of the Times piece reads like a flat, exaggerated rehash of the same points that Kael made at greater length and with vastly more nuance. Of Grant's sexual reticence, the way he lured his leading ladies into being romantic aggressors, Hall writes

Being an object of desire does not necessarily mean being the center of attention, and Grant was willing (or smart enough) throughout his career to register almost as a supporting player in his films, to cede the stage to his female co-stars in a way that contemporaries like Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable did not.

It’s another reason that a Grant series can seem amorphous: in the academy’s lineup, “Holiday” and “The Philadelphia Story” (1940) are Katharine Hepburn films; “The Awful Truth” and “Penny Serenade” are Irene Dunne films; “Only Angels Have Wings” (1939) is remembered primarily for Rita Hayworth and Jean Arthur; “To Catch a Thief” for Kelly.

There is a kernel of truth to this, but Hall makes it out to be a full cob. Yes, Grant was exceedingly generous with his female costars, and this was a considerable part of his romantic appeal. But "cede the stage"? "Supporting player"? Please. There may be some people out there who think of To Catch a Thief as Grace Kelly's movie more than Cary Grant's, but I don't know any of them. (Pauline Kael certainly doesn't seem to have felt this way.) And as for the contention that The Awful Truth and Penny Serenade are "Irene Dunn films," I'll merely note that they are not being screened by BAMcinematek as part of a 17-film Irene Dunn retrospective.

So what does Hall suggest is the "best reason" to watch Cary Grant today, in all his typecast, mediocre, wallflower glory?  The fact that what Hollywood now has to offer is even worse:

Kael[!] noted in 1975, during his lifetime, that it was impossible to imagine Grant in the macho action and crime films that were beginning to dominate Hollywood. It’s equally impossible to imagine him in the soggy, misogynistic, stealth-macho geekfests that pass for romantic comedy now.

This, from a writer who just paragraphs before derided the "dated" nature of the "light melodrama or comedy" Grant epitomized and predicted that "howls will be heard across Fort Greene" when the "weeper" Penny Serenade is screened. There's just no pleasing some people.

Update: I belatedly notice that the Plank contains no fewer than three posts about the Times's film coverage today. It's a peculiar coincidence, but a coincidence nonetheless.

--Christopher Orr