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WAS HE CARY GRANT OR DORIAN GRAY?

The first time I remember seeing Cary Grant was at an old Academy Awards show. He was being introduced by that era’s perennial host, Bob (“The Oscars--or, as they call them at my house, ‘Passo”) Hope. Hope cocked one arch eye toward the audience. He smirked, he tugged at his tux. He remarked: “Our next presenter is a man who inspires one thought in the mind of every American male: Jealousy.” Hope barely had to mention who it was, because beside him, with that incomparable je ne sais quoi , savoir-faire, panache, joie de vivre (or any other Frenchism that pops into your head) strode Cary Grant.

At that time, the mid-'50s, Grant was known as the man who had cheated time. He was one of a generation that became stars in the early talkie years and were still at or near the top: Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, John Wayne, Jimmy Cagney, Henry Fonda. Of them all, only Grant still looked nearly the way he did in his glory years. (And he was older than some: He’d won stardom in his 30s, a relatively advanced age.) Everyone knew he was past 50, that he never wore makeup or a toupee--and that he always looked great. How did he manage it? Was he Cary Grant or Dorian Gray?

In a way, that’s how he was seen: as a freak of nature, someone who would always stay as he was, forever young. And since he seemed a freak--one of God’s divine accidents--he was sometimes taken not too seriously as an actor.

Oh, everybody enjoyed him. (Who wouldn’t?) But maybe there was a notion that his parts happened effortlessly, that he fell into roles as casually as a man walking downstairs and dropping onto a divan (with a martini perfectly poured, into a glass held right in the key light, over impeccable cuffs). He made acting in a movie seem like play.

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Everything looked so absurdly easy--graceful as a cat on velvet. Wasn’t this finesse another freakish gift? Elegance was a snap for Cary Grant. The surprise would have been if he’d showed up looking like a bum. (When he did act like a bum, playing in his friend Clifford Odets’ “None But the Lonely Heart” as a young Cockney, Ernie Mott--extremely close to his own real-life roots as Bristol’s Archie Leach--his peers gave him one of his only two Oscar nominations.)

In the early ‘60s, Marlon Brando, interviewed by Truman Capote, was asked to name his favorite actors. “Tracy, Muni, Cary Grant: Those are the guys you can learn from,” Brando replied--and Capote reported this ironically, as more sad proof that Brando’s views were half-baked, that he’d “gone Hollywood” in some weird way. Did it occur to him that Brando was on to something he’d missed?

Cary Grant was the screen’s archetypal playboy. And in a good sense: The life he hinted at was full of play, full of zest and humor. Grant had a matchless effervescence. He seemed to belong, as few others, to this kingdom of glamour, with its draped satins, white-on-white interiors, marble floors--its Manhattan nightclubs, town houses and terraces ablaze in a Gershwinesque twilight. You imagine him there staring across at a stunning lady. She has a smilethat shoots fire into your veins, hair like spun gold or glistening ebony. She melts in his gaze. But it’s not always a serious scene. Sometimes he breaks things up with an impish smile.

That’s his key. He’s in on the joke. If Cary Grant wore a pilot’s outfit in South American jungles, as in “Only Angels Have Wings,” it somehow became--well, hell-- chic . (But never ridiculously so.) If he played a hard-boiled, ruthless city editor--as in “His Girl Friday” (where he even spills water on himself elegantly)--he was impeccably hard-boiled, ruthless to a sartorial “T.” The absurdity of movie glamour never really touched Grant. He’d mastered it too well.

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Sometimes, he even makes a joke of eternal youth--as in Howard Hawks’ “Monkey Business, where he swallows a serum, mixed accidentally by a chimpanzee, and regresses to adolescence and infancy. Who else could give such full savor to the line “I want a zillion dollars! And a nickel!” while crawling on all fours under a table? What other 48-year-old, six-foot actor could play a thoroughly believable 12?

In 1965, in Grant’s career twilight, writer Peter Stone accepted a best-screenplay Oscar (for “Father Goose”) and thanked “Cary Grant, who keeps winning these things for other people.” It was a famous moment, a gracious gesture--but too late. Grant made only one more movie, in a part that had been originated, 23 years earlier, by Charles Coburn. Predictably, the public, that first time, didn’t want an old, matchmaking Cary Grant. (They’d had the young one far too long.)

So he retired--because, as he said, he wanted to devote more time to his new family. And perhaps, just in part, because he was an actor who really understood the movies, and the perverse, mercurial elements of stardom--who didn’t want to become fodder for the glib gibes of the inside dopester.

There was a sad thing about his retirement: We were robbed of the pleasure of watching an old Cary Grant on screen. In many European countries, the heartthrobs, the Grant equivalents--the Charles Boyers, Vittorio De Sicas and Sacha Guitrys--are allowed to carry savoir-faire right up to the end. (One of Boyer’s greatest roles was as the Baron in “Stavisky,” made when he was 77.)

But, as Grant knew, Hollywood has a horror of age. The Old Duke Wayne, Stewart and Fonda--even, recently, the old Douglas and Lancaster--overcame it. But they were never paragons of eternal youth. They’d aged more normally; they could show it with dignity. So could Cary Grant. But perhaps he didn’t want a new image, or the roles left by an industry more and more obsessed with youth.

No one ever really cheats time, not even Cary Grant. But time smiles kindliest on those who give it their best--as he did. In the end, we can’t say he was wrong not to offer something he thought we didn’t want. Those, it seems, are the rules of the game. (Or, at least, his game.) So, let’s imagine him instead, eternally poised on some RKO balcony of 1939 or so. It’s 10 o’clock, he’s dressed to the nines. “Embraceable You,” or the like, surges up on studio strings. We catch him leaning casually on an elegant elbow, gazing across the star-shine and neon of a prewar Manhattan that will never age--any more than he will. He stares at his leading lady, deeply, longingly.

Is that risque innuendo in his eyes? Buoyant energy? Romantic promise and hope? It doesn’t matter. She melts. We’re all jealous. (It’s easy for him.) The camera angle shifts, the light catches the couple, a beam irradiates them both. And, then after the clinch, Cary Grant--elegant acrobat, ebullient game player, bon vivant from Bristol, prince of movie dreams--gives a last turn: perfectly lithe and easy, eyes toward the screen and the audience beyond. He’s smiling, impishly.


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