North by Northwest is a movie we think we remember. The set pieces are common currency fifty years later: meeting that willing blonde on the train; the auction scene; the crop-dusting plane on the prairie; and the finale on the perilous faces of the Mount Rushmore monument. And everyone says, “Of course, Cary Grant!” He’s an emblem now, not just of the sophistication he seemed to embody, but of an age of effortless entertainment.
Grant and his director, Alfred Hitchcock, understood this gloss even in 1959. So they pushed a brief marvel into their picture. Roger O. Thornhill (it says R.O.T. on his monogram match books) is on the run. He is confined in a hospital room for his own safety. He needs to get out, so he slips through the window at night and into the next room, in darkness. An “attractive brunette” sits up in bed and puts on the light. Roger is on his way out. “Stop!” the outraged woman shouts. But once she gets a proper look at him she says, “Stop” (“in an entirely different tone of voice”—this is from Ernest Lehmann’s witty script). It’s a throwaway, but we know what she means. We want more of his shy glory.
Nor is it enough to pass over North by Northwest as just the comic relief Hitchcock allowed us and himself between Vertigo and Psycho. North by Northwest is a screwball thriller, but it’s also a chance to see Grant as a charming, frivolous advertising man with wives strewn in his past, who is pulled up short by feeling and relationship. Eva Marie Saint’s character seduces him on that train because it’s her job (she’s a secret agent), but Roger goes from being her mindless, unquestioning pickup to falling for her. So this debonair suave man looking like Cary Grant must grow up and face emotional consequences. Still, the film was so wild that in 1959, the world said, “Oh, it’s just Cary Grant. He’s being himself!” The acting Oscar that year went to Charlton Heston grappling with Ben-Hur—Grant wasn’t nominated.
The world has been catching up. In 1975, I said that Grant was “the best and most important actor in the history of movies,” and the same year Pauline Kael wrote “The Man from Dream City,” a fine appreciative essay for The New Yorker. In 1975 my enthusiasm was sometimes dismissed as English, youthful, and foolish, and the point may have been harder to digest in that I wasn’t proposing to admit Grant to the pantheon that included Charles Laughton in Mutiny on the Bounty, Paul Muni and Emil Jannings doing anything, Laurence Olivier as Richard III, or Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. These strenuous pieces of masquerade were all very well, but I was trying to propose a different approach: that the best movie acting was more natural than naturalistic; it involved a slightly uneasy, half-mocking, reticent presentation of self. It could be seen in Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and above all in Cary Grant. A Richard III by Grant would have been fit for The Carol Burnett Show (and no harm)—yet his Hamlet might have been intriguing.
What Grant had been doing over the years was to be “himself” and let the scrutiny and fantasizing of the audience take him over, while remaining mysterious. So in North by Northwest he was a facetious hero who sobers up. In Notorious he was a mean spirit who learns generosity. In Bringing Up Baby he was a learned chump who finds the need for fun. In Holiday he is a poor fellow who sees through wealth and class. In The Philadelphia Story he teaches a beloved prig to behave naturally. In The Awful Truth and Suspicion we ask whether we can trust him. What it amounts to is taking the audience expectation—“Oh, it’s Cary Grant again”—and letting us see a degree or two more deeply, without sacrificing fun, romance, adventure, and being at a popular movie. Cary Grant was important in revealing the artful and perilous fantasy exercised in most motion pictures. The fun was slippery and insecure—no wonder Grant was a wreck.
Not that those lessons worked on everyone.
Jennifer Grant is the daughter of Cary Grant and Dyan Cannon, born in 1966, when her father was sixty-two and had retired from screen- acting. She loved her Dad, which is as understandable as her missing him, though he died in November 1986, when she was twenty. But this reminiscence—the first writing by anyone who was family to the great actor—is disappointingly dull on many of the things that make Grant fascinating still. Maybe the most intriguing impression within the book (and I’m not sure it’s one the author gets) is how busy Cary Grant was being an endlessly kind, affable, attentive, and providing “Dad” to fend off other matters of concern.
Grant had had three previous marriages—to Virginia Cherrill (the blind girl in Chaplin’s City Lights), to Barbara Hutton (the Woolworth heiress), and to the actress Betsy Drake (they were married from 1949 to 1962, his longest partnership—she would go on to become a psychotherapist and Grant credited her with helping him find some peace in their years together). He lived with Dyan Cannon, another actress, thirty-three years his junior, for a few years before their marriage, but they were divorced when Jennifer was two. Then in 1981 he married another much younger Englishwoman in public relations, Barbara Harris.
The portrait of Grant in this book is of a decent, gentle man who longed to be liked, and to like others, who seized upon being a father at last and played the part—as he had played so many others—to perfection. Which is not to say that he was pretending, or being insincere. Acting was his freedom and escape. But he might have been at a loss himself, too. As the inner man sometimes admitted, “Cary Grant” was a role he longed to fill, no matter the wistful distance from which he observed that paragon.
It’s hard not to be tough on Jennifer’s monotonous album of happy days and “good stuff.” Amid the happy days there may be great problems, like being too wrapped up in the legend of this Dad who knew everyone, could take her to Palm Springs, Las Vegas, and Monaco, put her in a front row seat so that Frank Sinatra sang to her, made sure she paid her quarterly income tax estimates at the age of twelve, but liked to curl up with her in front of the TV, and kept every note and drawing she ever did. “Okay, I had a crush on Dad,” she admits. “Okay, more than a little crush on Dad.”
Jennifer Grant doesn’t mention it, but Grant and Dyan Cannon had a fierce custody fight over her when they divorced. Good Stuff never harps on divorce or acrimony; it doesn’t do pain or difficulty. It doesn’t actually say much about the mother (though the book is dedicated to her—and Mom has her own book coming in the fall), but it lets us believe the daughter was more with Dad, just doing ordinary things, like riding horses in the desert, cruising the Alaska shore, having box seats for Los Angeles Dodgers baseball games, and staying home, because he didn’t like to go out too much, with an understandable horror of being gaped at.
Of course, they went to Monaco:
Dad loved Monaco. What’s not to love? Owing to his close friendship with Prince Rainier and Princess Grace, we stayed at the palace. We dined in the private quarters, with Rainier, Grace, and some combination of Caroline, Albert, and Stephanie, depending on who had what plan which night. We ate loup de mer, cocktailed on the terrace overlooking the Med, rode in limousines over the cobblestone streets, and somewhat let our guards down together.
Somewhat? Did Grace ever admit what a bore life could be in “what’s not to love” Monaco?
Or consider this account of Dad and Frank Sinatra together:
Dad and Frank were gifted with the indefinable incandescence of charm. They were high on life and they radiated. Their containers were well honed, structured, and self-defined. They surrounded themselves with stringent supporters. Their give-and-take required a high level of circuitry and tolerated few leaks. So where others might gush that high feeling, they let it out in a constant stream. They flirted with almost everyone and everything and life graciously flirted right back.
I’ve read that over several times and I’m still not sure what it is trying to say. It starts off in a mood of adoration, but what are the “circuitry” and the “high feeling,” and what’s this innuendo about “stringent supporters”? I had a couple of conversations with Cary Grant, and while he ached to be pleasant and liked, another keynote was his insecurity—the worry that he had misunderstood something or was being misunderstood, that everything wasn’t quite clear and agreeable, that the camera’s “take” that day hadn’t been smooth and okay. It leaves one feeling how difficult some of those big occasions may have been for a girl who needed to grow up and fight her Dad sometimes.
It’s at home that their emotional affinity flourished. Some of this is very touching. Still, there are things that come across as stranger than Ms. Grant seems to guess. Her father apparently did keep every bit of paper she touched. He also made sound recordings of their life together, and left her the tapes—not only serious conversations, or parties and festivals, but just empty time passing:
How many times have I sat listening to a virtually blank hour-long tape? Voices in the background. Shuffling feet. A door slamming somewhere. “Hello’s” voiced from someone or other we knew in those years. And then in the midst, Dad appears and says he’s going to go sit by the pool and have his sandwich…. Did Dad review the tapes before saving them? He was so damn organized, he must have. Perhaps Dad was a fan of the extended Pinter pause?… Normal days. Nothing much goes on. We sit around, play some games, have a bit of chat…. This is it. Not every day is a graduation. The middle stuff of life. Value the middle stuff.
Is it always “stuff”—the stuff of love, the middle stuff, the good stuff—or might there have been some worry powerful enough to have turned Cary Grant into the most intelligent, complicated, relaxed screen actor there ever was? And what is the price of seeming relaxed? I’m not sure Grant the actor could have articulated his own way of doing things, and I can understand that he might not want to analyze it with his daughter. Still, it is striking that she has so few questions about him.
In Grant’s last years, Jennifer Grant was a history major at Stanford. After his death, she gave that up to be an actress herself. So we marvel at her failure to talk to Grant about his work: