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Now and Then: Cary Grant, The Man from Dream City, Revisited (CLIPS)

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! April 10, 2013 at 2:03PM

My own fever dream of Cary Grant takes place between cities, sitting down for a Gibson with Eva Marie Saint on a moving train somewhere in Middle America. Headed "North by Northwest," he's at his sexiest then, temples just flecked with gray, tanned and almost ageless. He's not just the recipient of her advances: he's asking for it.

Grant and Deborah Kerr in "An Affair to Remember"
Grant and Deborah Kerr in "An Affair to Remember"

Kael understood this cunning, to a point. To her, his game was "an artful dodge... maneuvering her into going after him." But he never asks himself, as she claims, "What's the use of fighting?" He's been fighting (with her, for her) since the opening gambit. "Shakespeare never said that," he says irritably after meeting Audrey Hepburn and her malapropisms in "Charade" (Stanley Donen, 1963). "It's terrible. You just made it up." And then she asks her to call him. Queen's rook to F7. Checkmate.

To imagine Grant as solely the object of the advance, then, is to give him somewhat less than the credit he deserves. The canniness isn't an easy trick but a concerted effort, the near-impossible act of sticking out one's chest without losing one's cool. Grant goads his counterparts rather than merely maneuvering them, and if the idea of his being "after" something -- someone -- seems remote, it may be because the directors who showcased him at his best (McCarey, Cukor, Hawks, Hitchcock, Donen) framed him as the straight man against all manner of zany, eccentric socialites. Grant had to maintain his reserve, otherwise his paramours might spin out of orbit.

A Cary Grant romance, as with Eva Marie Saint in "North by Northwest" (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959), required that he temper what he was driving at to make room for the woman across the table. But he was indeed a fighter, staking out the space between the infatuated and the icy so he might resemble -- and here is the key -- not only the man of our dreams, but the man of our ideal reality. Though he enters that dining car in sunglasses, striving for the incognito, the coolly distant, he's soon making sure he's recognizable, beginning to warm up.

"The moment I meet an attractive woman," he admits to Saint, "I have to start pretending I don't want to make love to her... she might find the idea objectionable." "But then again," she replies, "she might not." His line's self-effacing, dissembling, hers forward, honest. On the face of it he seems, because she tipped the waiter to seat him there, the seduced, the pursued. But in that admission he doesn't hold back at all. Instead he tells her everything she wants to know.  

"The Cary Grant Film Collection", which includes "An Affair to Remember" and five other films on DVD, is available this week from Twentieth Century Fox.The other films discussed in this essay are available on DVD, Blu-ray, and/or VOD. 

This article is related to: Now and Then, Reviews, Headliners, Directors, Genres, Classics, Romance, comedy, DVDs

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.