Graham McCann
Cary Grant

There was nothing wrong with Cary Grant. Movie audiences loved to watch him. In the era when movies were made with and around stars, the initial attraction being the name above the title, no fewer than twenty-eight Cary Grant movies—more than a third of all those he made—played at New York's Radio City Music Hall (the largest, most important and prestigious movie theatre at that time in the United States) for a total of 113 weeks—a long-standing record. Again end again he was acknowledged as that theatre's leading box-office attraction. One of his movies was the very first to earn $100,000 in a single week; another was the first to earn $100,000 in a single week at a single theatre. In the pre-eminent popular cultural medium of the twentieth century, Cary Grant was one of its most successful stars. His pulling-power stayed with him until the end of a movie career which lasted for over three decades; even in the year of his retirement, the Motion Picture Association of America voted him the leading box-office attraction. There was no decline, no fall from fashion. He was an exceptionally and enduringly popular star.

There was nothing wrong with Cary Grant. Critics warmed to him. 'We smile when we see him,' wrote Pauline Kael, 'we laugh before he does anything; it makes us happy just to look at him.' Richard Schickel suggested that 'the only permissible response to him is bedazzlement.' In 1995, Premiere magazine lauded him as, 'quite simply, the funniest actor the cinema has ever produced.' David Thomson judged him to be nothing less than 'the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema,' in part because of his singular disposition, his 'rare willingness to commit himself to the camera without fraud, disguise, or exaggeration, to take part in a fantasy without being deceived by it,' and in part because of the extraordinary richness of the result of this commitment, an art mature and elaborate enough to embrace the ambiguities of a self shown in close-up.

There was nothing wrong with Cary Grant. There was much, however, that was extraordinary about him. That accent: neither West Country nor West Coast, neither English nor American, neither common nor cultured, strangely familiar yet intriguingly exotic (as someone in Some Like It Hot exclaims: 'Nobody talks like that!'). That expression: capable of blending light and dark inside a single look, hinting at much more than it holds up for show. That walk: confident, athletic and slightly rubber-legged, fit for slapstick as well as for sophistication. He was, in an unshowy way, unusually versatile: he could play submissive, naive, child-like characters (such as in Bringing Up Baby) or worldly-wise charmers (as in Suspicion) or world-weary cynics (as in Notorious). John F. Kennedy thought that Grant would be his ideal screen alter ego, but then so did Lucky Luciano; Grant's exceptionally broad appeal was in part to do with his bright roundedness, the promise of completion, showing the coarse how to have class and the over-refined how to have the common touch, teaching the unruly how to behave and the repressed how to have fun. What was so remarkable was how Cary Grant himself seemed to be so conspicuously complete. No one else was quite like him. There was something odd, something peculiar even, about his perfection.

'Everybody wants to be Cary Grant,' said Cary Grant. 'Even I want to be Cary Grant.' It was not meant as a boast, but rather as an admission of vulnerability. Cary Grant appreciated—more so than anyone else—how difficult it was to be 'Cary Grant,' because he knew that he was far from perfect. 'How can anyone,' asked David Thomson, 'be "Cary Grant"? But how can anyone, ever after, not consider the attempt?'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.