“You can be had,” Mae West said to Cary Grant in “She Done Him Wrong,” which opened in January, 1933, and that was what the women stars of most of his greatest hits were saying to him for thirty years, as he backed away–but not too far. One after another, the great ladies courted him–Irene Dunne in “The Awful Truth” and “My Favorite Wife,” Katharine Hepburn in “Bringing Up Baby” and “Holiday,” Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth in “Only Angels Have Wings,” Ingrid Bergman in “Notorious,” Grace Kelly in “To Catch a Thief,” Eva Marie Saint in “North by Northwest,” Audrey Hepburn in “Charade.” Willing but not forward, Cary Grant must be the most publicly seduced male the world has known, yet he has never become a public joke–not even when Tony Curtis parodied him in “Some Like It Hot,” encouraging Marilyn Monroe to rape. The little bit of shyness and reserve in Grant is pure box-office gold, and being the pursued doesn’t make him seem weak or passively soft. It makes him glamorous–and, since he is not as available as other men, far more desirable.
Cary Grant is the male love object. Men want to be as lucky and enviable as he is–they want to be like him. And women imagine landing him. Like Robert Redford, he’s sexiest in pictures in which the woman is the aggressor and all the film’s erotic energy is concentrated on him, as it was in “Notorious”: Ingrid Bergman practically ravished him while he was trying to conduct a phone conversation. Redford has never been so radiantly glamorous as in “The Way We Were,” when we saw him through Barbra Streisand’s infatuated eyes. But in “The Great Gatsby,” when Redford needed to do for Mia Farrow what Streisand had done for him, he couldn’t transcend his immaculate self-absorption. If he had looked at her with desire, everything else about the movie might have been forgiven. Cary Grant would not have failed; yearning for an idealized love was not beyond his resources. It may even be part of his essence: in the sleekly confected “The Philadelphia Story,” he brought conviction to the dim role of the blue blood standing by Katharine Hepburn and waiting on the sidelines. He expressed the very sort of desperate constancy that Redford failed to express. Grant’s marital farces with Irene Dunne probably wouldn’t have been as effective as they were if he hadn’t suggested a bedeviled constancy in the midst of the confusion. The heroine who chases him knows that deep down he wants to be caught only by her. He draws women to him by making them feel he needs them, yet the last thing he’d do would be to come right out and say it. In “Only Angels Have Wings,” Jean Arthur half falls apart waiting for him to make a move; in “His Girl Friday,” he’s unabashed about everything in the world except why he doesn’t want Rosalind Russell to go off with Ralph Bellamy. He isn’t weak, yet something in him makes him hold back–and that something (a slight uncertainty? the fear of a commitment? a mixture of ardor and idealism?) makes him more exciting.
The romantic male stars aren’t necessarily sexually aggressive. Henry Fonda wasn’t; neither was James Stewart, or, later, Marcello Mastroianni. The foursquare Clark Gable, with his bold, open challenge to women, was more the exception than the rule, and Gable wasn’t romantic, like Grant. Gable got down to brass tacks; his advances were basic, his unspoken question was “Well, sister, what do you say?” If she said no, she was failing what might almost be nature’s test. She’d become overcivilized, afraid of her instincts–afraid of being a woman. There was a violent, primal appeal in Gable’s sex scenes: it was all out front–in the way he looked at her, man to woman. Cary Grant doesn’t challenge a woman that way. (When he tried, as the frontiersman in “The Howards of Virginia,” he looked thick and stupid.) With Gable, sex is inevitable: What is there but sex? Basically, he thinks women are good for only one thing. Grant is interested in the qualities of a particular woman–her sappy expression, her non sequiturs, the way her voice bobbles. She isn’t going to be pushed to the wall as soon as she’s alone with him. With Grant, the social, urban man, there are infinite possibilities for mutual entertainment. They might dance the night away or stroll or go to a carnival–and nothing sexual would happen unless she wanted it to. Grant doesn’t assert his male supremacy; in the climax of a picture he doesn’t triumph by his fists and brawn–or even by outwitting anybody. He isn’t a conqueror, like Gable. But he’s a winner. The game, however, is an artful dodge. He gets the blithe, funny girl by maneuvering her into going after him. He’s a fairy-tale hero, but she has to pass through the trials: She has to trim her cold or pompous adversaries; she has to dispel his fog. In picture after picture, he seems to give up his resistance at the end, as if to say, What’s the use of fighting?
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