Vintage cinema, classic cinema, ends for me with The Godfather Part II (1974). The reason it is vintage is the presence of Robert de Niro.
There is a moment in the film when De Niro is not talking at all. He is “being”, and I can recall that collective sharp intake of breath in the audience – all of us at once – when we looked at him. We had, gathered within us, all of the things that we had brought to the moviehouse. Not fan stuff, but what was unknown to us, and was released there. No wonder de Niro won an Oscar in an American film in which he barely speaks English. He did not need to be comprehensible – consciously. He just is.
We can argue about that happening again, maybe lots of times, over half a century later, over and over, and this argument could be correct and justifiable. Maybe even a justified point of view.
Yet for all of the “movieness” of the films of Cary Grant, there is that silence: that invitation to the viewer to enter, go deeper. If they dare. That’s cinema.
The medium belongs to the director, the person who has the final say-so. Maybe this is why so few women are nominated for the Oscar for Best Director. But that is another subject.
The closest I ever got to Cary Grant was the director, Joseph L Mankiewicz, who mentored me at the Actors Studio Playwright and Directors Unit in New York City in the early 1980s. Joe directed Cary in a film called People Will Talk, released in 1951. In it, Grant plays a doctor who discovers that his assistant is pregnant, or maybe not – a fairly risque subject to tackle at the time.
A few years earlier, by contrast, Cary played a French officer in I Was a Male War Bride (1949), a role in which he spends a great deal of time in drag. Gradually you become used to seeing him that way. You can believe that the other characters in the film believe him too.
And while the director, Howard Hawks, may be having a laugh, and commenting too, on the insanity of trying to bring your loved one, your legal spouse, home to America after the war, it is Cary who completely brings that reality to all of us. He is silly and poignant at the same time. The way that life itself can be.
For that ability, and many others, there is no question in my mind that Cary Grant is the greatest film actor of all time. Archie Leach, the circus performer from Bristol, even raps his real name in His Girl Friday, and at supersonic speed. You have to listen to his tone when he says it.
Those who knew what he was doing – who still know what he is doing – took Grant’s characters with them from the moviehouse, and carried something deeper.
His personal life was a mess, even toxic. He was once married to the richest woman in the world at the time – Barbara Hutton. She owned one of the biggest houses in London with a garden whose size is second only to that of Buckingham Palace: Winfield House, deep in Regent’s Park.
It is now the residence of the American ambassador and where the president sleeps over when in town.
I once gazed at this garden from the bedroom that the POTUS sleeps in, but I did not think of that: what I thought of was what Cary must have seen; what Cary must have thought while he and his wife were being derided as “Cash and Cary”.
The Cary Grant movie to see which contains all of his gifts – the whole nine yards? There isn’t one. That is the beauty and the genius of the guy.
Even when we think we know him, he eludes us. We pursue him. Into that celluloid eternity.