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Pauline Kael, Cary Grant, and the Ambiguity of Male Seduction

The “New Yorker” critic got the actor so right that she came very close to saying something about Cary Grant that truly needs to be said.
Cary Grant
In 1975 Pauline Kael wrote an essay about Cary Grant for the New Yorker called “The Man from Dream City.” (The piece is still available to read in full on the magazine’s website.) In the year of Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nashville and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, an actor like Grant must have cut a musty figure, his name a reminder of a different time. The New Hollywood films that Kael championed at the magazine, from Bonnie and Clyde (1967) onwards, took a mean pleasure in defiling the sort of genteel, meticulously fine-tuned comedies with which Grant is synonymous—and yet, no-one can have seized better than Kael the quiddity of Grant, the essence of his stardom. In essence, “The Man from Dream City” reclaims Grant as a singular figure in cinema, proposing him as a revolutionary leading man. As we’ll see, Kael gets Grant so right that at times she seems to come very close to saying something about his sexual energy that truly needs to be said.
Grant was born in 1904 and Kael in 1919, meaning that she would have been a young adult when he was at his peak, in films such as The Awful Truth (1937), or The Philadelphia Story (1940). It’s not doing Kael an injustice to say that her appreciation of male beauty is among her greatest qualities as a critic: When the Lights Go Down, the book in which “The Man from Dream City” is collected, is stuffed to the gills with dead-on observations about the peculiar sex-appeal of such different stars as Burt Reynolds and Alan Bates. And so it follows that someone as mercurial and dashing as Grant would have cast something of a spell over Kael in her early filmgoing years. Revisiting Grant in her 50s finds her in a combination of modes, conjugating nostalgia with clear-eyed analysis, to cut through to what made Grant revolutionary. Kael gets to the point almost immediately, with this wonderful insight kicking off her second paragraph: “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.”
This is so obviously true that it seems almost pedestrian to say so, but it may be that you had noticed it and not quite put your finger on it. Kael simply lays it out, then passes on to an equally glimmering comparison between Grant and Clark Gable which brings out Grant’s distinctive qualities:
Gable got down to brass tacks; his advances were basic, his unspoken question was, “Well, sister, what do you say?” (...) 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. (...) 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.
Again we meet this particular brilliance of Kael’s, of making something so self-evident leap out and clobber us over the face with its truth. Grant is of course passive: he is diffident, an observer, and slyly confident of his value, as he should be. And in his relationship to women, which considers them beyond their mere sexuality, he is genial and friendly towards them rather than predatory.
In saying this, and in declining this argument in several forms over the course of her essay, Kael seems to be either comically blind to Grant’s sexuality or teasing us about it. She gets close to it, teetering on the brink of something, with this description of his sexual reticence: “He’s a fairytale 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?” Or here, on the subject of the film My Favorite Wife (1940), she appears to be going for a clanging hint: “The presence in the cast of his close friend Randolph Scott (they shared a house for several years) as the rival for Irene Dunne’s affections may have interfered with his concentration; he doesn’t provide an underlayer of conviction.” And here she is, becoming about as frank as you can be without getting done for libel, on the subject of Katharine Hepburn’s chemistry with Grant: “[Spencer] Tracy was stodgily heterosexual. She was more exciting with Cary Grant, who had a faint ambiguity and didn't want her to be more like ordinary women.” Finally, her gimlet-eyed take on his performance of gender: “In drag scenes—even in his best movies—Grant also loses his grace. He is never so butch—so beefy and clumsy a he-man—as in his female impersonations or in clothes involving a clothes switch. (...) He made himself brusque and clumsy to call attention to how inappropriate the women’s clothes were on him—as if he needed to prove he was a big, burly guy.”
Reading the essay now, you catch yourself thinking: she knows, right? The proposition of Cary Grant as—let’s say it—a queer figure seems slightly at odds with Kael’s view of him as the paragon of heterosexual seduction, and yet her argument rests on this aspect of Grant to a degree that can’t be ignored. In 1975, Grant was still very much alive, had been married and divorced three times, and was dating the photojournalist Maureen Donaldson. In 1980, he sued Chevy Chase for slander for calling him “a homo—what a gal!” on national television, and Chase was forced to retract his comments. Yet there has always been an ambiguity about Grant, and rumors about him have not been laid to rest. The costume designer Orry-Kelly (whom Kael notes that Grant lived with in his early years) suggested in a memoir that he and Grant were lovers, while the pimp Scotty Bowers, in his outrageous 2012 tell-all memoir Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars, alleged that he had done the deed with Grant, and with Randolph Scott, and with Grant and Randolph Scott.
It isn’t adventuring too far into demented conspiracy theories to suggest that we might still not know the whole truth about stars who could not be out and proud at the time. (Many screen actors still can’t.) Looking at “private life” sections online for old Hollywood stars, rife with caginess, bet-hedging and hints, gives the reader a preserved-in-aspic feeling of being in the 1950s, where nothing could be revealed, and stars like Rock Hudson and Anthony Perkins took obvious beards with them to the Academy Awards. I had thought that the culture had moved on to a public understanding that James Dean was, at the very least, sexually ambiguous, but Wikipedia contents itself with listing his girlfriends and mentioning that he was presented by studios as an “eligible bachelor” along with stars like Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter (both of whom were gay). This dissembling shows that we have—we must have—a heavily distorted understanding of the impact of queer people on cinema, and of the legacy that their queerness has had throughout the ages.
In 2016, the BFI asked a selection of critics and film industry names to rank the greatest LGBT films of all time—a poll which resulted in Carol (2015) being named the best LGBT film of all time. I argued at the time that, considering LGBT people have not historically had access to the same opportunities as straight people, this list was at the very least partial and fragmented, and perhaps fundamentally flawed as an exercise, giving readers a few films scattered over time, with little understanding of queer culture or history. What I think Kael’s piece shows—even as she’s unable to state the fact in full—is that the input of queer people over time is essential and must have influenced and changed film history in ways that we may not even perceive.
You could argue, in this light, that James Dean, Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando, three queer men, brought a brooding intensity to their performances that changed cinema forever, by influencing the De Niros and Pacinos of the late 70s. Similarly, it is a radical proposition to suggest that, perhaps, just maybe, a queer man changed the way straight romantic comedies are made, forever. Certainly, it isn’t hard to see that the Billy Crystals and Hugh Grants, the Noah Centineos of later years who trade in an egalitarian and gentle rapport with female leads, have followed in Grant’s wake. The idea that Grant could have contributed to this by defanging male sexuality, by removing sexual aggression from his attitude and body language, could not be more exciting.

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