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Wither the Debonair Dick?

Despite the charms of Clooney, Owen and Draper, it's time to stop looking for the next Cary Grant.

By Sara Vilkomerson
Friday, July 30th, 2010
  • comments (3)

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in "Notorious"

Last Sunday evening there wasn’t an empty seat at the 6:50 p.m. screening at BAM for Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. Interchangeable bearded hipsters with thick-rimmed glasses, girls in flimsy rompers and slightly peeved looking middle-age Brooklynites crammed together in a small theater — which, not for nothing, rivals only the Film Forum when it comes to uncomfortable seating — for the 1946 thriller. But no one complained. How could they? Notorious, part of BAM’s Cary Grant series (including classics such as North by North West, Bringing Up Baby, and Charade) has Grant facing off against Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains at the height of his appealing powers. He is, as the BAM write up helpfully explains, “the inimitable leading man, whose iconic blend of elegance, comic timing, and flawless physique led Howard Hawks to declare him ‘by so far the best that there isn’t anybody to be compared to him.”

The audience at BAM laughed, nervously, when Grant hits Ingrid Bergman in the face in order to get her to stop drunk driving. And each time he managed to call her character a boozy strumpet!

Not that it’s stopped anyone from trying. Google the phrase “the new Cary Grant” and the hits keep coming. Some of them are surprising (Ashton Kutcher? Justin Timberlake? President Obama…really?) and some seem to be obvious: Hugh Grant and all his floppy haired, charm. Pierce Brosnan with his impossible bone structure and easy-glide gait; Clive Owen with those wet, soulful eyes. And then, of course, there’s George Clooney, who perhaps indeed gets closest to tapping into the Grant allure. In a 2007 essay for The Guardian, David Thomson — who in 1975 called Cary Grant the most important actor the movies have ever — mulled the topic over, conceding that, “We accept the fundamental justice of comparing Clooney with Grant because Clooney seems to share some Grantian traits: he is very good-looking, and yet quite self-deprecating about that huge advantage; he is prepared to be taken for smart and sophisticated, while nursing quite serious and profound thoughts, and he is bred in a tradition that knows it’s easier to be smart when others underestimate you; and Clooney has a look in his eye — it’s been there ever since ER, though it has seldom flourished — that says high romance with the right woman must be one of the great things in life.”

However, Thompson also argued that Clooney would be better served making films like Notorious which is a great idea but somewhat unimaginable, when you think about characters like Grant’s Devlin. Can you imagine a movie in 2010 that has its leading man treating his love interest the way Grant treats his? The audience at BAM laughed, nervously, when Grant hits Ingrid Bergman in the face in order to get her to stop drunk driving. And each time he managed to call her character a boozy strumpet! Grant excelled at playing the Debonair Dick, a kind of hero we’re just not seeing these days.  (The closest thing that comes close to a DD is a character with the right initials, Don Draper on Mad Men.) We tend to like our cads redeemed! So maybe it’s time we stop looking for the Next Cary Grant (if we hear the words ‘Cary Grant’ and ‘Zac Efron’ in the same sentence we might just have to move to Alaska) and accept the fact like so many things from the days of yore we think we miss — martini lunches, smoking in the office, and excellent romantic comedies — there is no new Cary Grant and nor can there be another. And that’s ok!

Photo courtesy Museum of Modern Art.

  • bijan

    What about Cary Elwes?

  • Leslie

    First off, I love your article. Keep it up.
    We are always trying to compare something new to something old. In my opinion, there is no one on the scene today who can compare with Cary Grant. Sorry Dear Heart, not even George Clooney . Yes, in Mad Men, John Hamm sizzles with all kinds of sexiness, but I’ve got to see him in other roles before I can even think of him a Grant like actor.
    Grant could play drama, comedy and slapstick. He could be the lover, bad guy and hero. He was indeed on film, the quintessential ladies man. You could watch him in a villainous role like he played in Suspension: a loafing husband, gambler and possible murderer; and still love him. He had the real “It Factor.” Some actors have it today but there was only one Carey Grant and there will never be another. So I’d wish that we’d stop looking as if there will be a second coming of Grant and simply appreciate those modern actors (I mean the really good ones thank you) for who they are and what they contribute to modern cinema. In another forty years my grand children will be debating whether or not if there will be another Denzel. Umph Girl… don’t get me started.

  • Jonathan

    Mr. Grant is one example of why classic cinema is called classic cinema – an era of movie history never to be seen again…