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Alfred Hitchcock put Cary Grant through hell for North by Northwest, not only as an expression of the auteur’s notoriously perverse sense of humor, but because he knew his star could take it. Building on the joke that the preternaturally dapper Grant had to make his way through most of the film in only one suit, Hitchcock dropped him into such classic dangerous situations as being chased by a crop-dusting plane and climbing down the face of Mount Rushmore.

Grant’s professionalism, as well as his secure sense of humor about himself, carried him over the rocks to another great, perfectly measured performance. The threat to the usually suave actor’s character, as British professor Graham McCann points out in A Class Apart, added one more layer to an already sharply conceived and crafted thriller.

“Cary Grant” was a smart concept that came to be as much through sheer craft as through vision. The former Archie Leach realized early in his career that everything else—sophistication, heart, comic delivery—could grow from properly cultivated nuances. “It takes 500 small details to add up to one favorable impression,” he once said, and while that sounds simple enough, it goes only so far in explaining exactly how he did it. James Mason, who observed Grant at work in North by Northwest, oversimplified it: “Then onto his feet and it would just happen.” If it were truly that easy, the men’s fashion pages of everything from GQ to Rolling Stone might be outmoded overnight. We might even drink a little less, too. It has become a cliché to note that there was only one Cary Grant, but there it is.

Leach, born in Bristol, England, in 1904, made up Cary Grant out of necessity and desperation: “I invented the person I wanted to be, and then I had to find that person.” Grant used his art as a means of escape—not just for brief, cherished moments as a teenager on the vaudeville stage, but forever—from the woeful working-class origins that had broken his father Elias, who died an alcohol-drenched death in 1935.

While never quite a he-man on the order of John Wayne or Gary Cooper (an early rival prior to Grant’s forging of his own screen identity), the star displayed a definite bravery in his work—where his gentle yet firm persona carried more dimensions than almost any male star—and the will to walk away from it, which he did for a short period in the ’50s before returning in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief. When he retired for good after the 1966 Walk, Don’t Run, Grant’s star barely dimmed. As a child, I heard his name frequently invoked as the height of everything from fame to sartorial intelligence, and once pictures like The Philadelphia Story and His Girl Friday flickered in front of me, there was no denying that every word of it was, and would forever remain, true.

McCann’s drawing of Grant’s many virtues as an actor and a movie star is restrained but much more than simply admiring, a good critic’s view of the man’s depths. He writes incisively of Grant’s near-statelessness, his wish to become at least somewhat Americanized while retaining an allegiance to his homeland. (Several pages are given to an examination of his role as an intelligence operative during World War II.) McCann also endeavors to explain the tricky, unduplicable accent that Grant brought to the screen, while showing the expatriate as wary of the prewar Hollywood Brit community, whose snobbery hadn’t been worn away by American democracy in any appreciable way. He also writes convincingly of the insistent rumors—false, he claims—of Grant’s bisexuality and of the star’s somewhat mysterious pre-hippie era LSD therapy.

Above all, Grant seems to have trusted his artistry. He once spoke of his strengths not as writer or director, but as “improver” of a whole work. McCann makes a fine case for this role, citing such ad-libs as Grant’s comparison of the rube played by Ralph Bellamy in His Girl Friday to “that fellow in the movies…you know, Ralph Bellamy.” This well-tuned sense of humor extended to Grant’s person; he was glad to dress in a frilly nightgown for a chaotic scene in the 1938 Bringing Up Baby and top that visual joke with the assertion that “I just went gay all of a sudden!”

Keeping a sense of his own ridiculousness while maintaining his self-respect and even glamour is a key element in Cary Grant’s appeal. That self-deprecation, in fact, remains one of his most appealing qualities and greatest gifts to us—not only because it allowed Grant to take himself down a peg, but because it allowed the rest of us a realistic way to emulate him. And as any man will tell you, that sort of wishful thinking is the only sensible response to watching Cary Grant.CP