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Cary Grant 101: Your Guide to the Great Actor’s Most Pivotal Roles

Elegance, wit, sex appeal: The man born Archibald Leach created the image of the perfect movie star. Nearly 35 years after his death, he still has no equal.

Cary Grant’s most famous quote remains his most succinct summary. “Everybody wants to be Cary Grant,” he once said. “Even I want to be Cary Grant. I have spent the greater part of my life fluctuating between Archie Leach and Cary Grant: unsure of either, suspecting each. I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person. Or he became me.”

Born in January 1904 in England to a drunk, distant dad and a mother who suffered from depression — she spent time in an institution thanks to his father — Archibald Leach remade himself, first on the vaudeville stage and then in movies, sporting the name Cary Grant, which sounded as flawlessly elegant as his onscreen demeanor. Many film critics and scholars have explored that tension between the broken, unhappy young man and the sauve, effervescent screen persona — Pauline Kael’s critical essay “The Man From Dream City” from 1975 remains definitive, the 2017 documentary Becoming Cary Grant a little less so — and one can certainly read into his polished, endlessly pleasurable performances, looking for signs of the sadness beneath that handsome exterior. But even if you’re just enjoying the movies for what they were — top-flight, old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment — you’ll come away convinced that Grant was the purest movie star that the film industry produced. Maybe not the best or most nuanced. But when we think of classic Hollywood — the place that made motion pictures seem like the most romantic and magic of all art forms — Grant’s its avatar.

Putting together a starter kit for Grant newbies is great fun, although limiting it to only 10 movies is quite a challenge. But I mostly leaned on surefire staples, including the beloved screwball comedies of his early career and the subsequent Hitchcock thrillers. While compiling this list, though, what became apparent was just how long his peak was. Stretching from the late 1930s well into the early 1960s, Grant’s hits weren’t just an embodiment of his well-coiffed, witty essence — they’re a reflection of the sort of sterling movies the studio system seemed to pump out every week back then. (That’s not true, of course, but everything around Grant is a little idealized.) 

It’s tempting to describe every Grant performance as charming and to describe him constantly as dashing. He had a certain mode, and he knew how to stay in his lane very well, but there are variations within that mode that keep his work fresh and engaging decades later. 

Grant died in 1986, having stepped away from movies 20 years prior. Since then, no’s been able to take up that mantle of being the perfect movie star. In the 10 films below, he made that perfection seem effortless, which is even harder to do. 

The Awful Truth (1937)

Screenwriter Garson Kanin, who was nominated for three Oscars alongside his wife Ruth Gordon for romantic comedies like Adam’s Rib, theorized that The Awful Truth helped make Cary Grant Cary Grant. “How much of that personality was directed into him by Leo McCarey, I’m not prepared to say,” Kanin said, adding, “He polished that personality, and he played it over and over again — each time more skillfully and more successfully.”

Grant had been making movies since the early 1930s, but this adaptation of the Arthur Richman play was his first major hit — it’s the first official Cary Grant™ movie. It was also his first collaboration with McCarey, and it might have been their last considering the actor wasn’t sure about working with a director who encouraged such a loose, improvisational style. Instead, the freedom helped Grant find his confident, breezy comic demeanor, which was ideal for playing a character who is part of a married couple (alongside Irene Dunne) that decides to get divorced — only to eventually discover that, darn it, they’re meant for one another.

The Awful Truth is the essence of screwball comedy, and the electricity of its banter makes it still feel contemporary more than 80 years later. “[A] lot of times we’d go into a scene with nothing,” McCarey later admitted. That created an opportunity for Grant to figure out just how funny he could be on screen.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

One of the pleasures of classic Hollywood films is the level of sophistication that they have, even when they’re as daffy as Bringing Up Baby, a romantic comedy about a paleontologist, David (Grant), who falls for a charming stranger, Susan (Katharine Hepburn), just as he’s about to get married. He’s a serious man of science, she’s a little bit zany — of course they’re destined to be together.  

Bringing Up Baby was a bomb, and director Howard Hawks blamed himself, feeling he’d made the film too ridiculous. “I think the picture had a great fault and I learned an awful lot from that,” he said. “There were no normal people in it. Everyone you met was a screwball and since that time I have learned my lesson and I don’t intend ever again to make everybody crazy.” Hawks did acknowledge, however, that revered silent-comedy star Harold Lloyd told him “that he thought it was the best constructed comedy he had ever seen.”

The credit goes to both Hepburn and Grant, who turn their opposites-attract relationship into something real and delightful. Bringing Up Baby is Grant in his rarely-seen nerd mode, and it’s very fun to see him kvetch and fret, playing the straight man to his far zanier co-star. Maybe everybody in this film is a screwball, but it’s so elegantly played that you hardly mind. 

His Girl Friday (1940) 

By the late 1930s, the hit play The Front Page had already been made into a film once. But Hawks had an idea: What if, instead of two male journalists, you made one a woman — and the ex-wife of the other? His Girl Friday is generally considered one of the best romantic comedies of its era, and it remains astoundingly vital, its romantic tension and rapid-fire dialogue still awfully entertaining.

The story concerns a dogged editor (Grant) who tries to win back his true love, reporter Hildy (Rosalind Russell), by assigning her to a high-profile story about a politically motivated execution that, he’s convinced, will distract her long enough that he can keep her from marrying new love (Ralph Bellamy). Grant and Russell were electric on screen, encouraged by their director to ramp up the back-and-forth barbs — as well as the occasional improvisation.

“[Hawks had] been watching Cary and me for two days, and I’d thrown a handbag at Cary, which was my idea, and missed hitting him,” Russell recalled, “and Cary had said, ‘You used to be better than that,’ and Hawks left it all in.” His Girl Friday was the epitome of Grant’s razor-sharp, deadpan wit. It’s downright insulting that a man that attractive could also be that effortlessly funny.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

“When I go to the movies I want to forget the dirty dishes in my sink, and what’s on my mind. I want to forget my troubles, get out of myself. I want to laugh a little.” Grant was talking about why audiences adored The Philadelphia Story, and that’s as good an explanation as any for the appeal of this bright, witty, debonair comedy in which he plays Dexter, the well-to-do ex-husband of Tracy (Katharine Hepburn), a socialite who’s about to remarry. He and a gossip writer, Mike (Jimmy Stewart), both descend on the event, and both end up courting Tracy.

Throughout his career, Grant had incredible chemistry with his female co-stars — and that’s true of his rapport with Hepburn here as well — but he’s especially well-paired with Stewart, whose more sincere demeanor played well off Grant’s cutting approach. The Philadelphia Story works so well as a romantic triangle because Tracy legitimately has two great choices for a mate: Who would find a faceoff between Grant and Stewart remotely easy to handicap? 

But as was often the case during Grant’s heyday, he made his performance of Dexter look so easy that the Academy overlooked him, not even bestowing a nomination on Grant, while Stewart won Best Actor. That’s no slam on Stewart, who’s terrific in the film, but Grant was an exceedingly capable doubles partner. 

Penny Serenade (1941)

This domestic melodrama has never been given the same respect as Grant’s more critically-acclaimed classics. (In his backhanded-compliment positive review, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote, “Noel Coward once drily observed how extraordinarily potent cheap music is. That is certainly true of Penny Serenade.”) And, to be sure, this is a sappy, manipulative story about a married couple (Irene Dunne, Cary Grant) facing romantic travails and parental woes, but it’s also the kind of well-oiled story, delivered by capable pros, that’s easy to fall for. 

It’s also the first film that earned Grant an Oscar nomination. (The other was the 1944 drama None but the Lonely Heart. Grant received an Honorary Oscar in 1970.) He plays Roger, a reporter who sweeps Julie (Dunne) off her feet, setting the stage for a whirlwind romance, quickie marriage and slow realization that happy endings are very hard to come by — both in real life and in the movies. 

Unlike Grant and Dunne’s previous collaborations, The Awful Truth and My Favorite Wife, Penny Serenade starts off as a seemingly frolicking romantic comedy but then segues into tragedy as the couple’s attempts to have a child lead to heartbreak. This may not be Grant’s most memorable performance, but Penny Serenade demonstrated his tender, vulnerable side, and it’s the one movie on this list that’s almost guaranteed to make you weepy. He and Dunne pluck your heartstrings expertly. 

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Everybody loves this Frank Capra comedy… except for the man who starred in it. “I was embarrassed doing it,” Grant has said. “I overplayed the character. It was a dreadful job for me, and yet the film was a very big success and a big money-maker.” 

Grant is being too hard on himself: Even if he’s correct that Jimmy Stewart would have done better in the role, Grant is a superb Mortimer, an uptight critic who discovers that his elderly aunts (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) poison lonely old men to end their misery. Understandably, this revelation alarms Mortimer — especially because he’s just gotten married and is now anxious about spreading his family’s mental derangement onto the next generation.

Part farce, part dark comedy, Arsenic and Old Lace finds Grant mugging wonderfully as his character tries to keep his cool while his family members conspire to drive him nuts. This role isn’t quite in Grant’s wheelhouse, which may be why he thought he did poorly. (You can see Stewart’s flustered demeanor as a more natural fit.) But it’s precisely because Mortimer is wound so tight and fraying at the edges that it’s fascinating to see Mr. Dignified take on the part.

Notorious (1946)

Cary Grant made four films with Alfred Hitchcock, who gave him some of his most enduring works. “It was a great joy to work with Hitch,” Grant said near the end of his life. “He was an extraordinary man.” Notorious was their second collaboration, featuring one of his darkest performances as Devlin, a U.S. agent who blackmails Alicia (Ingrid Bergman), the daughter of a Nazi, into working with the American government to go undercover and seduce a secret Nazi boss (Claude Rains). Of course, though, Devlin and Alicia fall in love, so watching her try to woo another man — never mind a Nazi — rips him apart.

For all the talk of how charming Grant could be, as an actor he could bring a nasty edge as well. Often, that would add spice to his comedies, but in this spy thriller, that bite is more about romantic jealousy — he has to put duty before his own desires — and it’s riveting to see him pine in such a pained way. When Devlin has to risk everything to rescue Alicia near the end of the film, you really feel his desperation and fear — an excellent illustration of what this usually unflappable screen presence could look like when his character got his hair mussed. 

An Affair to Remember (1957)

In Sleepless in Seattle, when it’s pointed out to Tom Hanks’ character that his romantic meeting with a reporter (Meg Ryan) atop the Empire State Building is reminiscent of a similar device in An Affair to Remember, he responds derisively, “That’s a chick’s movie.” Regardless, An Affair to Remember remains a three-hankie classic thanks to Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, who play characters engaged to other people who nonetheless fall for one another during an ocean cruise. They plan to reunite at the New York monument in six months if they decide they want to be together, leading to a schmaltzy but undeniably moving finale.

It wasn’t a stretch for Grant to play Nickie, a dashing, cultured man of the world, but the character’s underlying melancholy — his sense that maybe he’s never been completely happy until he met Kerr’s character — allowed the actor to hint at a discontent his success and good looks couldn’t wash away. (Grant was married five times: “They got bored with me, I guess, tired of me,” he said of his ex-wives’ decision to leave him. “I really don’t know.”) 

Men can snort at a movie like An Affair to Remember, but why it still impacts people is that it suggests the loneliness that resides in even the most seemingly happy lives. Audiences don’t just react to the story’s tear-jerking approach — they’re responding to the vulnerability Grant brings to the role.

North by Northwest (1959)

“If you have a certain kind of film, a star is helpful,” Hitchcock said in 1973. “North by Northwest is a good example of that. Where you want an audience to have a very specific rooting interest in your hero, you’ll get more if the figure is familiar, like Cary Grant.”

Indeed, Grant’s final film with the Master of Suspense is elevated by audiences’ familiarity with the actor, who plays Roger Thornhill, a glib advertising exec suddenly up to his eyeballs in danger after some scary men mistake him for someone else. But North by Northwest allowed Grant — who was then well into his 50s — to become a silver-fox heartthrob/action star, supplementing his usual debonair sex appeal with a grittiness he didn’t always reveal in his younger years. We knew Grant, but he also slyly reinvented himself in the process.

As many cineastes have noted over the years, North by Northwest can also be enjoyed for its potentially revealing insights into Grant himself. Though hardly autobiographical, his character Thornhill is a seemingly ordinary man who, because he’s confused for a spy, eventually has to adopt that false persona in order to get to the bottom of what’s going on. There’s a poignant corollary to Grant’s early life, adopting the stage name of Cary Grant and then embodying the savoir faire that people associated with his onscreen demeanor. (“I first created an image for myself on a screen,” Grant said, “and then played it off-screen as well.”) Thornhill isn’t George Kaplan, dashing spy, but over the course of North by Northwest, he becomes a dashing spy — like Grant’s early film career, the character grows into the persona along the way.

Charade (1963)

If you don’t mind the fact that there’s a 25-year age gap between the romantic leads, Charade remains a sharp, jazzy comedy-thriller that represents Grant in fine form just as his stardom was about to wane. He’s Peter, an American in Paris who meets the beautiful Reggie (Audrey Hepburn), who is dissatisfied with her marriage. But when Reggie later finds out that her husband has been murdered — and that ominous men are trailing her — she needs Peter’s help. Except his real name isn’t actually Peter.

This Stanley Donen film is now considered one of the last of an era of classy studio-system Hollywood productions before television and changing tastes forced the film industry to readjust how it made movies. (The New Hollywood renaissance, with its antiheroes and counterculture narratives were about to emerge.) And so it seems fitting that Grant, an icon of that fading age, was front and center, playing one more suave, mysterious love interest. 

It almost didn’t happen though: Years later, Donen admitted that Grant had pulled out of the movie because he’d promised his old friend Howard Hawks that he’d do his next picture with him. (Lucky for Donen, Hawks’ script was terrible, which sent the actor scurrying back to Charade.)

After completing Charade, Grant made a couple more pictures and then called it a career. “Acting became tiresome for me,” he said in the mid-1980s. “I had done it. I don’t know how much further I might have gone in it. I have no knowledge of that, of course. But I enjoyed going from where I started on to a different world, equally interesting — perhaps more so.”

Did he have a favorite film of his? “Not really,” he replied. “I did them all for a purpose. Sometimes I hoped for better results; sometimes I was surprised at the results.”

To that end, I can certainly attest that the 10 films listed here are still full of plenty of surprises.