04 7 / 2012
The romantic male stars aren’t necessarily sexually aggressive. Henry Fonda wasn’t; neither was James Stewart, or, later, Marcello Mastroianni. The foursquare Clark Gable, with his bold, open challenge to women, was more the exception than the rule, and Gable wasn’t romantic, like Grant. Gable got down to brass tacks; his advances were basic, his unspoken question was “Well, sister, what do you say?” If she said no, she was failing what might almost be nature’s test. She’d become over-civilized, afraid of her instincts - afraid of being a woman. 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. (When he tried, as the frontiersman in “The Howards of Virginia,” he looked thick and stupid.) With Gable, sex is inevitable: What is there but sex? Basically, he thinks women are good for only one thing. 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. With Grant, the social, urban man, there are infinite possibilities for mutual entertainment. They might dance the night away or stroll or go to a carnival - and nothing sexual would happen unless she wanted it to. Grant doesn’t assert his male supremacy; in the climax of a picture he doesn’t triumph by his fists and brawn - or even by outwitting anybody. He isn’t a conqueror, like Gable. But he’s a winner. The game, however, is an artful dodge. He gets the blithe, funny girl by maneuvering her into going after him. He’s a fairy-tale 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?
Many men must have wanted to be Clark Gable and look straight at a woman with a faint smirk and lifted, questioning eyebrows. What man doesn’t - at some level - want to feel supremely confident and earthy and irresistible? But a few steps up the dreamy social ladder there’s the more subtle fantasy of worldly grace - of being so gallant and gentlemanly and charming that every woman longs to be your date. And at that deluxe level men want to be Cary Grant. Men as far apart as John F. Kennedy and Lucky Luciano thought that he should star in their life story. Who but Cary Grant could be a fantasy self-image for a President and a gangster chief?