Think of Cary Grant, and the chances are you will imagine him in a crisp tuxedo. You can picture his perfectly square and handsome face, punctured by that one, unignorably cute chin-dimple. His back is straight, but his eyes are twinkling, and you get the sense that he has just been incorrigibly mischievous.
Perhaps he’s infuriating Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth (1937) or dancing a jig for Ingrid Bergman in Indiscreet (1958). More casually dressed but just as debonair, he might be out-talking Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940), rat-a-tat-tat, or picnicking with Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief (1955), reeling from the offer of a leg or a breast. He has poise, sophistication and a wicked sense of humour that somehow unleashes his blatant sex appeal. In short, Cary Grant is the perfect leading man, and the cinema doesn’t seem to have enough of them these days.
The classical idea of a leading man – an updated version of the late-Victorian matinee idol, someone who offers a desirable image of sophisticated manhood to a presumed-straight female audience – already felt a little old-fashioned when Grant began making films in the early 1930s. It was, after all, the risqué Pre-Code era, which briefly empowered leading ladies such as Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford to stalk across the screen in pursuit of their male prey. Paramount insisted on Grant playing playboy types even though he constantly requested comedies instead.
As this month’s British Film Institute retrospective shows, Grant began to shine when he later brought his innate talent for comedy to bear on the classic leading man persona. The Grant leading man was a whimsical lover, with an unplaceable accent, elusive sexuality and a physical dexterity that he revealed in pratfalls rather than feats of heroism. As Grant matured, so did his type, but even in the darkest of the films he made with Hitchcock, say, he retains his charm. Sometimes, he uses it as a weapon, luring Joan Fontaine into losing her head in Suspicion (1941), or as a coping device that allows him to keep his cool amid the paranoiac madness of North by Northwest (1959).
Is there a modern successor to Cary Grant? The current stars who are most often said to have inherited his old-fashioned, sophisticated charm are Hugh Grant and George Clooney. And they are both now older than he was when he made North by Northwest at the age of 54. Which raises the question: has the leading-man type fallen out of fashion or just changed almost beyond recognition? Where have all the Cary Grants gone?
It is true that it has never been that easy to be a leading man. Actors have always felt just as pigeonholed by playing a classic romantic lead as actresses do when relegated to “love-interest” roles that define them only in relation to their male co-star. Cary Grant tired of playing the seducer early in his career – he preferred to be the wooed rather than the wooer, a fact he discovered after playing opposite Mae West in 1933. From that point on, he took the idea of a leading man and began bending it into his own creation.
Cary Grant was not the first to feel ill at ease in the role. Hollywood’s earliest leading men, back in the silent era, often experienced the label as an attack on their masculinity. Rudolph Valentino, the brooding Italian hunk, whose sizzling performances led to his films being regularly described as “homewreckers” was also the target of frankly homophobic attacks in the press. Writers sneered at his clothes and jewellery and, after one particularly vicious attack in the Chicago Tribune in 1926 – “Hollywood is a national school of masculinity. Rudy, the beautiful gardener’s boy, is the prototype of the American male. Hell’s bells. Oh, sugar” – Valentino challenged the author to a boxing match to prove his virility.
Despite their cruelty, there is, bizarrely, some substance to these insinuations. In her 2017 book Heartthrobs: a History of Women and Desire, Carol Dyhouse spells out how many 20th-century male sex symbols, beloved of straight female audiences, were actually gay, bisexual or just suspected of being so, from Valentino through to Ivor Novello, Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift and Dirk Bogarde. You might add Cary Grant to that list too, of course. Although he asserted that he was strictly heterosexual, he lived with Randolph Scott in Hollywood on-and-off for 12 years and audiences have relished a queer subtext to his films for decades.
For one thing, being a leading man does not require playing up to a traditional idea of masculinity. There’s no need to be a smoothie: James Stewart and Hugh Grant took a nervous stammer and made it a central part of their appeal. And beefcakes need not apply: John Wayne was never a leading man, and neither was Bruce Willis. Action stunts and other feats of machismo play to a wider gallery. By contrast, musical stars such as Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra automatically file into leading-man territory – the performance of a song or dance is far more intimate and seductive, and the outfits so much more sophisticated.
How about flavour of the month Timothée Chalamet, an androgynous star beloved of young audiences, who shot to prominence in the gay romantic drama Call Me By Your Name and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, and is now due to appear as Henry V in The King? “No, he’s not a leading man,” says Christina Newland, film critic and editor of the forthcoming book She Found it at the Movies: Women Writers on Sex, Desire and the Cinema. “I think he’s a fantastic young actor, but a leading man suggests somebody that has an undeniable presence, and there’s some gravitas to them I think.”
Maybe Chalamet’s time will come. As a teenager I had a poster of Keanu Reeves on my bedroom wall, but I also watched Sommersby and American Gigolo and knew that Richard Gere was my idea of a leading man. Leading men need a certain maturity, or at least enough sophistication to fake it. And many a young star grows eventually into a leading man.
“The person that would encompass everything that I would want from a leading man is somebody like Paul Newman, or Robert Redford,” says Newland. “Both of them have a similar combination of fabulous, decadent good looks, and a degree of traditional masculinity, but also a kind of secret vulnerability. The combination of a degree of maybe not femininity, but vulnerability and softness is very appealing to the female viewer.”
Newland is convinced the leading man is not out of fashion entirely. Quentin Tarantino’s recent hit Once Upon a Time in Hollywood features two male stars in the prime of their leading man years, and it has plenty to say about the phenomenon. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a washed-up action star coming to terms with the descent of his career as he transitions into villain roles, but who deploys an appealing vulnerability in several scenes – crying over a novel, berating himself for a poor performance, or being winningly star-struck by a celebrity neighbour. While Brad Pitt, playing his stunt-double-cum-driver, is a little more mysterious and couples that with tremendous poise, a gently amused demeanour and, yes, the way he looks.
But Pitt’s character is also very unappealing and dangerous is many ways – if we fall for him, then perhaps it is not entirely the film’s intention.
If editing She Found it at the Movies has taught Newland one thing, she says, it is that “women viewers surprise me with their ability to find sex in the most incredibly surprising places”. She explains that women, especially women who don’t define themselves as straight, “smuggle things out of movies that aren’t really made for us as viewers”. This may partly explain the heterosexual appeal of gay stars, and vice versa. Or why Pitt’s charisma is so seductive even in a violent Tarantino movie.
But our smuggling days may be coming to an end. These days, films are increasingly likely to offer a direct, appeal to the female audience’s libido. If one single moment has changed the concept of a leading man in the last 30 years, it must surely be the moment that Pitt peeled off his shirt in Thelma and Louise (1991), revealing an impeccably toned, muscular torso – just as he does again in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. You only need to look at the success of the Magic Mike films to see that male sexuality, and physicality, has burst out of the tuxedo. A clip of Channing Tatum’s famous grind to Ginuwine’s ‘Pony’ in Magic Mike XXL (2015) on YouTube has been viewed more than 11 million times. And it really is quite spectacular.
The way that women talk about male stars and desire has slowly become more upfront, direct and physical. In 2007, film critic Antonia Quirke wrote a memoir, Madame Depardieu and the Beautiful Strangers, about her passion for the cinema, and for the men on the screen, that was frank and evocative in its descriptions of her favourites’ physical charms. On social media, female fans share pictures and GIFs of idols from Gary Cooper to Chris Hemsworth. And the podcast Thirst Aid Kit, hosted by Bim Adewunmi and Nichole Perkins, talks candidly about celebrity crushes under the tagline “What we do when we lust out loud”.
In 2019, more liberal attitudes to gender and sexuality should mean that men are no longer stung by the suggestion of femininity, or even of homosexuality, that accompanies the leading-man role. There are still painfully few out actors in Hollywood, but from breakout hits such as Brokeback Mountain and Moonlight, to splashes of androgynous fashion on the Oscars red carpet, to Marvel superhero Deadpool’s pansexuality, there are glimmers that Hollywood is slowly beginning to look beyond the confines of straight, cis couplings.
Perhaps this is why the classic leading man has an enduring, if hard-to-define, appeal. After George and Hugh hang up their tuxedos, the true inheritor of Cary Grant’s crown will surely be someone like Jake Gyllenhaal, who has a dazzling smile but who rarely plays a traditional romantic lead. It could be sensitive Keanu Reeves, who dons a tuxedo to fight dirty in the John Wick films, or even The Rock, whose ludicrously macho exploits on screen are always accompanied by a winning sense of irony and impeccable grooming.
In any case, it’s very likely that the women in the cinema, facing the screen, will decide – rather than the studios. Which is the same as it ever was.