A Dashing Actor, Dashing Off a Disappointment

By Louis Bayard,
author of the novel "The Pale Blue Eye"
Tuesday, May 1, 2007


My Life From Goldwyn to Broadway

By Farley Granger with Robert Calhoun

St. Martin's. 255 pp. $26.95

The two most homoerotic films in the Hitchcock canon happen to star the same darkly handsome, troublingly blank fellow: a male ingenue named Farley Granger. With any other director, this might qualify as a coincidence; in Hitchcock's case, it's proof positive that he knew exactly what he was doing. Knew for starters that Granger, during the making of "Rope," was having an affair with Arthur Laurents, the film's screenwriter. Knew that the slippery dynamics of that relationship could only enrich Granger's on-screen partnership with John Dall (himself gay). Better than anyone else, Hitchcock grasped the indeterminacy that lay at Granger's core, a textureless, unfulfilled space that could be colonized by just the right psychopath: most notably, Robert Walker's twisted rich-boy Bruno in "Strangers on a Train."

A career of sorts was born. Unfortunately, the passivity that Bruno (and Hitchcock) exploited to their own ends can become a liability in a leading man -- when will he lead? -- and for a memoirist, can be close to ruinous. That, at any rate, is the unavoidable conclusion from Granger's pedestrian, singularly unreflective autobiography, which finds him, more than half a century after "Strangers," still weirdly detached from the goings-on -- a cork bobbing on his own life.

That he has at least devised an organizing mythos for this life will be obvious from the title. "Include me out" is one of the best-known malapropisms attributed to producer Samuel Goldwyn, who gave Granger his start in 1943. Their relationship was fraught from the beginning. Granger chafed at the lousy scripts Goldwyn thrust on him and got himself suspended more than once for refusing roles. His best work (such as the young fugitive in Nicholas Ray's "They Live by Night") was done on loan to other studios.

Then, too, once Granger had seen his first Broadway show, his sights were set not on Hollywood but New York. "I wanted to develop my talent," he recalls. "I had no interest in becoming a household name or in playing by the rules of the game to become a movie star." Goldwyn was Learlike in his lamentations, reminding Granger "how he had loved me more than his own son and what it had cost him to make a star of me and here I was turning on him like a viper, plunging a knife into his heart and on and on and on." Ultimately, the only way Granger could secure his freedom was to buy out the last two years of his contract. "It cost me every penny I had," he writes, but "I was following my heart and doing what I had to do."

The mythos has played itself out. The tyrant has been slain. The brave young hero may now sally forth to . . .

Well, there's the rub. Nothing in Granger's subsequent career has proved quite as durable as the work he did in the Hollywood salt mines. There are high points, no doubt: Visconti's melodrama "Senso" (1954); repertory work with Eva Le Gallienne; a highly praised theatrical revival of "The King and I" opposite Barbara Cook; an Obie for Lanford Wilson's "Talley & Son."

But because acting is, at heart, a mendicant profession, there are yawning abysses, too: wedges of Italian cine-cheese, TV guest-star gigs, soap-opera sinecures (Granger admits he could never remember his lines). "Was it worth it?" the reader wonders. The author, it turns out, is too busy for much cost-benefit analysis. There's grappa to be drunk with Peggy Guggenheim in Venice. Plus he has to take tennis lessons from Bill Tilden, introduce Jerome Robbins to Charlie Chaplin, hang out with Anna Magnani in New York and bump into Uta Hagen in Les Halles.

And record his observations, which seldom rise above the level of press release: Jimmy Stewart was "a gentleman, the real thing, and one of the nicest actors I've ever worked with." Bette Davis was "as down-to-earth as they come." Marlon Brando "made me think about acting in a whole new way." Additional revelations: Noel Coward was "charming, amusing, and a great raconteur"; "Guys and Dolls" "elevated musical theater to an art form"; the word "charisma" "could have been coined" for Lenny Bernstein; and "there are many beautiful cities in this world." Oh yes, and Arthur Laurents "had a sharp sense of humor that was as funny as it was cutting." One might suppose a sharp sense of humor would be both those things.

This politic neutrality extends even to the author's sex life, which he firmly declines to categorize. I couldn't make much sense of it myself. Granger, it seems, lost his virginity twice in the same night: first to a Hawaiian girl named Liana, second to a lieutenant commander named Archie. Among Granger's male paramours, Bernstein figures prominently ("as passionate and enthusiastic a lover as he was a conductor"). On the distaff side: Ava Gardner, Barbara Stanwyck ("We enjoyed each other's company to the fullest") and Shelley Winters ("the love of my life and the bane of my existence").

And if you think that Granger's decades-long partnership with co-author Robert Calhoun would have settled him on one side of the fence, think again. He is at great pains to separate himself from Hollywood's gay demimonde: "not a scene that interested me." The rainbow flag never so much as flutters in the breeze. Like his pal Gore Vidal, Granger wants to retain the firewall between sexual behavior and identity -- a distinction that (as in Vidal's case) comes off less as high-minded nicety than as semantic fussiness. "I have loved men," announces Granger. "I have loved women." Anyone wanting to know the difference between those two acts -- between those states of being -- anyone wanting to do more than skim across the surfaces of people and things will need to find another, more probing guide.

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