Sunday, January 11, 2009
"North by Northwest," Alfred Hitchcock's sprawling 1959 thriller that takes us to the top of Mount Rushmore by way of a near-miss with a killer crop-duster, begins with the basics. A man is walking down a corridor.
But because the man is Cary Grant, the moment is anything but ordinary. He has us at the first step: that long, brisk stride and its driving rhythm, a ticktock pace that telegraphs purpose, clarity and elegant efficiency. We watch him stroll out of an elevator toward the street, dictating correspondence to the secretary at his side. He's not some stiff, starchy suit. There's a relaxed, easy give in Grant's body as he moves, and as he leans toward his secretary while he speaks to her -- he's so very pleased with his own labors, and yet so exquisitely courteous to his assistant. A nice guy, and smooth as whiskey, too. He's getting further under our skin with every move.
What Grant's character, advertising executive Roger Thornhill, is actually saying in this scene isn't nearly as important as his movement. It's the movement that hooks us. It always does. Intuition? Training? Astute directors? Whatever its source, Grant knew a timeless truth: There is nothing we watch so keenly as the human body in action, because the way it moves tells a story.
The art of moving well, call it kinetic acting, has nearly vanished from movies today. I don't mean among dancers on the big screen -- that's a different subject altogether -- but among actors. The attention to physical expression, to one's carriage and gestures and their dramatic and emotional implications, has faded. I'm talking about a sense of grace. About acting that involves a meaningful motor impulse. A signature style of moving, bigger than just body language or bits of what actors call "business" -- lighting a cigarette, picking up a drink. Think of Gary Cooper's quick, impatient stride across town to the church in "High Noon," when he thinks he'll be able to round up a posse among the worshipers, folks to join his fight against a group of killers. And then his stiff, pained walk back to town after he fails to find help. He doesn't say a word, but the heaviness he feels is right there in his legs. You ache watching him.
A person's way of moving through space tells us something on a base, primitive level. It's animal to animal. It's something so subtle you may not consciously notice it, but when an actor moves honestly and with intention, your eye will follow him anywhere.
The trouble is, you don't see it that much. The buzz around this year's Oscar favorites got me thinking about how the artistic trend in acting has gone from the external to the internal. We're in the age of the close-up. Realism and psychological truth rule, and you find them in facial expression, in the little muscles around the eyes. The focus has tightened. Sure, there's gobs of emphasis on sexy bodies, but the body as an expressive instrument just isn't much in the picture.
Perhaps this is because actors aren't formally trained in dance and movement much anymore, as they were in the early years of filmmaking. There's also the invasion of psychoanalysis, and the rise of Method acting starting about a half-century or so ago, with its emphasis on emotion, interior motives and lots of mental preparation. Actors started questioning the precise blocking of action -- the choreography of the scene -- that was so prized by Grant, Cooper, Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn and other stars going back to the 1930s and '40s. For that era, physical elegance signaled inner elegance. Actors today seek more of a warts-and-all approach.
Cary Grant, Nonpareil
But kinetic acting is wrongly overlooked. It has an undeniable power over an audience. Consider Grant -- and you needn't only take my word on his greatness. He's been famously deconstructed in Pauline Kael's sharp-eyed essay "The Man From Dream City." And film historian David Thomson, writing in his "Biographical Dictionary of Film," describes Grant as "the best and most important film actor in the history of the cinema." Grant's dark beauty, cultured diction and gift for comedy are unmistakable. But what I find most fascinating about him -- and I believe it's the reason he is as watchable now as he was all those decades ago -- is his physical grace, an effortlessness that borders on the surreal.
It's always there, in every role, in the way he walks, the way he slips a hand into his pocket, the way he stands, with his shoulders melting just a bit toward the co-star his character is invariably secretly in love with.
Grant's art was all about physical expressiveness and emotional understatement. He never did musical comedy per se -- no Donald O'Connor-style routines (though you can imagine much of the sophisticated slapstick in the screwball comedy "Bringing Up Baby," in which Grant teamed with Kate Hepburn, set to music and a song). But you could say Grant is one of the great musical comedy stars of the 20th century. Like the very best dancers -- think of the versatile perfectionists Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and even the ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov -- Grant based each role on an array of physical details. He got into acting that way; the Cockney kid named Archie Leach left England for America as a member of a troupe of acrobats. After he went to Hollywood and became Cary Grant, the acrobat's love of physical play, his feline reflexes and reckless courage stuck with him.
In his early films (take "Singapore Sue" of 1932, for one -- Grant plays a skirt-chasing sailor), he comes across as blocky and stiff. His delivery is corny and over-eager. Later, as he refined his athlete's energy and channeled it into a smoother physical bearing, his acting relaxed.
Revisit "His Girl Friday" (1940), one of filmdom's most perfect creations, directed by Howard Hawks. Sparks between newspaper editor Walter Burns (Grant) and his ex-reporter and ex-wife Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) pop the whole way through, but in one scene Grant's nuanced physical maneuvering is particularly marvelous. Seated over a polite lunch with his former bride (for whom he still pines) and her new fiance, Bruce (Ralph Bellamy), Walter aims to show Hildy just how foolish her fantasy of impending domestic bliss sounds.