Oscar Actors: Grant, Cary–Oscar Loser? Why Hollywood Most Popular Star Had Never Won Gold (Part Two)

Part Two

My new book, Movie Stardom, examines the careers of America’s 100 top movie stars.

We are running a series of articles about the career and stardom of John Wayne (a contemporary of Grant, younger by three years only).

In the next month or so, we will be publishing articles about various aspects of movie stardom and several profiles of Hollywood’s greatest stars.

Sex  Appeal

Grant did not play the boyish type but rather the suave mature lover who boasted worldliness and glamour. Even in the star vehicles, She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel, Grant was not a passive sexual foil to the independent and spirited Mae West.  At the peak of his career, he worked with Irene Dunne, making three classics with her: Two comedies, The Awful Truth and My Favorite Wife, and a drama, Penny Serenade.  His other important leading lady was Katharine Hepburn, with whom he made four films: Sylvia Scarlett, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, and The Philadelphia Story.

Of the actors of his generation (Cooper, Gable, Bogart, Taylor, Power), Grant was the least touched by age. Many thought that with years he had become even more attractive. He retained his romantic appeal to the end of his career by appearing opposite much younger actresses: Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief, Sophia Loren in Houseboat, Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest, Audrey Hepburn in Charade, Leslie Caron in Father Goose.

Departures from Screen Image:

Even when Grant played semi-villains and bad guys, he retained certain finesse, a certain class.  Grant played ambiguous characters in most of his Hitchcock films. In Suspicion, for example, his John Aysgarth cashed in on the duality of his screen persona as both attractive and unattractive. Suspicion was to end with Grant mailing a letter, which unbeknownst to him would accuse him of murdering his wife. The studio’s top brass objected, arguing that the audiences simply wouldn’t accept a star like Grant playing a villain.  A happy ending was then imposed, completely changing the original story.

Toward the end of his career, Grant made Father Goose, an offbeat movie in which he played an unshaven, grizzled, semi-alcoholic South Pacific beachcomber pressed into WWII service. It was the first time he departed from the “Cary Grant” formula since None But the Lonely Heart in 1944.  Grant felt close affinity and relished this role, as he noted: ”As precise as I’ve always been about my attire and appearance, there’s been that hidden desire, a subconscious urge, to go around like my character, unshaven, untidy.”   Grant disclosed that there was a price to be paid for always being Cary Grant.


Grant’s Specialty: Comedy

Grant’ specialty was comedy, the most difficult of genres, both screwball and romantic comedy.  He learned the most valuable essentials of comedy craft, timing, subtlety, and economy of movement, during his music hall apprenticeship.  While still in his thirties, he had the good fortune to work with perceptive directors like George Cukor (Sylvia Scarlett, in 1936, was a turning point) and Howard Hawks (their first comedy was Bringing Up Baby, in 1938).

Grant was known for his excellent timing, the naturalness and ease of is movements. Though he made acting look effortless, he took his jobs seriously. He once explained: “Since I was twelve, I’ve been entertaining people. I would have had to be nutty not to have acquired some experience along the way.  Or nuttier still not to have learned something about technique.”

Grant’s intelligent, methodical approach was his strongest point. Behind that carefree and sophisticated man onscreen was a hard-working actor. He continued to work at his craft, determined to show that his popularity wasn’t based on good looks even when such proof was no longer necessary.

Never Winning the Oscar:

“Our thanks to Cary Grant, who keeps winning these things for other people,” said Peter Stone upon winning the Screenplay Oscar for Father Goose. It had been the talk of the movie industry for years: Why hadn’t Grant ever received a legit competitive Oscar. It seems absurd that the roles for which Grant did receive nominations deviated from his specialized image.  The first nomination was for Penny Serenade, a soap opera, and the second for None But the Lonely Heart, a proletarian melodrama.

Yet it’s no coincidence that Grant’s nominations were during WWII, when most of Hollywood A-list actors were mobilized into the military. Grant lost on both occasions. In 1941, the Oscar went to Gary Cooper for the patriotic Sergeant York, and in 1944, Bing Crosby took the prize for portraying a sympathetic priest in Going My Way.

Grant knew that he would never win an Academy Award, as he said: “Light comedy has little chance for an Oscar.” He was right.  As I showed in my book, All About Oscar, comedy as a genre and comedic performances are the most overlooked in Oscar’s annals.  None of the great comedians, Chaplin included, had won a legit Oscar, and Jack Lemmon won his Oscar for a soupy melodrama, Save the Tiger, rather than Some Like It Hot or another Billy Wilder comedy.

Grant’s Honorary Oscar

At the 42nd Oscar ceremonies, on April 7, 1970, Grant was given a special Oscar, meant to cover three decades of continuous achievement. Presented by Frank Sinatra, the inscription read: “To Cary Grant for his unique mastery of the art of screen acting with the respect and affection of his colleagues.” Sinatra later explained: “No one has brought more pleasure to more people for many years than Cary Grant has, and nobody has done so many things so well.” The honorary Oscar was the show’s highlight and Grant’s only TV appearance.

Grant: Early Retirement?

For two years in the early 1950s, Grant didn’t make any movies, claiming he couldn’t find any suitable scripts. Most of his films after 1946 didn’t provide an outlet for his comic talents or abilities as a leading man.  In 1953, when his box-office clout began to wan, he determined to retire. It was the period of the rebellious blue jeans worn by James Dean, Elvis Presley’s rock n’ roll, Method acting of Brando and Clift.  Nobody seemed to care anymore about elegant comedy.

Two years passed before Grant made another film.  It was Hitchcock who brought Grant back to the screen in To Catch a Thief, which rejuvenated his career, and Hitchcock who was responsible for the second peak in Grant’s career in the late 1950s (See box-office chart).

In the 1960s, with the exception of John Wayne, most of Grant’s contemporaries either passed away or switched to playing character roles. Grant never played second leads. In his very last film, Walk, Don’t Run (1966), Jim Hutton and Samantha Eggar had the love interest, with Grant as a matchmaker. The scene in which Grant gives Eggar a glass of champagne and a kiss on the hand might be the scene that ended Grant’s glamorous image.

Grant finally realized that he was too old to play opposite young women like Eggar. If audiences only wanted him as a romantic figure, and he felt too old for that, the only rational thing to do was quit, which he did in 1966, at the age of 62.  Grant didn’t want to overstay his welcome, let the audience tire of him.  He applied his long-held philosophy to his own career: “Always leave them laughing and wanting more.”

Grant’s Most Popular films

Notorious                                  1946                             4,800,000*

The Bachelor and the                 1947                             4,500,000


I Was A Male War Bride             1949                 4,100,000

To Catch a Thief             1955                             4,500,000

The Pride and Passion               1957                             4,000,000

North By Northwest                    1959                 6,450,000

Operation Petticoat                    1960                 9,500,000

The Touch of Mink                      1962                 8,500,000

Charade                                    1963                             6,150,000

Father Goose                            1964                             6,000,000

*In millions of dollars

Grant’s Stats

Of Grant’s output of 72 movies, 28 have opened at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, the country’s most prestigious showcase.

Grant’s production company made several films that were distributed by Universal.  Operation Petticoat, for which his take amounted to $3 million, is far from his best film but it’s Grant’s most commercial one.


Grant’s Directors         

Grant worked with more good directors that any other actor:

Howard Hawks (5), Hitchcock (4), Stanley Donen (4), George Cukor (3), Leo McCarey (3), George Stevens (3).

Each director brought out a different facet, a different nuance, a different acting style of Grant’s screen personality


Roles Grant Should But Didn’t Play:

Grant turned down some of Hollywood’s best-known roles.  He would have excelled in each one of them:

Roman Holiday (later played by Gregory Peck)—too similar to what he had done before.


Sabrina (made with Humphrey Bogart)—fearing he might look too old next to William Holden, as his romantic rival.


A Star Is Born (James Mason)—too close to his off-screen life.


Grant on Grant’s Durability:

“The ones who have stayed the course are the ones who behave most nearly like themselves.  Behave true to yourself and behave in tempo with the times. The public has an unfairly sense for spotting a flake.”

The Entertainer:

“There’s a great satisfaction in making people laugh. If I can make people forget their worries for a couple of hours in a cinema, I consider I have achieved something that few politicians can ever do.”