Tag Archives: Cary Grant

Escaping to reality: Chick flicks and the comic spirit

Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart in The Shop Around the Corner. Wikimedia Commons.

Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart in “The Shop Around the Corner”: heart-to-heart, but not eye-to-eye. MGM, 1940/Wikimedia Commons


In a world of reality television and cheesy stadium-pop music, finding good, intelligent escapist entertainment is a lot harder than it ought to be. The idea is to tickle your brain, not insult it, and tickling takes a certain deftness with the feather that far too many entertainers lack.

I turn to certain writers. Jasper Fforde and the outrageous wordplay of his Thursday Next and Nursery Crime novels. John Mortimer and his Rumpole stories. Ellis Peters and her Brother Cadfael medieval mysteries. Thurber and Wodehouse and Christopher Buckley, whose Little Green Men and Thank You for Smoking so audaciously straddle the line between cynicism and glee. I listen to good musicians performing Cole Porter. I watch Gene Kelly or Ann Miller or Gregory Hines dance. I revisit the raw brilliance of John Belushi in Blues Brothers or Animal House, or his comic soulmate Jack Black in School of Rock.

shopcoverAnd I watch chick flicks. Not just any chick flick, but the well-written, well-performed ones that tend to fall into the folds of screwball or romantic comedy. Yes, I like the movies of Nora Ephron, and if that drums me out of the league of tough-guy arts observers, so be it.

What exactly is a chick flick? The term’s a mild put-down that means something like, “inconsequential fluff that panders to womanly emotions,” but that’s a short-sighted way of looking at things. Isn’t the supposedly feminine point of view — that pursuing happiness is better than winning through intimidation — the crux of the civilizing process? Better Katharine Hepburn leading Cary Grant on a wild goose chase than Dirty Harry making his day with a gun in your face, although Harry has his lower-cortex satisfactions, too.

inthegoodoldsummertimevhscoverThe best chick flicks exude optimism, which of course makes them immediately suspect in intellectual circles. (Then again, a lot of intellectuals miss the point that Waiting for Godot is as much a vaudeville comedy as it is an existential outcry: Even Beckett enjoyed a good giggle.)

But in a good chick flick, the optimism isn’t blind. It’s based on a belief that personal fulfillment is a matter of finding the right fit in life. That fit most likely involves finding the right romantic mate (although it could also be the right profession or cause or community), which in a larger sense means discovering the truth about yourself and putting yourself in a position where you don’t have to pretend.

And while the consummation might be a juicy kiss or an “I do” and is certainly about sexual attraction, it is more deeply about finding the person whose quirks and foibles you can put up with for a lifetime, because the underlying connection is profound.

youve_got_mailIt’s a coupling of equals built on compromise and respect, and it typically involves wriggling out of a bad potential match and shedding several layers of self-delusion so you can see the simple beauty of what ought to be. That often requires eating a few slices of humble pie and taking some practical steps. In that sense, Jane Austen is the mother of all chick flicks. And Shakespeare, with his comic creations of Kate and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew and Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, might be their grandpa.

In a good chick flick, you know the ending right off the bat. That bugs a lot of critics, who complain that the show is predictable and formulaic. So it is. But so what? Sure, you know where the story’s taking you, but how you get there is most of the fun. The ride can be as raunchy as Bull Durham or as raucous as Working Girl or as delicate as 84 Charing Cross Road. The variety that lives inside familiarity is astonishing, and becoming comfortable with the little surprises of the familiar is one of the pleasures of life.

If the critical challenge of the chick-flick hero and heroine is to bring a split personality into harmony — the “false” personality of social striving and mistaken assumptions giving way to the “true” personality of inner self-awareness, even as it steels romantic idealism in the crucible of practicality — then Miklos Laszlo‘s 1937 Hungarian play Parfumerie is an almost perfect example of the form. Set in Budapest, it’s about a pair of shop clerks who bicker through their everyday lives but who also indulge in an idealized, platonic affair with an unknown pen pal, eagerly awaiting the next heartfelt letter of devotion. Continue reading Escaping to reality: Chick flicks and the comic spirit

Jean-Paul Belmondo: Tough guys finish first

Hillary Clinton got a quick stamp of approval from the Senate, President Obama rolled up his sleeves and got to work, Caroline Kennedy withdrew from the New York senatorial race, LeBron James steamrolled the Trail Blazers, the Pacific Northwest College of Art agreed in principle to take over the ailing Museum of Contemporary Craft and Portland Mayor Sam Adams fought an uphill battle for his political life.

But for my money the best read in the Thursday papers was Elaine Sciolino’s report in the New York Times on the French movie god Jean-Paul Belmondo and the release of his latest film, Un Homme et Son Chien (A Man and His Dog), based on Vittorio De Sica’s 1952 neorealist classic Umberto D.

Belmondo, he of the broken nose and the seductive grin and the street-tough physique, is 75 now, and people don’t like to see their physical idols grow old: Think of the matronly-plump Elizabeth Taylor, all comfortable at last inside her expansive body, or the Botoxed-so-hard Sophia Loren, so tight in the face that her eyes seem stretched halfway around her temples.

But Belmondo committed a deeper sin.
Not only did he age, he also degenerated. He had a stroke in 2001 that left him speechless for six months, with a basically useless right side. He’s struggled back, and speaks now, with difficulty, and has regained some of the use of his body. But he is now plainly, as they say, disabled. And that’s how he plays his new role, as an aging, stoved-up, slowly disintegrating man. “It’s me,” he tells Sciolino, “without any special effects.”

The French press has not been amused. As Sciolino reports, Un Homme et Son Chien has been greeted with responses ranging from so-so embarrassment to downright outrage. “One can only be staggered by this portrayal of decrepitude ….,” the magazine Le Point moaned. Le Monde complained about “melodramatic overstatement” and “the effort visibly made by the actor in the dialogue.” Le Matin, swinging for the fences, pronounced the entire enterprise “absolutely despicable.” Even Belmondo’s onetime co-star Arielle Dombasle (Amazon, 2000) got into the act. “He is not cerebral,” she said. “People want to see their hero. To see him as an old man who loves his dog is ridiculous.”

All of this makes me want to see Un Homme et Son Chien very much. As anyone who’s ever read Norse mythology (or Greek, for that matter) knows, even gods die eventually. And it strikes me as monumentally courageous of Belmondo to own up to that profoundly simple fact and let us look in on the process. Maybe the movie’s lousy: I don’t know. But I can only admire a god who comes to even an uneasy peace with his mortality and quietly makes it part of his never-ending story.


Gods do die, of course, and we remember them in their prime.
For Cary Grant it’s The Philadelphia Story or North by Northwest, not Father Goose. I don’t know why thinking about Belmondo got me also thinking about Grant — their screen personas are very different — but it did. Maybe it’s because they were both stars in the old-fashioned sense: magnetic actors who played themselves, no matter what their role happened to be. We have wonderful actors on screen now, and several of them “better” than Belmondo or Grant, in that lose-yourself-in-the-role-and-create-something-new protean sense. But do they have the same impact?

Contemporary film has no Cary Grant. Hugh Grant may come the closest to Cary Grant the light comedian, but for all his comic skill, Hugh has no dark shadings. Harrison Ford approaches Cary Grant’s impact as a dramatic actor, but Ford hasn’t struck a funny note since the Star Wars movies, and even in those it was comic-book comedy. If you could somehow fuse Ford and Hugh Grant you’d get one genuine old-fashioned movie star.

Think about that the next time you watch Bringing Up Baby or Indiscreet. And think about what an extraordinary actor Cary Grant was.