When you think of The Philadelphia Story, your first thought is likely of Katharine Hepburn. Who can blame you? Hepburn had a stunningly powerful cinematic presence, and The Philadelphia Story is without a doubt her film — playwright Philip Barry wrote it for her, after all. However, in order for the movie to be successful, Hepburn needed to be matched with two actors who wouldn’t be totally devoured by her. On Broadway, she had Van Heflin and Joseph Cotten (can I travel back in time to see that?); on film, she wanted Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, but what she got was just as wonderful: Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant.
As Mike Connor, the jaded reporter who becomes enchanted by Hepburn’s socialite Tracy Lord, Stewart won the Academy Award for Best Actor. Hepburn was nominated for Best Actress and Ruth Hussey, playing Stewart’s quick-witted photographer girlfriend Liz, found herself nominated for Best Supporting Actress. The odd man out here is Cary Grant, a statement that feels so wrong to type. Not only was Grant ignored by the Academy, his performance in The Philadelphia Story isn’t often given the recognition that it merits.
This problem often plagues the actor’s filmography. Unbelievably handsome, impeccably dressed, and graced with a one-of-a-kind accent, Grant embodied the Movie Star ideal. What sometimes gets lost in the shuffle is the fact that Grant was an incredible actor, someone with the ability to move from gleefully singing with a dog (The Awful Truth) to stoically watching the woman he loves be used as a pawn to capture spies (Notorious). The comedic talents of Grant are what he is best remembered for – seeing him do a pratfall or make a funny face is akin to watching Astaire and Ro
The Philadelphia Story isn’t slapstick like Bringing Up Baby or My Favorite Wife because the laughs lie in the zingers, the words. (Example: Stewart asks Grant if he knows how Hepburn met her new fiancé. “Heaven brought them together, I imagine,” he retorts.) This film has some of the best verbal sparring you’ll ever witness, most of it between Grant and Hepburn. He resents her for never trying to help with his alcoholism while they were married and believes that their divorce was the result of her inability to forgive his imperfections. As C.K. Dexter Haven, Grant is bitter and hurt, but he can’t let go of his ex. Almost everything he does in the film is for Tracy. To protect the Lords from the publication of a story about Tracy’s philandering father, Dexter invites Mike and Liz to cover Tracy’s upcoming nuptials. Dexter’s wedding present to the couple is a model of the True Love, the boat he built when he and Tracy were married and full of joy. He fights with Tracy, but he’s always in her corner. “You seem quite contemptuous of me all of a sudden,” she says to him during one of their battles. “No, Red, not of you. Never of you,” he replies.
With a lesser partner, Hepburn and Stewart’s performances would not have been the same. The relationship between Tracy and Dexter has to be believable or else many of the scenes won’t work. The chemistry that Grant and Hepburn had is off the charts, sure, but he could also match her acting, which only served to make her even better. If Grant couldn’t convey the anger Dexter experiences from one of Tracy’s insults or the softness he shows her when she feels at her lowest, we could still applaud Kate the Great, but we wouldn’t understand the true depth of her performance that Grant is able to reveal to us.
In a way, the same could be said for Stewart. Mike and Dexter slowly come to respect one another and the best scene between them is when Mike drunkenly shows up at Dexter’s in the middle of the night. As the men sit across from each other in silence, Stewart hiccups. “Excuse me,” Grant says. This improvisation almost ruined the take — if you pay attention, you can see the actors fighting hard to keep from busting up, which makes the moment even funnier. Throughout the film, Grant proves to be an adept partner for Stewart, so much so that it makes me wish that the two had done another movie together.
Seventeen years after The Philadelphia Story, Grant would make An Affair to Remember, the film that would cement the actor as the ultimate romantic icon. I adore An Affair to Remember for a number of reasons, but one of the most important is that it demonstrates the extent of Grant’s talent. The first half of the film is pure romantic comedy as Nicky (Grant) and Terry (the luminous Deborah Kerr) resist falling in love during a shipboard journey because they are already committed to others. However, they soon can’t deny that they belong together — their repartee is too sparkling, they hold hands for too long, and in one humorous montage, they can’t stop running into one another despite trying to actively avoid each other.
The movie’s shift to its more dramatic second half comes when Nicky and Terry are dancing alone on the deck on the last night of the trip. Music drifts out of
the cocktail lounge to accompany our leading man and lady as they take turns singing the words to one another in a breathless display of happiness. Then the band plays “Auld Lang Syne,” signaling that their time together in their little bubble is over and they are forced to face reality. Both are used to the finer things in life, thanks to their wealthy lovers. Breaking up with them means having to get real jobs, a first for Nicky, and losing a sense of security. Nicky suddenly gets an idea: in six months, he and Terry will meet on top of the Empire State Building, giving them enough time to save up money and build better prospects.
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