It is difficult to watch Cary Grant's effortless cinematic grace without envy mixing with that admiration. The former acrobat, christened Archibald Alexander Leach, exuded sophistication but with a wry, self-deprecating touch of humor and humanity that kept him humble and accessible to the audience. He was one of the most beloved leading men in Hollywood's history; if women swooned over his looks, their dates didn't mind too much. They were busy studying Grant's manner.
Though his credits are crowded with "light" titles that showed Grant's sunny charm to best advantage, some of those frothy delights toss a darker shadow into our age as they leave us pondering the dramatic shift in our understanding of marriage, divorce, vows and the idea of anything being permanent.
In the classic screwball comedy His Girl Friday, Grant is Walter Burns, the hard-charging, smooth-talking newspaper editor whose obsession with getting the scoop at all costs is legendary among his peers. Unfortunately one cost has been his marriage to the paper's star reporter, Hildy Johnson, who returns to the newsroom announcing her plans to leave the rat-race and marry a bland, reliable and decidedly un-Cary-esque insurance salesman.
Burns, suddenly aware of how unwelcome he finds the prospect of losing Hildy, resolves to undermine the impending nuptials. Convinced Hildy's suburban dreams cannot possibly override the reporter's blood that runs through her veins (and confident that his rival's stability is no match for the adventure of a life with him), Burns pressures his "ex-wife" to reconsider, reminding her with unsubtle modern irony that "divorce doesn't mean anything nowadays, Hildy; just a few words mumbled over you by a judge."
The Philadelphia Story's C. K. Dexter Haven, quite possibly Grant's most memorable character, is a lovable, old-monied rogue whose alcoholic excesses have led his feisty-but-stern socialite wife Tracy to divorce him. Somewhat reformed, and coerced by a bit of journalistic blackmail, Dexter returns from a two-year stint in South America to descend on Tracy's impending second marriage to the staid, nouveau riche (and much less lovable) George Kittredge. At his shocking intrusion, Tracy marvels, "You haven't switched from liquor to dope by any chance, have you, Dexter?"
Tracy suspects Dexter has returned to deconstruct her wedding, and she is not wrong. Blackmail and tumultuous break-up aside, Haven truly loves his estranged wife and has not fully ceded his identification as her husband. When—just hours before the wedding—a misunderstanding arises between the jealous Kittredge and a man who has entertained Tracy, Dexter throws a chivalrous punch in defense of her honor.
"Hey," Kittredge objects, "what right have you—"A husband's," he replies, "'til tomorrow, Kittredge."
A modern viewer of the scene can be forgiven for finding shocking the notion that, even with the legal pardon of "the nice judge," Dexter and Tracy are still husband and wife, or that spoken vows may have intangible meaning beyond words on a piece of paper.
Twenty years later, Grant returned once again to the issues of separation and divorce in Stanley Donen's The Grass Is Greener, this time playing the part of a British nobleman, Earl Victor Rhyall, whose wife of ten years falls suddenly and madly in love with a visiting American millionaire. Concerned about his Countess' twitterpated condition but all-too-aware that a heavy-handed interference might cause her to dig in her heels, the Earl at first tries simply waiting out his wife's infatuation.
When that doesn't go as planned, the Earl concocts a humorous, somewhat hare-brained scheme in an effort to rekindle her wayward affections. Nothing works out quite as he intends, but events do provide him with the perfect opportunity to remind his wife of their marriage vows, and why they made them in the first place.
In each film, Grant's characters come to recognize the profound impact their wives have on their lives—that their spouses really are the "better half" that completes them. These men refuse to give up their marriages without a pitched battle. But perhaps the most intriguing and instructive similarity between these characters is this: It is nearly impossible to imagine their stories being made into films today.
It is not that our current actors are incapable of taking up Grant's sizable mantle; George Clooney stands at the ready. Nor do we lack directors with a knack for producing madcap plots and fast-paced, whip-smart, screwball dialogue. The Coen Brothers and Wes Anderson have proven themselves more than capable of delivering screwball romance.
No, the real problem is that no contemporary studio would want to finance or market a film that grapples with the issue of divorce as starkly as these classics did, or with an overriding bias in favor of marriage and fidelity.
It is not so much that divorce is seen as uninteresting; rather, it's no longer even seen. Our collective consciousness has moved so far past the issue that the likelihood of re-examining the value of marriage or the emotional and spiritual cost of divorce seems unlikely. Perhaps it is a too-hot singe to our relativistic and accepting consciences.
We think of love as temporary, virtuous courtship as hayseed, while we consider successful marriages to be exceptions to the rule. Fighting tooth and nail for the promise to stick things out "through thick and thin, richer and poorer, 'till death do us part?" Now we're just being old-fashioned.
But is it really good for us to have reached a point where battling to preserve one's marriage is perceived as pointless? Is that something we, as a culture, wished to embrace, or did it simply sneak up on us while we were distracted by our prosperity and our progress and our playbills? Perhaps it was hard to absorb the morality plays when the players were entertaining us with their multiple real-life marriages—a reminder that Hollywood not only mirrors society, but shapes it as well.
The sad and dangerous truth is that we increasingly equate love with "eros," habitually confusing the complex, multifaceted reality that lies at the very core of our humanity with a physical, all-consuming passion that burns brightly and gloriously and yet quickly fades. If that's all love is, then why should we be expected to remain standing, and faithful, in the burned-out husk of our once-glorious romances?
But love is so much more than just the emotional highs of early days. To cut ourselves off from its fuller, deeper meaning—from the "agape" that time and experience gradually brings out of the good (yet incomplete) "eros"—means that we will persist in a state of romantic adolescence: always desiring and never finding.
This Valentine's Day, let us challenge ourselves to seek out and embrace the more difficult, the less sensational, the gentler, quieter facets of love. It is time to demand more of ourselves than the emulation of the hastily and incompletely drawn picture of passion that Hollywood has been foisting upon us for decades.