From "The Man from Dream City"
Many men must have wanted to be Clark Gable and look straight at a woman with a faint smirk and lifted, questioning eyebrows. What man doesn't — at some level — want to feel supremely confident and earthy and irresistible? But a few steps up the dreamy social ladder there's the more subtle fantasy of worldly grace — of being so gallant and gentlemanly and charming that every woman longs to be your date. And at that deluxe level men want to be Cary Grant. Men as far apart as John F. Kennedy and Lucky Luciano thought that he should star in their life story. Who but Cary Grant could be a fantasy self-image for a President and a gangster chief? Who else could demonstrate that sophistication didn't have to be a sign of weakness — that it could be the polished, fun-loving style of those who were basically tough? Cary Grant has said that even he wanted to be Cary Grant.
And for women, if the roof leaks, or the car stalls, or you don't know how to get the super to keep his paws off you, you may long for a Clark Gable to take charge, but when you think of going out, Cary Grant is your dream date — not sexless but sex with civilized grace, sex with mystery. He's the man of the big city, triumphantly suntanned. Sitting out there in Los Angeles, the expatriate New York writers projected onto him their fantasies of Eastern connoisseurship and suavity. How could the heroine ever consider marrying a rich rube from Oklahoma and leaving Cary Grant and the night spots? Los Angeles itself has never recovered from the inferiority complex that its movies nourished, and every moviegoing kid in America felt that the people in New York were smarter, livelier, and better-looking than anyone in his home town. The audience didn't become hostile; it took the contempt as earned. There were no Cary Grants in the sticks. He and his counterparts were to be found only in the imaginary cities of the movies. When you look at him, you take for granted expensive tailors, international travel, and the best that life has to offer. Women see a man they could have fun with. Clark Gable is an intensely realistic sexual presence; you don't fool around with Gable. But with Grant there are no pressures, no demands; he's the sky that women aspire to. When he and a woman are together, they can laugh at each other and at themselves. He's a slapstick Prince Charming.
Mae West's raucous invitation to him — "Why don't you come up sometime and see me?" — was echoed thirty years later by Audrey Hepburn in Charade: "Won't you come in for a minute? I don't bite, you know, unless it's called for." And then, purringly, "Do you know what's wrong with you? Nothing." That might be a summary of Cary Grant, the finest romantic comedian of his era: there's nothing the matter with him. Many of the male actors who entered movies when sound came in showed remarkable powers of endurance — James Cagney, Bing Crosby, Charles Boyer, Fred Astaire — but they didn't remain heroes. Spencer Tracy didn't, either; he became paternal and judicious. Henry Fonda and James Stewart turned into folksy elder statesmen, sagacious but desexed. Cary Grant has had the longest romantic reign in the short history of movies. He might be cast as an arrogant rich boy, an unscrupulous cynic, or a selfish diplomat, but there was nothing sullen or self-centered in his acting. Grant never got star-stuck on himself; he never seemed to be saying, Look at me. The most obvious characteristic of his acting is the absence of narcissism — the outgoingness to the audience.
From "Fear of Movies"
Are people becoming afraid of American movies? When acquaintances ask me what they should see and I say The Last Waltz or Convoy or Eyes of Laura Mars, I can see the recoil. It's the same look of distrust I encountered when I suggested Carrie or The Fury or Jaws or Taxi Driver or the two Godfather pictures before that. They immediately start talking about how they "don't like" violence. But as they talk you can see that it's more than violence they fear. They indicate that they've been assaulted by too many schlocky films — some of them highly touted, like The Missouri Breaks. They're tired of movies that reduce people to nothingness, they say — movies that are all car crashes and killings and perversity. They don't see why they should subject themselves to experiences that will tie up their guts or give them nightmares. And if that means that they lose out on a Taxi Driver or a Carrie, well, that's not important to them. The solid core of young moviegoers may experience a sense of danger as part of the attraction of movies; they may hope for new sensations and want to be swept up, overpowered. But these other, "more discriminating" movie goers don't want that sense of danger. They want to remain in control of their feelings, so they've been going to the movies that allow them a distance — European films such as Cat and Mouse, novelties like Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, prefab American films, such as Heaven Can Wait, or American films with an overlay of European refinement, like the hollowly objective Pretty Baby, which was made acceptable by reviewers' assurances that the forbidden subject is handled with good taste, or the entombed Interiors.
If educated Americans are rocking on their heels — if they're so punchy that they feel the need to protect themselves — one can't exactly blame them for it. But one can try to scrape off the cultural patina that, with the aid of the press and TV, is forming over this timidity. Reviewers and commentators don't have to be crooked or duplicitous to praise dull, stumpy movies and disapprove of exciting ones. What's more natural than that they would share the fears of their readers and viewers, take it as a cultural duty to warn them off intense movies, and equate intense with dirty, cheap, adolescent? Discriminating moviegoers want the placidity of nice art — of movies tamed so that they are no more arousing than what used to be called polite theatre. So we've been getting a new cultural puritanism — people go to the innocuous hoping for the charming, or they settle for imported sobriety, and the press is full of snide references to Coppola's huge film in progress, and a new film by Peckinpah is greeted with derision, as if it went without saying that Bloody Sam couldn't do anything but blow up bodies in slow motion, and with the most squalid commercial intentions.
Excerpts from The Age of Movies: Selected Writings on Pauline Kael (The Library of America, 2011). Used with permission.