Cary Grant in “Affair to Remember”: A Method Performance

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This is a re-post of something I wrote a while back. It has to do with the history of acting, of the method acting style, of Stanislavsky’s teachings, and how I think Grant fits into that continuum. It’s very in-depth.

One of the recognizable elements of the “Method” (popularized and institutionalized in America by Lee Strasberg – and embodied by actors such as Marlon Brando, James Dean, Robert De Niro) is that the actor is not just projecting emotions. He doesn’t wear a mask, a “sad” mask, a “happy” mask, etc. The “Method” actor seems to be responding to internal stimuli, stuff that is unpredictable (but not unpredictable just for the sake of unpredictability) – and there is more going on within the actor than just what the lines say.

To give an obvious example:

The line may say, “God, I feel like crying.” But because of something that happens within the actor, while saying the line, the actor bursts into hysterical laughter.

I might say this: this is closer to how people behave in real life. We aren’t programmed, emotionally. You can have a fight with someone and not scream your head off through the whole thing. You might be kneeling at the coffin of a dearly beloved, and suddenly begin to laugh. Or suddenly start to rip up the flowers.

The Method was not “invented” by America. It’s not like: Oh, actors were ONE way before the 1950s, and ANOTHER way after. That’s missing the point.

Stanislavsky, the great Russian director, had realized, in observing actors – that some of them were better than others at seeming like they were having real experiences on stage. (This goes back to Hamlet’s advice to the players. “What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba, That he should weep for her?” Hamlet here is pondering the essential mystery of acting. It is a complete fiction – and yet – actors since theatre has began have been crying real tears on stage, etc. One of the best definitions for acting I have ever heard is: “to come to life truthfully under imaginary circumstances”. I think “truthfully” may be the key there.) Stanislavsky wanted to come up with a “system” that would help perhaps lesser actors to achieve what others did naturally, or with greater ease.

Also: If you’ll notice, the best actors are the ones who don’t know how to describe what it is that they do.

Spencer Tracy’s advice to other actors? “Learn your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.”

Robert DeNiro is incredibly inarticulate when it comes to the craft of acting. “Oh… you know … I do my homework … I want to be truthful …” etc.

Meryl Streep never talks about “how”. The closest I’ve ever heard her come to describing how she does what she does is when she did a seminar at my school and said, “Acting, for me, is like going to church. When I’m praying at church, it’s a private thing – I could never describe to you how I pray, or why I pray. I just do. And acting’s the same way.” Also implicit in that statement is the sacredness of it for her.

This has probably been the case with actors since the dawn of time. The ones who were the greats – Garrick, Sarah Siddons, Eleanora Duse, etc. – are the ones who had genius. Who could “weep for” Hecuba naturally, because their natural gifts always led them in the right direction. Hence: genius.

Stanislavsky began to experiment, at the Moscow Art Theatre, with training actors in a “system”. A system designed to help actors relax, concentrate, and get to emotional truth. And not just once – it’s easy to create a miracle of truth ONCE! That’s why so many film stars fail miserably when they try to do Broadway. They are not used to re-creating. In the days of Stanislavsky, the main work an actor would get would be on stage, where you would be required to cry real tears for Hecuba night after night after night. What does one do when the well runs dry?

Stanislavsky’s “system” (which is known, in America, as “the Method”) was an answer to that problem. Or – ONE answer. Not THE answer.

There are funny stories from Chekhov about how Stanislavsky, when directing his plays, “ruined” them, made them all into tragedies, etc. This is all probably true.

But Stanislavsky’s genius was: in addressing, for the first time really, the “problem” of the actor. The problem of the actor in the beginning stages of rehearsal – when you are trying to awaken your imagination, and dream yourself into the role. A genius like Marlon Brando, by all accounts, never needed any direction. His natural instincts were usually spot on (when he was cast well, I mean.) Elia Kazan talks about rehearsing with Brando for Streetcar Named Desire – and he described it as an ever-expanding process of just getting the hell out of the WAY.

Stella Adler, who had Marlon in her acting class, said, “Sending Marlon Brando to acting class was like sending a tiger to jungle school.”

But most actors don’t have the natural gut-level genius of a Brando, or a Duse. They need help, they need training, they need “a way in”. Stanislavsky was the first to devote his life to addressing this issue.

Stanislavsky also addressed the problem of what you do when you’re in a long long run of a show. How do you keep it fresh? How do you make every night feel like it’s the first time? There’s a craft to it. If you leave it up to magic (and your name isn’t Eleanora Duse) – then you’re gonna be in trouble. You need to get yourself some CRAFT.

The “Method” is a version of Stanislavsky’s “system”. It’s what I’m trained in. I devoted myself to the whole thing long ago, because my idols (James Dean, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino) were all “Method” actors. I saw Dog Day Afternoon when I was 11, and thought, “I need to learn how to do what he does.”

I mean, in general – the “Method” so overhauled what people expected of actors that it’s hard to remember how revolutionary it was at the time. It raised the bar. And pretty much … it’s the style of acting which everyone does now. When you see old movies, and certain performances seem stage-y, or “dated” – that’s really what you’re seeing. That the styles have changed.

Now – there are those actors who didn’t “need no Method” – and who actually scorned it – but these people, in general, are those whom I would call geniuses. Their acting has nothing to do with a specific time and place – their work would seem timely and fresh no matter WHEN it is seen.

James Cagney. Spencer Tracy. Gents like that. Their talent was so fluid, so flexible, so real – their imaginations were so engaged – they had no trouble relaxing – or Listening (the most important thing an actor can do.) You watch pretty much anything Spencer Tracy does – and one of my impressions of it is: you almost cannot imagine that the words he is saying were actually ever on a printed page. They seem improvisational. As though he is making them up as he goes along. I love him.

But all the greats – all the ones who STILL seem great today – and whose acting “style” has weathered the test of time – are ones who have that capability. Naturally.

It’s good to have training as an actor. On-the-job training is the best. You have to have a flexible voice. You have to be able to relax your body, and relax your throat – so your voice can do whatever you want it to. You have to be able to concentrate in the middle of chaos – and sometimes that takes training. But training to become a genius like Spencer Tracy? No. Not possible. All you can do with someone like Tracy is WATCH him and try to LEARN from watching.

Actors like Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, James Cagney, Deborah Kerr – they stand out in the films they are in. They seem to be emissaries from REALITY, as opposed to actors playing parts. Their acting transcends “style”. They could fit in today. Their work isn’t dated. It’s in a continuum. But then – there are plenty of those old-school actors whose work just doesn’t withstand the test of time.

Now. Onto Cary Grant.

I watched Affair to Remember last night, yes, to have a nice big cry. But also – cause I wanted to study him. Watch him like a hawk. Deborah Kerr is so marvelous, so funny, so beautiful – that it is very easy for me to only watch her face during their scenes. So I watched him instead.

(This kind of behavior is extremely fun for me. I love good actors. Gee, can you tell?)

All of this “Method” preface was just to say that one of the things that Cary Grant does – and what he does so well – almost better than anybody else – is listen. He is always listening. Bad actors do not listen. Bad actors can be bad actors in MANY different ways – but one thing they all have in common is that they DO. NOT. LISTEN. They are consumed with self, they are trying to come off a certain way, they are going for an effect, they are thinking about their own experience, and not listening to the other actor. Listening is the most important thing.

Marlon Brando loved going to the movies, he loved being entertained, but he said he only “studied” 2 other actors: Spencer Tracy and Cary Grant. It’s that LISTENING thing that these two actors have at an unbelievably real level. They fake nothing. They don’t ‘act like’ they’re listening. They really are. This is why they seem so spontaneous – so fresh – because they are willing to be surprised by the other actor. You never know what will happen in real life. Acting should be that way too. Or at least it should seem that way to us, the audience.

Cary Grant is, to my taste, one of the best examples of this.

Because what happens is – is if you are really listening to the other person in the scene with you – then they won’t always say things the way you might expect them to say it – and you’ll have to react. But you’ll only be able to react if you notice them in the first place.

Humphrey Bogart. To me, he is most interesting when he’s listening to someone else talk. Watch his face. Watch him take the other person in, have internal responses to things – you can see all the stuff he isn’t saying. His face can be READ. We SEE his thoughts, his feelings, his responses … But this is only because he’s listening.

The scenes in Affair to Remember are such a TREAT because the two of them are such good listeners. It’s hard to even know who to look at – you could watch each scene twice – just to make sure you catch all the little moments.

This is not my favorite film, by the way – I think it makes some huge missteps – but I’m talking about the deliciousness of the acting of the leads.

The film addresses that thing that happens between two people who fall in love in that particular way: you can read each other’s thoughts. You can hear the unspoken. You know what the other person is thinking … Language becomes extraneous.

I love those moments in the film. Deborah Kerr will be talking on about her life to him, then turn to him and say, “Hm?” Grant will say, “What?” Kerr will say, “Did you say something?” Grant says, “I didn’t say anything.” A smile crosses Kerr’s face and she’ll say, “Yes you did.”

Grant is NEVER just playing the surface of the scene. There’s always more going on. You know? He’s always holding back, or he’s thinking something he’s afraid to say, or he’s not sure how to find the words … And the thing is – it all looks kind of improvisational. Like he didn’t plan out his responses beforehand.

I’ve worked with very very “heady” actors. That’s what I call them. No matter WHAT I do – their response will not vary. They have planned the whole scene out in their head beforehand. Sometimes it’s fun to mess with that, especially if I’m annoyed. I’ll change blocking. Just to mess up their little program in their head. I will randomly burst into laughter whereas the day before I hadn’t laughed – just to see if they respond. It’s hostile, but whatever. Can’t stand working with headcases.

There is nothing better than acting with someone who is also listening to you – and who is also responding to internal cues – and so that means you do not know what they will do next. You start to feel like it’s not acting – you are actually ALIVE. The two of you are “coming to life truthfully under imaginary circumstances”. [See the example in one of the posts below about Jimmy Stewart and Grant in that one scene from Philadelphia Story - that's what I'm talking about. A lesser actor would have been thrown by Grant's improvisation, would have broken out of the scene, said, "Are you going to do that?" or whatever. Stewart just went with it.]

Here are a couple of Cary Grant’s moments in Affair to Remember I will analyze:

The moments:

1. One of their last nights on the boat, when he comes to her room, saying they need to talk because “we have created quite a problem here”

2. When he returns to his grandmother’s villa, after she has died, and walks through the empty living room

3. The last scene – when he realizes that she is crippled

Here we go.

1. One of their last nights on the boat, when he comes to her room, saying they need to talk because “we have created quite a problem here”

Here’s the set-up: The two of them spent a 5-hour lay-over going to visit Nicky’s (Cary Grant’s character) grandmother in her idyllic little villa. They have a magical afternoon. They realize (with no words passing between them) that they are in love, and that they are engaged to the wrong people. [It's a very very cheesy scene - especially the praying in the private chapel - but for whatever reason - it ends up working - it's a sweet scene.] They return to the ship. She avoids him. He tracks her down, and finds her crying in her room. They have a tortured conversation. What should they do? She says to him, “There are rough seas ahead of us.” He says “I know. We changed course today, didn’t we?” She asks for time to think about what they should do. A couple days go by, and they run into each other – but there’s no more of that loving banter, nothing.

One night, it’s raining. She sits in her cabin, and she is obviously distraught, just thinking over what she should do. A knock on the door. She answers, and it’s him. She begs him to leave her alone, because to be seen together would be “disastrous”.

He says, “I know, but we have created a problem here!”

She begs for a bit more time. She says she can think better while he’s not around. She’s in a dressing gown, and is holding him off at the door. He’s leaning in the door.

She says something like, “So please. Go away for now. You can sit and think in your cabin – and I will sit and think in mine … and we will think this through separately ” — as she says this, he finally starts to back away, nodding, and right before she shuts the door on him, she can’t help but add, in a forceful yet yearning tone, “while we are missing each other.”

She must add that. She must let him know that she loves him and misses him.

And his response to that – is so … spontaneous and so real that I re-wound it 3 times the last time I saw it. I feel like I have lived through that exact same moment with a guy or two in my life.

Anyway, you think at first that he is just going to accept her command and go away. He is about to. But then when she adds the “while we are missing each other” line – there is a brief pause – and he then comes back, leans his head in, and says with such simplicity, “Oh, that was very sweet.” A brief pause. “What you just said.”

Then he kisses her fingers, resting on the door jamb, and he’s gone.

He seems so vulnerable in that moment, suddenly. Almost like a little boy. He is so happy that she misses him, too. But it’s the way he expresses it … how he puts his head back in the door, and the “oh that was so sweet” seems to be improvisational. It seems like he just thought it up. And the brief pause, before he explains further, “What you just said.”

The gesture, the tone, his hesitation, the entire moment – has the breath of emotional reality. It’s not a “played” moment. It is a moment that is actually happening.

2. When he returns to his grandmother’s villa, after she has died, and walks through the empty living room

Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr both realized their growing feelings in this villa. The grandmother played piano with her wrinkled arthritic fingers, they had tea, they prayed in the chapel – something beautiful transpired. A dawning realization of the right-ness of the two of them together, as a couple.

Deborah Kerr fails to meet him on the day they had planned at the top of the Empire State Building. Cary Grant thinks that she has blown him off. He becomes bitter.

Eventually, there is a scene where he returns to the grandmother’s villa – the grandmother is now dead.

All the scene consists of is this:

Cary Grant walks into the villa. He looks around. He stands by the piano, and puts his hand on the piano. An echo of the grandmother playing fills his mind. Then he walks over to the two chairs by the tea-table. He stands there. He looks around. Then he leaves.

It’s an extended scene. No words. No other people. Just Cary Grant wandering around. It’s all one take, too. No close-ups. Watch that scene. There are no close-ups to help him out, no close-ups to tell us HERE IS WHAT HE IS FEELING. He expresses the entire thing in his body, his gestures, and his face which tells us everything. Now that’s an actor who was trained on the stage. Many actors today rely on close-ups to do their work for them (no shame in that – it’s appropriate for the medium) – and when they come to do Broadway or whatever, they just cannot project themselves past the first 5 rows. They NEED the camera to help them act. Cary Grant was truly a great film star – but he also was a good actor, who could do it with or without the camera. The long one-take no-close-up scene in Affair to Remember is a perfect example of that.

And what he does with this simple scene is so extraordinary. It seems so easy. It’s as though we’re peeking in through a window at him.

He stands at the piano. He puts his hand on the piano. You can hear the music start. He stands there for what feels like forever. There is no movement. All we see is Cary Grant – thinking, feeling things, remembering … but it’s all subtle. He’s not weeping, or wailing. He is just standing there. But you pretty much get the entire story of his life from his stance and the expressions crossing over his face. He doesn’t need a close-up.

Then – he walks over to the tea table – where his grandmother and Deborah Kerr had sat, having tea.

The following moments are so beautifully done, so simple, so “Method”-y – and he makes it look so easy that I didn’t even notice it at first:

The 2 chairs are big Victorian-ish chairs with padded backs. Cary Grant goes to one of the chairs, leans on it, and places his hand on the fabric of the padding. Rests his hand there. As though he is feeling for a heartbeat or a pulse. That’s what it emotes to me … the grandmother sat there … we remember that from the first scene – so the way he touches the padding … says everything. He stands there for a while. Then he moves to the other chair. The chair where Deborah Kerr sat. And he does the same thing. Rests his hand on the padding-fabric. It’s almost like you can feel the painful beats of his own heart – because he misses the two women who sat in those chairs so desperately.

It doesn’t appear that Cary Grant is actually DOING anything – but oh, he is.

He is feeling for these two women - he is trying to pick up some of their body warmth – trying to feel his way into the past. But he can’t. They’re both gone.

Objects are very important in Method training. An object can trigger a whole emotional response. Lee Strasberg said, “There are times when you look at your shoes and you see your whole life.” That’s what I’m talking about here.

That’s what Cary Grant is doing with those chairs.

It’s heart-achingly beautiful. And simple. That’s the best thing about it. Its simplicity.

3. The last scene – when he realizes that she is crippled

He comes to her apartment. She is lying on the couch. He doesn’t know that she has lost the use of her legs. He is hard on her, he wants to know why she didn’t “keep their appointment”. He’s angry. She doesn’t ever let on that she can’t walk.

There is a moment, right as he is about to leave, when he realizes what is going on. A woman came into the gallery that was showing his paintings and wanted to buy the painting he had done of Deborah Kerr and his grandmother. Cary Grant says something to Deborah Kerr like, “She loved the painting – but she didn’t have any money apparently – and not only that – but …” He’s about to say “she was in a wheelchair” – and in that second, he realizes. He realizes.

But watch his moment of realization. How subtle it is. It’s not a big moment, a big “a-HA” moment, or a teary-eyed moment where he TELEGRAPHS to us his inner feelings. No. All it is is a slight adjustment in his eyes. It’s so slight. But it’s so apprarent. He realizes. You can see it in his eyes.

She keeps talking, he kind of bullshits back – but all the while, he is putting his coat and hat down, and hurrying over to the bedroom door, flinging it open – and there is what he knew he would find: The painting he had done of her. By seeing that painting, he realizes she’s a gimp now.

The music of course swells to a climax, but the overdramatic soundtrack is unnecessary (and annoying) because the entire MOMENT is all there on Cary Grant’s face where 5,000 things happen at once.

He’s stunned. There it is. His painting. He stops. Stands. He sees it.

In the next second, he is overcome. In a very Cary Grant way. His posture changes, straightens a bit, and he closes his eyes – for a deep long pained moment. He is getting himself together to go back to her. He is so so sad. But it’s that moment of closing his eyes … The way he closes his eyes, ever so briefly, makes you feel the sword in his heart. It’s not overdone or lingered over. It looks like real life.

I’ve said it before in my posts on acting: A general rule for actors is:

If YOU cry, more often than not the audience WON’T. If you do your damndest NOT to cry, if you work to hold BACK the tears, then you’ll have to mop the audience up off the aisles.

Cary Grant closes his eyes. He is holding back his sadness for her. No tears. And yet there I was, with tears streaming down my face, even though I’ve seen the thing 15 times.

When he goes back to her side, his entire face is different. Open. Vulnerable. Concerned. Caring. Confused. In love with her. “Why? Why didn’t you tell me?”

That whole sequence of moments: the coldness, the relentlessness, the shocked realization at the doorway, the stunned moment when he sees the painting, the pained closing of the eyes – is a masterful bit of acting. Just masterful.

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12 Responses to Cary Grant in “Affair to Remember”: A Method Performance

  1. Tainted Bill says:

    Archie Leach, the famous barrister? (just to see if anyone gets it)

    • Lucy AmIs says:

      ..Of course I get the barrister joke! ;-) Those Bristolians stick together!

      Love this article and all the Cary pieces you do Sheila. Have you written anything on His Girl Friday or Arsenic and Old Lace? I’ve always loved the former, but find myself coming round more and more to Arsenic and Old Lace, despite the master’s own doubts and the relative lack of subtlety in his performance compared much else he did.

      Thanks for this and also the genius breakdown of that Awful Truth pratfall – I know it SO well I was killing myself laughing just reading your observations. I loved the way you highlight the importance of the juxtaposition with the Octogenarian, and Jerry’s reactions to him! Genius

  2. red says:

    hahaha I love that inside joke.

  3. Bev says:

    I absolutely LOVED reading your explanation of The Method, which I’ve never really heard explained before. Affair to Remember is a favorite of mine and I was in tears when I started reading your #3 because I can picture every eyeblink of it. He really was something, wasn’t he.

  4. red says:

    Bev – I am so glad you got something out of my blabbering about the Method. There’s so much misunderstanding about what it is – it’s very hard to explain!! But people have been ‘acting’ like that, probably, since the Greeks. We even have audience reactions to some of the actors in ancient Greece – so obviously actors since the dawn of time have been trying to figure out how to get the story across.

    And yes – that last scene of Affair to Remember – so so so good. They’re both so good … but it’s that one little moment when he closes his eyes when he sees the painting – it just GETS ME!!

  5. Ken says:

    He used to box for Oxford, you know…

  6. Tony Curtis Discusses Cary Grant

    Well, Sheila O’Malley is having a field day celebrating the birthday of Cary Grant, someone about whom she knows a thing or two…million. Seeing her Grant Bonanza (there are so many posts…just go to her homepage and scroll down) made me recall a s…

  7. megan says:

    Funny that this is an essay about Grant’s Method Acting, as he absolutely despised the movement of newer actors in movies embodying the style. It’s probably because, like geniuses and naturals, the whole idea of persons ‘practicing’ steps to do what comes automatic is annoying or disgusting. They get awards for being trained poodles whilst you’ve been a cunning fox from birth.

  8. sheila says:

    Disgusting? Wow, a little hostile there!

    The point of this article was to look at him through another angle, at how he approached the emotional content of these particular scenes and how I saw it fitting into a continuum of all great acting through history. “How” he did it is irrelevant. I just find it captivating how connected he was to the sensations of every given moment – the way he strokes the back of the chair, remembering who was sitting there, etc. Beautiful moment!

  9. Jennie says:

    Sheila,
    I love your website and your writing….was watching this movie with my 24 yr old daughter last night (me for the Nth time and her for the first) and she had to leave midway through – just as they got off the boat. I tried to explain about the characters and the acting and the emotion and ended up with chills on my arms, but she was clueless. I hope she can read your essay and understand a little better about what she was seeing on the screen. They were both actors in the best sense of the word and a joy to watch together…

  10. sheila says:

    Jennie – sometimes we need to come to these things on our own, as painful as it is for those of us who so WANT other people to love this stuff!

    I so feel your pain!!

    I love the dynamic between Kerr and Grant – so human, so funny, so alive.

  11. Rose says:

    I totally agree with #3, the moment of realization and yes, I have rewound it countless times just to see how his eyes reflect it. Cary Grant really was a great actor, but got so praised for his looks and style (which incidently are unbelievable) that somehow the acting talent was never appreciated as much as it should. I have seen most of his movies by now, but in every movie he comes up with something extra, no matter how bad/average the movie is (hot saturday, for instance, that scene when Ruth comes to his house and sits exhausted on the steps!)
    I really love your essays, so insightful and most of the times you say just the thing, that I did not even realize I had noticed until you point it out. Thank you so much.

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