I’ve changed my name. Why? Because C.K. Dexter Haven was one of Cary Grant’s greatest characters. You could say his performance was…Yar. Yar is defined in The Philadelphia Story as something---in the movie, a boat—that's easy to handle and moves along smoothly. The same could be used to describe Cary Grant’s performance in the film.
1940—there’s that year again-- was stellar for Cary Grant. Grant starred in My Favorite Wife, His Girl Friday, and The Philadelphia Story. When approached for the role, Grant would demand-- and get-- top billing. Plus a $100,000 salary, which he donated to British War Relief. And while fellow cast members Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart, and Ruth Hussey all received Oscar nominations, the former Archibald Leach would get snubbed come Oscar time. Knowing this as I became enamored with the film, I found myself concentrating on Grant’s understated performance as C.K. Dexter Haven. His was a thankless role, as he’s sandwiched between Hepburn’s persona-defining character, Tracy, and Stewart’s funny, Oscar-winning role as writer Macaulay “Mike” Connor. Grant must achieve a fine balance. He must be likable enough for the audience to want Hepburn to go back to him, but at the same time display some flaws and be annoying enough for Hepburn to wage a war of words with him for most of the film. These thankless, unheralded performances are the types of roles I’ve always liked. In fact, other leading men like Glenn Ford and Dana Andrews made entire careers out of solid, dependable, yet seemingly unnoticed performances.
About C.K. Dexter Haven: He’s a recovering boozer, and he and Tracy split two years before (memorably depicted in the film’s immortal opening sequence). Now that Tracy is about to marry self-made schlub George Kittredge (John Howard), Dexter comes barging back into her life and brings two reporters from Spy magazine (is that where that 1990s rag got its name?) to cover her impending wedding. C.K., however, would appear to be blackmailing his ex-wife (whom he calls “Red”) by forcing her to allow the unsavory Spy to cover her wedding or else Dexter will reveal the “dirt” he has on Tracy.
I was so impressed with Grant’s performance. It’s something I can’t quite explain. Grant’s subdued brilliance in TPS demonstrates an onscreen confidence that I hadn’t seen from him before. Sure, there were similarities with Grant characters like Walter Burns in His Girl Friday, but as C.K. Dexter Haven there’s little of that other character's arrogance. Dexter sometimes comes off as cynical, but he’s wiser now that he’s “dried out.” He knows exactly how to push Tracy’s buttons. His role here was not showy like co-star Stewart’s. Grant never got credit for being a great actor, but as Dexter, he reveals a duality of character, which Grant would bring to fruition in 1946’s Notorious. And while Grant doesn't reach the level of darkness as he does in the Hitchcock film, Dexter has his demons; he’s been a drunk and he lost the woman he loved, and to get her back, he must deal with two rivals: Tracy’s fiancé, George, and even the man Dexter himself brought into this affair, Macaulay Connor. Grant was emerging as a classic leading man and I find his performance to be real, with a subtle, biting wit that makes this and many other Cary Grant performances mesmerizing. It does wonders in his rapport with Katharine Hepburn. Grant displays a confidence that is downright appealing. He’s the kind of character I’d like to emulate! In the classic drunk scene with Stewart, Grant underplays and makes Stewart look even better. The scene’s humor succeeds because of Grant’s performance as it does with Stewart’s. There’s an awkwardness in Dexter’s reactions to the pixilated Macaulay and the improvisation by the two actors only adds to the scene’s charm.
1940 was a watershed year for Grant, he appeared in four films altogether, three of them classics, and solidified the Cary Grant Persona. In discussing his role in The Philadelphia Story, I realized that I could have been talking about almost any Cary Grant performance. He was that good. So was he just playing himself in all those films? There's that conundrum: if acting is defined as becoming the role one is playing, and-- knowingly or not-- providing elements of one’s own personality into a role, and a Movie Star is defined as “merely” injecting the various nuances of an established persona, then when does an actor “end” and a movie star begin? I really don’t care. Whatever one wants to call him, Cary Grant was yar in The Philadelphia Story.