In early December 1963, only a couple of weeks after the Kennedy assassination, Stanley Donen's Charade opened at Radio City, Manhattan.
According to Tom Wolfe, at 6am on a freezing December morning the crowds were already lining up down 50th Street and 6th Avenue to make sure they secured a seat. During "the dark days" after JFK's death, Charade offered Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn (the two most attractive people ever to appear on screen?) a Henry Mancini score, Givenchy dresses, suspense, glamour and Paris. In the midst of the dislocation and strangeness produced by JFK's assassination, it must have seemed one of the few signs that life was proceeding as normal; the world may have become strange, but Hollywood's illusions were intact. Yet some months later, Pauline Kael, the best of all American film reviewers, was writing: "I couldn't persuade friends to go to see Charade, which although no more than a charming confectionery trifle was, I think, probably the best American film of last year." For Kael, the film's invisibility was a sign of the times, a refusal of all that was vibrant and vulgar and wonderfully frivolous in American movies.
Somewhere around 1963, just as sexual intercourse began, the classic Hollywood movie was dying. It was a death from a thousand cuts, brought on by the triumph of television, by a self-doubt that preferred the longueurs and disruptions of Last Year at Marienbad to the sheen of a movie like Charade, and by the death or retirement of the classic stars (Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable, Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe). The best directors were turning valedictory; there's a touch of autumn in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance(1962); even when they soldiered on into the swinging world, as Billy Wilder did or Howard Hawks, some saving vitality had departed. In such transitional films as Orson Welles's Touch of Evil(1958) or Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) a dark candour and a fractured storytelling displaced the old consensus of self-censorship and narrative cohesion. I am not suggesting that at this point the world started going to the dogs; Hollywood continued to make excellent films for another 40 years or so. But things were different. In the transition from The Searchers to The Wild Bunch, from The Apartment to M*A*S*H, a charm, an inconsequential grace, an unreality vanished.
Right before Hepburn made Charade, she filmed Paris When It Sizzles with William Holden, a movie that lays bare something of Hollywood's identity crisis. It's a smart, sophisticated film that parodies the script-writing business and in the process dismantles Hepburn's screen persona of the impressionable ingénue. Hepburn looks like she's enjoying the demolition, and there's a kind of fun about the screen parodies, the self-reflexive exposure of the cliches of movie romance. And yet there's something a little desperate about it too, a post-mortem feel provoked by the dismal spectacle of Hepburn's love-interest (and real-life former lover) William Holden all boozed-up and bleary. It's Hollywood responding to the European New Wave and admitting that the game is up. The film guesses that the audience has seen through the movie business, and aims to get there before us in our projected boredom about the conventions – the meet-cutes, the expected unexpected plot twists and the inevitable closing kiss. It tells us that the whole Hollywood shtick is hokum, but then sells it to us anyway. Only Holden's self-loathing feels authentic; it's the film's stab at joyfulness that seems unreal. A pre‑emptive weariness awaits us in the pastiche; the tongue has hollowed out the cheek.
Kennedy's murder signalled a crisis in American life; for some, nothing thereafter made much sense. And in the late 1950s there had already been talk of the perils of conformity, of a national failure of spontaneity, of women incarcerated behind their picket fences, of the death of the individual at the hands of the organisation man. Yet in this dark American moment, this apparently moribund culture produced films such as Rio Bravo, Gigi, Some Like It Hot and North By Northwest, works of a wit, a freshness and an inner joy unrivalled by any other nation on earth. And there, in the moment of classic Hollywood's departure, just as the gilt of the golden age fades, stands Charade.
A limited but defensible definition of film might be that it exists to present and preserve Grant and Hepburn. (As well as Monroe and Gary Cooper and Carole Lombard and James Stewart, and a few dozen others.) These are actors who were merely interesting on stage, or even out of place there; yet on screen they were astonishing.
It is sad that Hepburn and Grant took so long to make a film together, and that they never made another. They would have made a good pairing for a remake of Hitchcock's Notorious, with Grant rumoured to have spied for the British in Hollywood, and with Hepburn genuinely having a father with fascist (indeed Nazi) connections. Yet at least we have Charade, a movie that unifies two highly compatible acting styles. On the one hand there is Grant's ironic presence, performing himself and somehow standing aloof from that performance. Then there is Hepburn's heartfelt earnestness combined with her genius as a comedian, present in her ability to transform in an instant seriousness into silliness. Donen's film manifests the same doubleness – it's a screwball suspense movie, a comedy laced with violence, channelling the droll anxieties of Hitchcock at his lightest. In its plots and counterplots, its version of an endlessly various Grant (his identity changes four times), Donen taps into the latent fear in Grant's urbane demeanour – the potential killer of Hitchcock's Suspicion lurks behind his persona's unruffled calm. As such, Charade plays on the spy film's interest in the notion of trust as the basis of love – in a world of espionage, of deceits and dishonour among thieves. With two actors whose whole image was nourished by the contrivance of an artful naturalness, the film wants to ask: how can we tell when someone is lying to us? How do we know who is merely an actor?
As Paris When It Sizzles explicitly informs us, Hepburn's persona was often that of Frankenstein's creature, an artless, blank, dreamy Undine of a girl turned into something extraordinary by an older man. One of the premises of her films, amazingly enough, was that Hepburn was a plain Jane, a kid with a funny face, waiting for the moment when the camera (controlled, of course, by a man) would reveal her womanly beauty. So it is with Eliza Doolittle, with Sabrina, with Jo Stockton in Funny Face. Elsewhere she was sometimes accorded the right to remake herself: a virginal music-student inventing a counter-life as a philandering femme fatale in Billy Wilder's Love in the Afternoon (1957); barefoot waif Lula-Mae Barnes metamorphosing into a metropolitan Huckleberry-sophisticate in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961); or collaborating on the script of her creation in Paris When It Sizzles. Charade was significant in allowing Hepburn to side-step such processes, while keeping her in the genre of romantic comedy where she was always at her best. She is grown-up here in ways not often allowed her in a comedy – cut loose for once from an on-screen father, independent, mature, in possession of herself. Embarrassed by the 25-year age difference between him and his co‑star, Grant persuaded scriptwriter Peter Stone to have Hepburn make all the romantic running. The result is a new sense of agency in her, and, for once, the absence of worry over the uncomfortable discrepancy between elfin Hepburn and her variously superannuated lovers (like Bogart, Gary Cooper or Fred Astaire).
After Charade, Grant had only two more films in him; he retired in 1966. Hepburn played on through the 60s, and the films she went on to make – How to Steal a Million (1966), Two for the Road, for instance, and Wait Until Dark (both 1967) – are good; yet undoubtedly some glory has departed. No one ever wanted to live inside the downbeat "realism" of Two for the Road. Yet perhaps the world is better off without the sugared artifice of classic Hollywood? More than with any other actors, when watching Grant's and Hepburn's movies it proves hard to escape the ache of film – that nostalgic longing that invites us to live in that celluloid world, while knowing we cannot. Yet for all of its 113 minutes, Charade presents us with a temporary entry into that brighter place, into the possibility of adventure, the vicarious possession of beauty. Acted by two Europeans in a mythic, dangerous, beguiling Paris, it remains a quintessential Hollywood film: so soon after the half-centenary of Oswald's fatal gunshots, its anniversary serves to remind us of the brief, lost wonder of a specifically American beauty.
• A 50th anniversary edition of Charade is out on DVD.
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