Whether as bumbler, romancer or man of action, Cary Grant emerges from The Belcourt's new series as one thing: ideal 

The Perfect Man

The Perfect Man

Who is Cary Grant? Few stars seem so distinctive onscreen, yet have a career marked with such diversity. Grant spans the entire maturation period of American moviemaking, from the 1930s through the '60s. He appeared equally at home as a debonair leading man, a comic bumbler and an action hero. Because of his open and easygoing screen manner, rumors about his private life never seemed to ignite the intense speculation that more reclusive celebrities provoke. And even in today's more accepting environment, our knowledge of Grant's relationship with longtime housemate Randolph Scott doesn't change our perception of his movie personae.  He's still the perfect man, the one we all want to be — including, according to a famous anecdote, Grant himself.

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That's because "Cary Grant" is an invention — a collaboration between a young vaudevillian named Archibald Leach and a studio system bent on shaping him into a star. The Belcourt's seven-film Weekend Classics tribute to Grant, staring this weekend, leans heavily on the late 1930s, when the legend was born. The sublime The Awful Truth (April 10-11) has a screwy energy that, in retrospect, seems equal parts Grant and ace comedy director Leo McCarey. Featuring a go-for-broke performance by Grant as a man trying to undercut his soon-to-be-ex-wife Irene Dunne's plans to find happiness and financial security with an Oklahoma rancher (perennial Grant foil and good sport Ralph Bellamy), it's a real charmer and potentially a revelation for those who know Grant mostly from the last three decades of his career.

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Another sterling find, George Cukor's Holiday (April 17-18), has a similar anarchic spirit. Grant plays a free spirit who wants to enjoy his youth rather than buckle down to the business owned by his fiancee's father; he finds a willing co-conspirator in Katherine Hepburn, a more unconventional member of the family. An undeservedly less well-known concoction from the stars-director-playwright team who struck gold with The Philadelphia Story, this 1938 comedy of class friction and nonconformist daring hasn't dated a day, with the Grant-Hepburn pairing a marvel of fizzy, brainy chemistry.

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With 1939's Only Angels Have Wings (April 24-25), the series moves into the dramatic adventure roles that launched Grant onto Hollywood's A-list and into its biggest blockbusters. Jean Arthur plays a showgirl stranded in a South American port who finds herself intrigued by the rugged, world-weary mail pilot who braves dangerous fog and mountains to deliver his cargo. Here Grant slips as seamlessly into director Howard Hawks' no-fuss macho stoicism — including the immortal scene where he sits down to a newly dead man's steak — as he did into the whinnying silliness of Hawks' Bringing Up Baby.

But it was Grant's collaboration with the most famous director of the mid-20th century, Alfred Hitchcock, that defined his man-of-action image. Start with 1946's Notorious (May 1-2), perhaps the greatest performance of Grant's career. Hitchcock puts his suave hero in the position of pimping out his beloved (Ingrid Bergman) to trap a group of Nazis operating out of Rio de Janeiro. We feel every mixed emotion that bubbles to the surface of Grant's man-of-duty shell, and the more we see and reflect, the greater his moral morass simmers just under the surface of this thriller. Then marvel at the way Hitchcock puts Grant alternately in stasis and in motion in 1959's North by Northwest (May 22-23), a triumph of cinematic alertness bursting through the calcifying market brand of "the Hitchcock movie." Grant serves as Hitchcock's canvas; on his stalwartly upright carriage, the director paints his masterpiece without compromise.

Let's end, though, with comedy, where Grant's career started and where he serves up more pure delight that almost any star of his time. The Belcourt offers The Talk of the Town (1942, May 8-9), a George Stevens screwballer that has escaped convict Grant hiding out in the home of old flame Jean Arthur while a tweedy law professor (Ronald Colman) courts the latter. Grant does his patented take-the-too-serious-down-a-peg act, which makes it all the more wonderful when the roles are reversed in one of the most beloved films on the series slate, 1963's Hitchcock tweak Charade (May 15-16).  Here it's Audrey Hepburn who has to loosen up the willfully enigmatic Grant, while director Stanley Donen gooses both the cleverness and adorableness of his stars to delightful effect. At one point, caught without proof of his identity, Grant has a bright idea: "Would you like to see where I was tattooed?" "Yes!" Audrey replies. "Good, we'll go 'round there later," Grant deadpans. That's Cary Grant — always turning the tables on us, but never leaving us without a feast.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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