Queer eye for the straight guy

Cary Grant was without question one of the Hollywood greats in an era when Hollywood really was grea

Cole Porter always assured his friends that he would consent to a Hollywood biopic only if it stayed true to life. But in Night and Day, the diminutive, gay and neurotic composer is played by Cary Grant as a tall, effortlessly sophisticated, irresistibly charming ladykiller. Porter had sold out, but his defence was as unanswerable as a line from one of his songs: "Would you say no to Cary Grant?"

Few could resist Grant: the camera loved him, as did fellow professionals and audiences. But in the 70 or so years since he became a star, Grant has been a curiously guilty pleasure for many. The mention of his name prompts delight, but also a series of repeated questions. Could he really act, or did he just play himself? Wasn't there a "dark side" to him? Wasn't he gay?

The Academy never chose Grant as its annual industry figurehead. It nominated him only twice, and then for roles that departed markedly from his usual screen persona. Finally, in 1970, when he had retired from the screen to work for Faberge, Grant was given a special award for "sheer brilliance all round". But its belatedness showed how difficult the movie community had found it to acknowledge his phenomenal power.

This year's centenary is an occasion for all to acknowledge his greatness, and also to realise that those "doubts" we often feel were carefully placed within his oeuvre as a cunning means of ensuring our perpetual fascination.

Grant glides across the screen with the tranquil beauty of a swan, but a furious energy exists just below the waterline. If he was a master of dark arts, they were the secret, subliminal work of minimalist camera acting by which the reassuring star persona is imperceptibly morphed into an individual and credible personality.

Grant does not declare his character. He offers clues to it in the way his eyes dart from side to side, in a smile that flickers in the corners of his face. Fingertips that flick at each other, or fiddle with a shirt-cuff, hint at an inner neurosis or narcissism.

As well as the humour, which delighted his friends, and the reserve, which ultimately kept them at a distance, Grant's acting shows the attention to detail that was alternately the wonder and the despair of his tailors. Every gesture is meaningful; none is redundant, self-serving or grandiose. Much of his watchability comes from this: whatever the role, Grant's acting remains impeccably courteous, and its ethics insistently humane, building a reciprocal relationship with the viewer in which every moment of attention is rewarded.

People say that Grant was "too perfect" physically, that his looks as well as his persona were too good to be true. But a part of the fascination he exerts, and also maybe a reason for the suspicion that he was hiding something, lies in tiny "imperfections" that even Hollywood could not quite conceal. He was naturally left-handed, but convention insisted that a leading man be right-handed. Thus, on screen, Grant would sign a letter or open a car door with his right hand, but used his left instinctively when quick movement - or, just occasionally, a punch - was called for. His sloping shoulders (and the "thick neck" unkindly noted in the report on his first screen test) were disguised by built-up jackets (and even, in Night and Day, a built-up woollen cardigan), but this, like the left-handedness, becomes visible at times of stress or rapid movement.

Grant's voice also makes an unmistakable whole from ill-assorted parts. The intonation is a relatively steady Anglo-Californian, but the vowels and consonants are bewilderingly varied - from the clipped stage-Cockney of his training in music hall to the drawl of the Long Island playboys with whom he socialised after his first successes on the New York stage. As Jack Lemmon splutters in Some Like it Hot: "Nobody talks like that!"

The feature-length documentary released with a new collection of Grant films on DVD takes on directly the rumours that the actor's real secret was homosexuality. His wife says that she never thought he might be gay "because we were too busy fucking". Without doubt the vast majority, and probably all, of Grant's lovers were women, but it is not so easy to deny the possibility of experiment by a man of restless sexuality living in a permissive community, a man who was open-minded enough to champion publicly the benefits of his LSD-assisted psychoanalysis.

The secret that no one seems to notice is that many of Grant's films deliberately invited audiences to speculate about his sexuality. In People Will Talk, The Awful Truth, The Philadelphia Story and My Favourite Wife, friends and doctors puzzle over stalled or unconsummated marriages, and there is a gay Cole Porter inscribed between the lines of Night and Day for anyone who wants to read him. The hero of I Was a Male War Bride had already been seen in women's clothes, notably in Bringing Up Baby, where his explanation is an exasperated shout of "I just went gay all of a sudden!"

The awful truth is that even the most homophobic Hollywood studio executives were savvy enough to know that their bread was buttered significantly by gay audiences and the disposable "pink dollars" of the non-marrying kind. The famous pictures of Grant and his "room-mate" Randolph Scott camping it up with glorious relish at their Malibu mansion were not the records of secret delights but studio publicity stills. Straight or homophobic audiences could either ignore the "gayness" of Grant's characters or take it as something eventually overcome in each film by the love of a good woman. Those who preferred to think of Grant as gay, or of themselves as especially perceptive or informed, were offered a delicious range of possibilities.

Everyone seems to suspect Grant of something, and my own feeling is that he was a focus for anxieties within Hollywood that were less psychological than ideological or even political. His brilliance as a performer rubbed uncomfortably against the deep-rooted contradiction between acting and the ideology of masculinity espoused by Hollywood films: an ideology valuing the empirical, the spontaneous and the violent over anything cerebral, calculated or verbal. Critics seem to prefer the myth of the "method", where an actor labours masochistically to "become" the character and supposedly thereby purge his work of artifice. Certainly Grant could never succeed in Hollywood's definitive ideological genre, the western, where inarticulacy rivals the firearm as a guar-antee of masculine integrity and the penalty of education is inevitable alienation, probably leading to alcoholism or tuberculosis.

Grant's persona never became fully American, although he took US citizenship in 1946. His ambiguous national identity enhanced his significance dur- ing the cold war, when an America that had long been militantly isolationist affirmed its ties to Europe (suddenly, after Casablanca, all Americans would always have Paris).

The Grant/Hitchcock masterpiece North by Northwest symbolises this reconciliation when Grant, falsely accused of murdering an American diplomat in the United Nations building, eventually saves himself by clambering into the giant presidential faces on Mount Rushmore. However, the film has to go to tortuous lengths to forgive Grant for his cultured Englishness and its associated vices (vanity, mother-fixation, Mercedes-driving, and so on). In the end, Grant is absolved only because the true villain, played by James Mason, captures the entire "dark side" for himself with an astounding display of sumptuous tailoring, machiavellian suavity and sadomasochistic bisexuality.

Strictly speaking, 2004 marks the centenary not of Cary Grant (who dates from a Paramount contract of 7 December 1931), but of Archie Leach, who was born into an unhappy working-class family in Bristol, and who left home twice to join a touring music-hall troupe in which he learned his comic timing, double takes and physical clowning skills.

Cary Grant, whom Leach and others created during 30 years of collaborative work in cinema, was one of the 20th century's great "invented traditions", created with yearning by exiles and emigres, offering the "age of extremes" a humanising fantasy of historical continuity and centred, ethical being.

Cary Grant: the signature collection, comprising four films and a documentary, is now available on DVD from Warner Home Video