Early on in his career, the actor Farley Granger, who has died aged 85, worked with several of the world’s greatest directors, including Alfred Hitchcock on Rope (1948) and Strangers On a Train (1951), Nicholas Ray on They Live By Night (1949) and Luchino Visconti on Senso (1953). Yet Granger failed to sustain the momentum of those years, meandering into television, some stage work and often indifferent European and American movies.
The reasons were complicated, owing much to his sexuality and an unwillingness to conform to Hollywood pressures, notably from his contract studio, MGM, and Samuel Goldwyn. Granger refused to play the publicity or marrying game common among gay and bisexual stars and turned down roles he considered unsuitable, earning a reputation – in his own words – for being “a naughty boy”.
He was also the victim of bad luck, notably when Howard Hughes, the egomaniacal owner of RKO studios, took against They Live By Night, shelving it for a year before releasing it without fanfare. While his contemporary Charlton Heston had maintained that it was impossible not to launch his own acting career from two Cecil B DeMille movies, Granger had the far more difficult task of springboarding from his Hitchcock films, where the director had been the star.
Granger was born in San Jose, California, and first appeared on a school stage aged five. A dozen years later he was working in theatres around Los Angeles, when his dazzling good looks were noticed by a local talent scout. Aged 18 he made his screen debut as a curly-haired Russian soldier in Lewis Milestone’s The North Star (1943).
Milestone also cast him in the role of a sergeant in The Purple Heart (1944), but by then the real war had caught up with the actor who, following his military service, took a long while to re-establish himself. Ray cast him in the leading role of They Live By Night, as the emotionally unstable crook Bowie, and by the time the film was released, he had appeared in the feeble Enchantment (1948) and the bucolic Roseanna McCoy (1949).
Luckily, he had also been loaned out for the claustrophobic Rope, filmed in 10-minute takes, resulting in an elegantly artificial movie, with the actors even more puppet-like than was usual with Hitchcock. Granger and John Dall were ideally cast as gay students who murder a friend to display a Nietzschean concept of supremacy. Granger played the highly strung Phillip, who cracks under the probing of their tutor (James Stewart). The public were less than enthusiastic. The director Jean Renoir scathingly dismissed the film, adding that it was “a film about homosexuals in which they don’t even show the boys kissing”.
Moving on, in 1950 Granger starred in the fast-paced thriller Side Street, directed by Anthony Mann, Edge of Doom and Our Very Own, before being rescued from the routine by Hitchcock, who cast him in another movie with a gay subtext, Strangers On a Train. He took the more conventional role of a handsome tennis champion, Guy Haines, mentally seduced by the unhinged Bruno (Robert Walker). Bruno obligingly murders the sportsman’s wife, who is holding back Guy’s career and social ambitions. When the killer wants repayment in kind – via the death of his own bullying father – matters go horribly wrong. Granger was bland rather than urbane, perplexed rather than intimidated, and despite charm, good looks and an attractive voice, he found his career not taking off.
Instead, routine fare such as Behave Yourself! (1951) and Small Town Girl (1953) followed. Even the sympathetic Vincente Minnelli made little of the star opposite Leslie Caron in The Story of Three Loves (1953). Granger needed to get out of his contract and was happy when he was loaned out by Goldwyn to star in Visconti’s Senso. He was intriguingly cast as the embittered romantic Franz Mahler, an Austrian soldier who betrays the married woman besotted with him. She in turn betrays not only her country, Italy, but also those struggling politically against the invading forces. With dialogue by Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles, the film took heady flight into a sumptuous period melodrama. It took many months to shoot and Granger relished new freedom in Europe, buying a house in Rome. Despite this he never worked again in anything comparable to Visconti’s masterpiece.
Returning sporadically to the US, he played in The Naked Street (1955) as a hoodlum taken under the overly protective wing of Anthony Quinn, then had a better role as the murderous roué in Richard Fleischer’s The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955).
He returned to the stage, acting in The Carefree Tree on Broadway in 1955, and touring with The Seagull, Hedda Gabler and She Stoops to Conquer. Television offered the occasional bit of intelligent casting, including the grasping would-be lover in The Heiress (1961). The role had been a triumph for Montgomery Clift in the cinema in 1949 and one could see the rationale behind the new casting. After a decade mainly in the theatre and TV and little-seen movies such as Rogues’ Gallery (1968), Granger returned to a more congenial Europe.
In 1970 he made a western, My Name Is Trinity, and then a complicated spy thriller, The Serpent, where he co-starred with Henry Fonda, Yul Brynner and Dirk Bogarde, all gentlemen of a certain age in search of elusive work. He again worked in American television, in such popular series as Matt Helm, Ellery Queen, The Love Boat and Murder, She Wrote, and also contributed to the documentary The Celluloid Closet (1995), an examination of homosexuality in Hollywood movies.
In 2001 he appeared in his last film, The Next Big Thing, and came to London for his West End stage debut, in a revival of Noël Coward’s once-controversial play Semi-Monde. He later withdrew because of difficulties in remembering his lines. He said that he had become bored with the process of film-making and retired, devoting himself to travel and his greatest love, the theatre, now as a spectator. In 2007, he published a memoir, Include Me Out, co-written with his long-term partner, the producer Robert Calhoun, who died in 2008.
• Farley Earle Granger, actor, born 1 July 1925; died 27 March 2011
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