This article was written by Brian Baxter, for The Guardian on Tuesday 29th March 2011 17.26 UTC
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
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
Baxter’s style is brilliant. Excellent touches (such as ” . . .all gentlemen of a certain age in search of elusive work”) made this both informative and elegant.
Granger was (like Sal Mineo) the “sensitive” sort (as his generation termed it). His “Strangers” interplay with Walker was lovely to watch.
You left out something he worked on As the World Turns for quite a while and he maintained friendships with many of his co-stars and crew. He will be greatly missed by all that worked with him or had the pleasure of meeting him.
I am sad to hear of Mr. Granger’s passing. I salute him for living his life on his own terms. He was a wonderful actor and I enjoyed him in films like “I want you” and “They live by night”.
“Rope” was one of the gayest movies ever. And “Strangers on a Train” was one of the best. Fare thee well, Mr. Granger.
christopher di spirito
I had the great fortune to meet Mr. Granger at a book signing a few years ago.
He was quite old by then but looked great and took a wide-range of questions from a packed audience of probably 500 people.
I found him funny, brutally honest and fascinating. I was really taken by his stories about working with the film master, Alfred Hitchcock. His Shelly Winters stories were a riot.
Sad to hear of his passing. All the greats are rapidly leaving.
I just watched Strangers on a Train last week – I never get tired of it. He was also in another movie I love called Side Street and of course, Rope. He was quite gorgeous, RIP.
Just as an aside, Rope was motivated by a real murder case –
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leopold_and_Loeb has a summary.
@gregger: You’re right, he played Earl Mitchell, one of Lisa’s many husbands. That Lisa was THE original soap diva.
What you may not know is that his longtime partner Robert Calhoun (who died in 2008) was an executive producer of As the World Turns back then.
@Mike: I knew, I worked on ATWT, and Farley’s friend Eileen Fulton introduced me to both Farley and Robert. This was long after they left the show, they were classic old gentlemen and hysterically funny and able to keep a straight face while watching people explode with laughter.
I really enjoyed his autobiography. He had an interesting career, and a sensitivity, like Monty Clift. He was also quite beautiful.
@Gregger: I’m so jealous. I’d love to meet Eileen Fulton.
a true artist….
@Mike: if you’re a sweetie and gay to boot. Eileen would love you……
met Eileen Fulton in the early 70’s when she appeared at the Cherry Hill Mall (Cherry Hill, NJ). I was a kid but I remember my mom being a big fan of her’s from ATWT. I can’t remember why Miss Fulton was there, I th0+-+
;lkjgfk it was a depar+
20t+10ment store appearence
I hit send before I was finished… yikes.
Anyhoo, I think Eileen Fulton was there for a department store signing… I recall her diamond earrings, fur coat and big rings. It was like meeting a HUGE star… She was very star-like. Everyone knew who she was… I recall her smile, blonde hair and red lipstick. She was also very nice. She left an impression on me that I’ve never forgotten.
Thank you for posting this piece and honoring a member of our community. Great Job!!! Best, Jeff R
@Joey O’H: The first time I actually was sitting talking with “Miss Eileen” I told her that my first recollection of here was when I was home sick from school and my grandmother took care of me. At precisely two minutes before ATWT went live she had the TV switched over to CBS and I was told to “lay there and be quiet.” The screen came alive with Lisa on the run in “Mexico” with young Tom she was dressed in a trench coat and big sunglasses.
Eileen laughed and said “that storyline dragged on forever.” Also that the “Lisa disguise” had become her “de rigueur” look in public for years.
Farley recounted a story of grabbing a bite with Eileen at a restaurant on NYC’s UES and having a woman come up to Eileen and giving her what for (directed towards Lisa) and then she turned to Farley and told him she didn’t know “what a nice gentleman like him wanted with a shrew like Lisa.”
He does have a dazzling look.Good for him to refuse to lie and pretend he was married. You go hottie.
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