Stunner & shunner

Anointed the screen’s It Boy in the 1950s, dreamboat Farley Granger walked away — for the theater. He will be honored at Philadelphia’s Gay & Lesbian Film Festival.

Posted: July 12, 2007

NEW YORK - In a police lineup of the most breathtaking, heart-stopping, Lord-have-mercy specimens of movie manhood, you would not look twice at Robert Redford, Brad Pitt, John Travolta or Denzel Washington because Farley Granger would hold you in the flutter of his double-dip lashes.

When the public saw Granger as the clean-cut tennis star capable of murder in Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951), everyone wanted a ride on the dreamboat. Ava Gardner succeeded. So did Leonard Bernstein. As did Arthur Laurents, the screenwriter who based the aloof Redford character in The Way We Were on golden-boy Granger.

His sexual fluidity and elusiveness only enhanced Granger's desirability. And when he walked out on Hollywood at the moment he was anointed the industry's It Boy, it wasn't for love, but for theater. "I needed to work on a character and think about it," says Granger, 81, in the tidy apartment near Central Park he shares with longtime companion Robert Calhoun.

At the 13th Philadelphia International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, which opens tonight and runs through the 24th, Granger will return to Philadelphia, where he played in The Crucible and The Seagull, to receive the artistic achievement award on Wednesday.

"Homosexual, heterosexual - what does it matter? What matters is whether one is sexual or not," says a character played by Jeanne Moreau in a now-forgotten 1982 Joseph Losey film, The Trout.

"I think that philosophy applies to me," says Granger, silver-haired and slightly stooped, but still arresting, cradling one of his three cats.

Except for a poster from Senso, the lush 1954 film Granger made for Luchino Visconti in Italy, there is no evidence here that the man who lives in the sunny aerie above 72d Street was in the movies. There are art books, art, and curious cats.

Granger was a 17-year-old senior at North Hollywood High in 1943, acting in a little-theater production of something called The Wookie, when a talent agent spotted him. Promptly signed to an exclusive contract with independent producer Sam Goldwyn, he succeeded where millions of Hollywood aspirants had failed.

But more tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones, as St. Teresa said, and it wasn't long before Granger chafed at how films were shot out of sequence, frustrating an actor's ability to build a character.

"There's nothing exciting about making movies - they're ass-backwards," he says. "Theater is concentrated energy, you get high on the audience."

Calhoun, who has known Granger for 45 years and has been his partner for 20, uses theater shorthand to explain his appeal: "He has the looks of a leading man and the soul of a character actor."

After small roles in wartime efforts The North Star (1943) and The Purple Heart (1944), Granger enlisted in the Navy. He was billeted in Hawaii, where he lost his virginity twice on the same night, experiences that may have defined him as bisexual.

First time was with a lovely Polynesian prostitute, Lianna; as he was leaving her room, he got picked up by a lieutenant commander and spent the rest of the evening with him.

That's the story he tells in Include Me Out (cowritten with Calhoun), a memoir published this year, in which he writes that he never felt the need to explain his relationships. It's less a kiss-and-tell than a kiss-and-smell, replete with the perfumes of gardens and the bouquets of meals he has loved.

A multi-entendre title taken from a Goldwyn malaprop uttered when he was passing on a project, Include Me Out at once refersto Granger's response to his indenture to Goldwyn, his sentiment toward Hollywood, and his candor about his ambisexual preferences.

"I've always been open to things," he says mildly.

And how.

Here is a man who was bedded by Gardner and Barbara Stanwyck and engaged to Shelley Winters, and who enjoyed relations with Bernstein and Jean Marais, unapologetically indulging his lust, not to mention a wanderlust that has taken him across Europe and Africa.

In two of Granger's most celebrated movies, Rope (which will screen after Granger receives his award) and Strangers, Hitchcock used the actor's sexual desirability to men and to women as a subtext. There was no discussion of the sexual component - Rope was a product of 1948, after all, and such things were not openly discussed, Granger says. But Granger warmly recalls his relationship with "Hitch."

"He wanted me in The Birds," the actor recalls, " . . . but I was in the theater by then." If he has any regrets about leaving the movies, it's that he didn't work with Hitch a third time.

At the time, Granger's leaving the movies after Strangers on a Train was unthinkable, as if Brad Pitt had decamped Hollywood after Legends of the Fall.

But like his contemporary Marilyn Monroe, Granger was somewhat uneasy about being worshiped for his beauty. He wanted to be taken seriously as an actor.

In his memoir, Granger describes Winters as the love of his life and bane of his existence. In his living room, he describes her as "a hurricane with a dress on."

"My relation with Shelley was . . . hectic," he says cautiously, recalling his traveling companion who shared his ambition for theatrical self-improvement.

But where Winters craved the spotlight, Granger shunned it, preferring to work in ensemble productions for the National Repertory Theater than headline on Broadway. Off Broadway, he won acclaim in Deathtrap and won an Obie Award in 1985 for his performance in Lanford Wilson's Talley & Son.

"Never liked basking in the glare of celebrity, didn't like people gawking, didn't like people coming up to me in restaurants," he says. "I just wanted to be an actor."


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com.

Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl.

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