Cary Grant. Deborah Kerr. The Empire State Building. One of the greatest romance films of all time, according to the AFI. I fear I am going to upset more than a few people here, but I’m just going to have to say it anyway: meh.
Nickie Ferranti (Grant) and Terry McKay (Kerr) meet on a ship sailing from Europe to NYC. He’s a famous playboy who’s just announced his engagement to wealthy Lois Clark (Neva Patterson), and she’s in a stable, if boring relationship with a nice businessman, Ken (Richard Denning). Still, the two are drawn to each other, and by the time their ship docks in New York, they’ve agreed to meet at the top of the Empire State Building in six months’ time, having freed themselves from their relationships and found ways of supporting themselves. Naturally, it doesn’t work out quite that way. Terry gets hit by a car on her way to the meeting, and spends the next six months convalescing and refusing to contact Nickie because she has lost the ability to walk. Will he discover the truth? Will they live happily ever after? Please note that many of the “greatest romances” on the AFI list do not, in fact, involve the featured couples ending up together, so you really never can tell. Still, given the storyline here we can naturally expect some kind of confrontation, so I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.
I know some of you are ready to call for my head, so let me say that I’m really unhappy with myself for being unimpressed with this movie. It’s such a iconic film (thank you, Sleepless in Seattle) and I love Cary Grant, and I was truly excited to see it. It’s beautiful to look at, but I found the plot and and the performances to be wildly uneven. Additionally, as I grow older, there’s something about people failing to communicate that drives me totally batty; when you base the entire premise of your story on that failure, I’m probably not going to be happy about it.
The first half of the movie is really fun. The flirtation between Nickie and Terry is quick and dry-witted, and they both carry it off well. Being wry and clever is what Grant does best, and Kerr matches him point for point. Even their romantic scenes in the first half of the film are fairly convincing. Their stopover in the Mediterranean (?) to visit Nickie’s grandmother is lovely; the characters find a certain comfort level away from the microcosm of the ship, and the actors do a good job of portraying that sense of ease.
The second act is where the problems start. To begin with, there is a fundamental change in each of the characters that would seem to be detrimental to any future relationship. These are not particularly wholesome individuals. Nickie is a known philanderer who is clearly intent on marrying money rather than a woman. Terry, too, is in a relationship for monetary reasons. She’s a nightclub singer, and her businessman pays the bills. As romantic as it seems for these two people of the world to “go straight” and live on love alone, it just doesn’t ring true here. Furthermore, the actors themselves seem far more disposed to the former mindset, rather than the latter. Grant, in particular, is much more suited to a certain shallowness of character, as much as it pains me to say so. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I guess I’ll just say that neither Grant nor Kerr managed to sell the climax of the film for me. Their chemistry seemed to be spotty, and again, they did better with flirtation than with actual romance.
Ultimately, though, it was the conceit of the story that lost me; Terry’s decision to hide her condition and not let Nickie know that she hadn’t deserted him just seemed contrived, and, well, stupid. I get that it was about pride and she wanted everything to be perfect, but I guess I’m just too practical for that kind of “romance.” Never mind the fact that all the waiting could mean that she would lose him. Perhaps that’s where the real romantic sentiment comes in: she had faith that he would still be waiting for her. But to put someone you supposedly love through that kind of pain is self-indulgent at the very least. Anyway. To get back to the film, while it’s a classic in many ways, I found myself unfortunately underwhelmed, which is not to say that it’s not worthwhile. Much of it is indeed enjoyable, and clearly a lot of people think it’s terribly romantic, so you probably shouldn’t listen to my two cents at all.
PS. One final thought, and this is a rhetorical question, but: If everyone wanted to sound like Marni Nixon, why didn’t Marni Nixon just play all of these roles?