Veteran actor Farley Granger died on March 27. As a testament to the longevity of his career, his death came nearly 64 years after he started filming his first leading role, in Nicholas Ray’s directorial debut, They Live By Night, and with last screen credit, in The Next Big Thing (2001), a fairly recent memory, even if it was in a forgettable film. Granger’s passing also severs one of the few remaining living ties with Alfred Hitchcock. Even decades after the two made two films together—two of the director’s best, by the way—Granger graciously fielded questions about Hitchcock in interviews, and appeared in documentaries and DVD featurettes.
Granger was born to upper-middle class parents in San Jose in 1925. The stock market crash of 1929 hit the family hard, and Granger’s mother enrolled him in the same dance and drama studio where Judy Garland and Shirley Temple had gotten their starts, perhaps hoping an early show biz career would help the family financially. Although he never became the tap dancer his mother was wishing for, his natural, lithe athleticism would benefit him in his most famous role as a tennis player in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, and the dramatic training would prepare him for decades on the stage.
Granger landed small parts in his first two films—The North Star (1943) and The Purple Heart (1944)—while still in his teens. He enlisted in the Navy during WWII, and returned to acting soon after leaving the service. His first film after leaving the Navy was in Ray’s They Live by Night, which was filmed in 1947, but not released until 1949 due to Howard Hughes’ takeover of RKO. In his early career, Granger was known for his handsome, clean-cut image, but he also excelled at playing vulnerable characters. This began with They Live by Night, in which Granger plays a man wrongly convicted of murder, who escapes with two fellow convicts, and is forced by them to commit actual crimes while on the run. The film not only foreshadowed Bonnie and Clyde by 20 years, but also established Granger as a dramatic actor.
While They Live by Night was floating in limbo, unreleased, Hitchcock ordered up a print of the film, and cast Granger in Rope as Phillip, the weaker-willed of the two young men who murder an old school chum in the interest of committing the perfect crime. The two roles were carefully written, but Granger brought a twitchy vulnerability to the role of Philip. It is really this that is memorable in the film, more than Hitchcock’s tightly choreographed camera and the apparently unbroken single long take.
Granger worked again with Hitchcock three years later in Strangers on a Train, playing a young, semi-pro tennis star dating a senator’s daughter, who seems to have everything going for him until an emotionally unbalanced man draws him into a murder plot. Again it was Granger’s ability to deliver a delicate mix of determination and anxiety that made the role a memorable one.
After the role in Hitchcock’s masterpiece thriller, Granger appeared in the light farce Behave Yourself! (1951), playing the hen-pecked husband of a need woman (Shelley Winters), who gets mixed up with mobsters after adopting a dog trained to sniff out a stash of ill-gotten loot.
Granger and Winters seem to me an unlikely couple on the screen, so I was surprised to learn that they were a romantic couple in real life, and had a friendship that lasted till Winters died in 2006. As Granger revealed in his very dishy 2007 memoirs, Count Me Out, he was bisexual and made no distinction between his relationships with men and women.
Granger was dating Arthur Laurents at the time the writer was building up the screenplay for Rope with Htichcock. Hitchcock was disappointed when two of his original casting choices for Rope—Cary Grant and Montgomery Clift—decline roles that were implied to be homosexual, but was intrigued when he discovered that one of the replacement actors was involved with his screenwriter. Hitchcock would slyly invite the two men to dinners, but never mention their relationship. Over 60 years later Laurents would claim that Rope was still one of the most sensitive portrayals homosexuals (although they are also murders) ever to come out of Hollywood, something that was made possible by Granger, at the very beginning of his career, not shying away from the risks that other actors worried would end their careers. For Granger, the risk started his career, and throughout his long career he would live and work openly and honestly. “I have hidden nothing,” he wrote in his memoir.