Actor who found fame in Hitchcock films, and claimed he lost his virginity twice in one night -- to both sexes
Published 03/04/2011 | 05:00
Farley Granger, the actor who died on March 27 aged 85, found stardom in Alfred Hitchcock's classics Rope and Strangers on a Train before ditching Hollywood for television and the stage; in later life he wrote a memoir in which he chronicled his numerous flings with some of the biggest names -- of both sexes -- in showbusiness.
In Rope (1948), Hitchcock cast him as one of a pair of rich sociopathic youths who kill one of their friends for a thrill, then throw a party. Using a chest in which they have stowed the body as a table for canapes, they engage their old university tutor (James Stewart), in a discussion of the theories about murder that he taught them and he gradually becomes horrifyingly aware of where his teachings about Nietzschean supermen have led.
Three years later, in Strangers on a Train, based on the Patricia Highsmith story, Granger starred alongside Robert Walker as Guy Haines, a "nice-guy" tennis star in the throes of a messy divorce, who lands himself in trouble when he confides in a man he meets on a train that he would be happier if his wife were dead.
Though it was never openly discussed at the time they were made, a powerful element in both films was the homoerotic charge between the male characters. Arthur Laurents, who wrote the screenplay for Rope (and with whom Granger had a turbulent affair), recalled that nobody mentioned the word homosexuality, even though the three main characters were all obviously meant to be homosexual. "It was referred to as 'it'," he recalled. "They were going to do a picture about 'it', and the actors were 'it'."
The subtext was the probable reason that Cary Grant and Montgomery Clift turned down roles, though the final screenplay was so discreet that Laurents remained uncertain whether Stewart ever realised that his own character was meant to be gay.
Granger at any rate seemed to have few hang-ups about such things and in 2007 published Include Me Out (co-written with his long-term partner Robert Calhoun), a chatty memoir which chronicled his affairs with, in addition to Laurents, Ava Gardner, Patricia Neal, Shelley Winters ("the love of my life and the bane of my existence"), the French actor and director Jean Marais and the composer Leonard Bernstein ("very passionate"). "I have never felt the need to belong to any exclusive, self-defining or special group," Granger wrote. "...I was never ashamed, and I never felt the need to explain or apologise for my relationships to anyone."
Farley Earle Granger was born on July 1, 1925, in San Jose, California, where his father owned a car dealership. The family had two homes, but after the stock market crash of 1929 the Grangers were forced to sell up and move into a flat above the business. As a result, both parents began to drink heavily, and eventually they had to flee their creditors.
They settled in a poor neighbourhood of Hollywood, where Farley Granger's mother enrolled him at a dance and drama studio, hoping he would be able to earn money as a tap dancer. While still at high school he got a part at a local theatre in The Wookie, a play about Londoners struggling to survive the Blitz (his role consisted of running on, shouting "fire!", then running off to come back as another one-word character). Spotted by a talent scout, he was signed to a contract with MGM for $100 a week and cast as an idealistic Soviet youth in the propaganda film The North Star (1943), which earned much criticism for its rose-tinted view of collective farms.
After appearing as an army sergeant in another wartime propaganda pic, The Purple Heart (1944), Granger served in the US navy, though he suffered so badly from seasickness that he spent most of his time on shore. In 1945 he lost his virginity in a Honolulu brothel with a female prostitute. He was about to leave the premises when he ran into a handsome naval officer and was soon back in bed: "I lost my virginity twice in one night," he recalled.
After the war Granger rejoined MGM, but his roles with the studio tended to be disappointing, largely because he turned down parts he considered unsuitable and refused to co-operate with the studio's publicity department in the mating and dating game. Of his performance as the murderer of a priest in Edge of Doom (1950), Granger recalled: "The critics gave it the same kind of beating I had given the priest."
It was Nicholas Ray who detected a dark edge to Granger's pouting, soulful good looks and cast him as an escaped prisoner on the run with his girlfriend in his film noir They Live By Night (1949). It was his nervy performance in this film that persuaded Hitchcock to cast Granger in Rope.
In 1953, after appearing in Small Town Girl (1953), co-starring Jane Powell, Granger took the unusual step of buying his way out of the remaining two years of his contract with Goldwyn. The following year, in what many consider to be his best screen performance, he was an errant lover in Luchino Visconti's Risorgimento epic Senso (1954), co-starring Alida Valli).
In 1955 he moved to New York and began studying acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse. But although he continued to appear in films (during the Seventies he appeared in several low-budget Italian pictures), he concentrated increasingly on television and stage plays. He achieved some success on Broadway in The Seagull, The Crucible, The Glass Menagerie and Deathtrap, but had his best role in an off-Broadway production of Lanford Wilson's Tally & Son, for which he won an Obie (off-Broadway theatre award) in 1985.
In 2001 he made his British debut at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, as a Russian emigre guest in the cocktail bar at the Ritz in the first London production of Noel Coward's Semi-Monde, a play whose risque content (the characters slip "with practised sophistication from one relationship to another seemingly oblivious to the world outside") meant that it could not be performed when it was first written in 1926.
Farley Granger's partner Robert Calhoun died in 2008.