If a man tried to construct his ideal personality by pasting together all desirable masculine qualities portrayed by the last, say, 80 years of leading male film roles, the result would be an expansive net of contradictions. Clint Eastwood’s indifferent grit in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly conflicts with Jimmy Stewart’s familial sacrifice in It’s a Wonderful Life. Russell Crowe’s ruthless dedication in Gladiator chafes against the mellow good humor of Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused.
And of course, the beguiling charm of Cary Grant in any of his films (after a certain point) bears little resemblance to, well, almost anything you see onscreen today.
At least, that’s what Benjamin Schwarz says in his article The Rise and Fall of Charm in American Men, which appeared in The Atlantic’s June 2013 issue. The article clearly struck a nerve — since being posted online, it's garnered over 17,000 shares and nearly 1,000 comments on the native page alone.
In the article, Schwarz examines what a bygone era’s Cary Grant (who he identifies as “that touchstone of male charm,”) had that our current cadre of leading males lacks. What follows is a daunting analysis of what it takes to be so casually, effortlessly, irresistibly charming like Grant was.
But before we look at how to beat the rap and harpoon this white whale of male qualities, we have to realize our own situation. Cary Grant was born in the UK with the name Archibald Alexander Leach. Before he was 10, Grant’s mother was committed to an insane asylum by his father. He remarried and all but forgot about Grant, the sole surviving son from his previous marriage. Nobody knows who took care of him between then and when he was 14, at which point Grant was expelled from school and joined an acrobat troupe. He moved to the US with the troupe two years later, and the rest is history. But really, what kind of start is that? Archibald Alexander Leach? Insane asylum? Acrobat troupe? That's sure as hell not replicable, and doesn't have much to do with what life is like for most men today.
Our generation’s greatest triumphs and struggles have occurred largely in an online landscape. That means that we have a world of sensory experiences at our fingertips, but sensory only in so far as a screen and set of speakers can convey. In his article, Schwarz points out that Grant lacked charm until he gained a level of maturity. That maturity, hopefully, comes with age to some extent, but it also comes with real, physical experience.
The kid spending summer vacation in front of his Xbox instead of on the basketball court or in the woods is a well-worn tableau, but it's not without some truth. The time we devote to online experiences is time away from the physical world, where physical experiences and nuanced social interactions shape maturity, which is a precursor to charm. But let’s say that, despite the fact that many of our experiences are typed through a keyboard and read on a screen, we as modern men can develop charm. What does it look like?
So What Is Charm?
According to Schwarz, charm takes assured confidence yet self awareness. A mature, developed personality melds with a playful, easy wit. It fully embraces flirty give-and-take, but never seems sleazy or brash. The charming man diverts the spotlight to others, but subtly uses his personality to influence those same people. He's both intensely aware of a social environment’s moving parts and cooly detached, as if a staged show was playing without him, and he couldn’t care less.
And what is charm not?
It's not as simple as being a pleasant companion. It’s not that people think, “I’d like to spend this evening drinking beer in Jack’s company because Jack is a nice, humorous guy.” It’s more the can't-quite-put-your-finger-on-it thought that you want to be around Jack. Sure, he's nice and quick with a joke, but he also possesses a deeper magnetism that leaves you at once curious, impressed, and somehow, wanting Jack to like you.
Just like charm isn't just about being pleasant, neither is it a forced, oily layer of overconfidence. The Dos Equis guy, the Old Spice guy, and the Dollar Shave Club guy are great in commercials because they're confident. But spend more than 30 seconds with them and it gets to be a bit much. Confident bravado is an attractive feature, but only when it doesn’t draw attention to itself.
So have opinions. Make jokes. Be bold. But always give attention rather than take it. Do that, and you won’t have to desperately fight for hearts and minds — they'll be handed to you wrapped in a box.
Finally, as Schwarz points out, charm necessarily lacks a level of virtue. After all, It’s a utilitarian quality. Maybe not every interaction is engineered, and maybe the agenda isn’t devious, but make no mistake: there is an agenda. In part, that’s why people are sucked in. They want to be the ones beneath the agenda. They want to crack the faberge shell for whatever sincerity hides underneath. They don’t want to be at arm’s length, but having charm often means holding people at your fingertips.
Is It Even Worth Having?
So, say we can develop charm. If, at its core, it's an underhanded trait, do we actually want it?
Cary Grant was married five times. Women loved him, but it didn’t last. Who knows — maybe he was happy that way — but burning through spouses like cigarettes in a pack seldom connotes the ideal life.
It’s easy to overlook the details of real life when watching a character onscreen. Therein lies the danger of gazing into the past, heart heavy with nostalgia for something you’ve never actually experienced. It’s possible our view of male charm between the ‘30s and ‘60s is wistful pining for something that looks good from afar, but is actually just a cardboard cutout. It’s possible the Charmer is just another in a long list of male paradigms.
The Final Say
How many different archetypes of the ideal man have we cycled through in our lifetime? The bleached, hair-gelled surfer. The bearded, flannel-clad backyard farmer. The brunching urbanite with exposed ankles. The Don Draper disciple. And now, Grant help us, the post-frat dad bod bro.
We try hard to convince ourselves that we fit a mold like that as we chase jobs, relationships, club memberships, presenting all kids of different faces to the world. But in a world of stereotypes and secondhand experiences, we should be striving for something that's more real. More personal. And that’s not charm.
So instead of trying to put on Cary Grant’s white evening jacket of charm, wouldn't it be more valuable to close the laptop, forget about the stereotypes, and focus on getting the most out of your daily life as possible? And through firsthand experiences, from elevator small talk to dinner dates to important meetings, the maturity and self-awareness that follows will eventually solidifies into an easygoing confidence.
So then, in the glittering twilight of the cocktail bar, with some beautiful vision sitting next to you, you’re simply yourself. And that’s so much more charming than being Cary Grant.