Farley Granger—whose boyish handsomeness made him a matinee idol in the 1950s, and lent a crucial air of naivete to his lead roles in the Alfred Hitchcock classics Rope and Strangers On A Train—has died of natural causes. He was 85.
Discovered in a Los Angeles theater production by a casting director for Samuel Goldwyn, Granger benefitted from the shortage of young male actors brought about by World War II, and quickly found himself with plum roles in back-to-back war dramas The North Star and The Purple Heart before he was even 18. (It wasn’t the first time Granger’s career benefitted from tragedy: His formerly wealthy family moved to Los Angeles only after losing everything in the 1929 stock market crash.) Once Granger was old enough to serve himself, he joined the Navy. Upon his return, he began hanging out with the Hollywood elite—including director Nicholas Ray, who cast him in his debut, They Live By Night, a film noir that found Granger playing one half of a doomed criminal couple on the run from the law. Though shelved for several years, it made its way around the private screening rooms of many influential industry people, and after a single-theater showing in London scored rave reviews, it finally saw wide U.S. release in 1949, and today it’s viewed as a precursor to Bonnie And Clyde.
One of the people who managed to catch a private screening of They Live By Night was Alfred Hitchcock, who was so impressed by Granger that he borrowed him from Goldwyn to co-star with John Dall and Jimmy Stewart in Rope. Opposite Dall’s more calm and calculating character, Granger supplies much of the film’s tension, as he mopes about and grows visibly nervous—and slowly gets hammered—while Dall drops teasing suggestions about the murder they’ve only just committed and are boldly concealing from Stewart and the rest of their party guests. Many of the critics at the time rightly pointed out Rope’s homoerotic subtext, something that Granger (who was bisexual) and Dall (who was gay) had both discussed during its production, assuming that their characters were, in fact, homosexuals. However, the Hays Code kept any mention of the word “gay” from ever appearing on screen, leading Granger to express disappointment years later that censorship had gotten in the way of the storytelling.
After Rope, Granger grew increasingly disappointed with the roles he was being offered, which were a string of box-office and critical disappointments like Enchantment, Side Street, Edge Of Doom, and Our Very Own. Granger’s displeasure with these was so great that he flatly refused to do any promotion for them and even said no to being loaned out to work on a film for Universal, so he soon found himself placed on suspension—a “punishment” that left Granger free to travel around Europe with his friends. But he returned as soon as Hitchcock came calling for Strangers On A Train, a film that once again found Granger complicit in a murder—and embroiled in a homoerotic subtext—though like most of Strangers’ themes, these things were hardly so black and white. Granger’s all-American athlete doesn’t agree to the “criss-cross” murder proposed by Robert Walker, but he doesn’t openly dispute it either, as Granger allows a glimpse of the darkness, sexual tension, and a longing to upend a stiflingly orderly life to creep into his performance—all of which makes him a far more fascinating character than the panicky, unwittingly victimized hero he could have been.
Post-Strangers On A Train, Granger continued to be disappointed by the middling fare that he was offered—including post-WWII drama I Want You, O. Henry’s Full House, and Hans Christian Andersen—and in 1953, he took the bold move of buying his way out of his contract with Samuel Goldwyn and jetting off to Italy for nearly a year to work with director Luchino Visconti on Senso. (Granger would later claim that Senso was his career highlight.) He returned to the U.S. and made a couple more films with Darryl F. Zanuck, but in the late ’50s, Granger more or less gave up on Hollywood and moved to New York to pursue his Broadway dreams, with the occasional guest role on TV anthology series like Playhouse 90 and Kraft Television Theatre. In the ’60s, Granger had cameos on series like Get Smart, Ironside, and Hawaii Five-O, but mostly stuck to the stage, where he had a long and prolific career, eventually collecting an Obie in 1986 for Talley And Son, and starring in the Broadway productions of The Crucible and Deathtrap. He also relocated to Rome for a long stretch in the 1970s, where he acted in many Italian language films, such as My Name Is Trinity.
In 1995, Granger was interviewed for The Celluloid Closet, a documentary about Hollywood’s depiction of homosexuality, in which Granger discussed his own sexuality and how it factored—or not—into his own roles. He later explored this subject even further in his 2007 autobiography Include Me Out, in which he talked about his career and sexual relationships with everyone from Shelley Winters and Ava Gardner to Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstein. A fascinating read about an actor who refused any and all labels and fought every effort to put him in a box, it’s a testament to Granger’s legacy of brave and unconventional choices.