What the film means to me, and what it means to others
When I was about sixteen, I was rummaging through a steel bin that was crammed full of jumbled up DVDs at a huge store that sold movies, music and video games. I’m not sure what I was looking for. I was probably not looking for anything in particular. My armpit was shoved against the rim of the steel bin, when I pulled out a film that I had never heard of outside of Sleepless in Seattle. On the cover, Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr embraced each other, his gaze almost breaking the fourth wall, her’s downcast. Beneath them, at the bottom of the DVD cover, was the New York skyline. After purchasing the film for a negligible sum, I went home and watched the film that afternoon. And from that moment on my love affair with both Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, and a love story that showed the agonies and ecstasies of real love, began.
An Affair to Remember, a remake of the 1939 film, Love Affair, starring Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, is number five on the American Film Institutes 100 Year… 100 Passions list. And rightfully so. From start to finish everything about the film draws the audience into a world that focuses on the love of two characters: Nickie Ferrante and Terry McKay. Nickie is a well-known playboy, so well known in fact that his imminent marriage to heiress Lois Clark (Neva Patterson) is global news. Terry is an ex nightclub singer, who is in a relationship with wealthy businessman Ken Bradley (Richard Denning).
The timeless romantic theme of the movie is not only shown by its capacity to be remade into such an accomplished film which melds the genres of romance, musical, comedy and melodrama seamlessly, but also by its prominence in Sleepless in Seattle, a film that was made over thirty years later, and pays homage to An Affair to Remember both directly and indirectly. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan’s lovers, who are divided by the vast geography of the United States, meet at the Empire State Building through the workings of Hanks’ character’s son. And Hanks’ wife, Rita Wilson, who also stars in the film, gives a tearful description of An Affair to Remember’s famous ending.
A Love Affair to Remember
When the audience first sees Deborah Kerr, she is dressed in a beautiful bright red coat that accentuates her auburn hair and pale complexion. She is instantly witty as Terry McKay, and does not allow herself to be upstaged by Cary Grant’s Nickie Ferrante. She is initially scathing about Nickie’s promiscuous past, and having a laugh at his expense when she reads the rather telling description in his cigarette case gifted to him by a past, and now jilted, lover. Later, when they have come to make more of an effort to really know about each other’s backgrounds, Terry admits that her own relationship is not entirely altruistic, but rather largely influenced by the kind of lifestyle her fiancé can give her, which includes a penthouse on Park Avenue. Kerr manages to imbue her character with a kind of worldliness that is still refined and humorous, most obviously displayed when she tells Nickie that she worked at a nightclub, where “The manager used to chase me around the office until about 4 a.m.”
The comedic timing between she and Cary Grant is perfect. They both order pink champagne at the bar, but without one another’s knowledge, and give one another a knowing and long look when they realise this. Terry flicks some champagne at nosy eavesdroppers, too, before she and Nickie escape the unwanted conversation of another guest on the cruise liner, by walking in separate directions in perfect unison. Knowing that their dining together has caused a wild fire of gossip aboard the ship, Terry and Nickie endeavour to dine alone. But they are put at tables that are back to back, causing the entire dining room to burst out laughing. They try to conduct a clandestine conversation with their backs to one another, and when Terry flees the dining room, there is much confusion over cigarette cases, with the waiter taking both Terry and Nickie’s, much to the latter’s chagrin. They also happen to go swimming at the same time, causing Nickie to dive on top of Terry and almost drown her.
The ship docks at Villefranche-sur-Mer, where Terry meets Nickie’s grand-mére, Janou (Cathleen Nesbitt). This meeting marks a shift in Terry and Nickie’s relationship, and she comes to trust him, as he shows her the man behind the philandering playboy facade. The scene in the the chapel is beautifully sincere. It has no dialogue, and Terry and Nickie’s feelings and thoughts are communicated only through gestures. Nickie cannot look away from Terry as she seems to be praying not to love him. A prayer that will, thankfully, go unanswered.
Deborah Kerr is wonderfully natural in her scenes with Cathleen Nesbitt. The sharing of personal information between the two characters, particularly their concern for Nickie, is entirely believable as the two actresses take their cues from one another throughout. The scenes between Kerr, Grant and Nesbitt are wonderfully emotive without being forced, especially when the film’s theme song, Our Love Affair, is introduced by Nickie asking Janou to play the piano and Terry accompanying. It is a haunting rendition of the song, which shows Nickie and Terry’s burgeoning love for one another, and Janou’s hope that they will allow themselves to love one another.
The idea of Terry and Nickie’s love being something inevitable is entirely believable. Every look, touch and line of dialogue shared between Kerr and Grant conveys their undeniable need for each other. But the humour that is added to this stops the film from being too heavy handed, and shows both actor’s incredible capacity for adapting to what each scene needs. Deborah Kerr portrays Terry’s turmoil over her love for Nickie and her betrayal of Ken, with a combination of guilt, longing and wit that could be awkward, but is perfectly balanced due to the subtlety of her performance.
The shifting from clever, light humour to seriousness in the film is smooth, because it shows that the two lovers must consider the complications of the real world. The cruise has allowed them to love each other without any real difficulties. Not only do they have to contend with the problems of how to earn a living, as they are both used to being kept by their wealthy partners, but they are both approaching middle age, and they realise that they are it for each other, as conveyed by Terry stating that “Winter must be cold for those with no warm memories. We’ve already missed the spring.” This sense of life transition, that there is no going back once they choose to be with one another, perhaps explains Nickie’s subsequent bitterness when he thinks Terry has jilted him.
When the ship docks at New York harbour, Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant’s reactions to one another’s partners shows their mastery of silent communication. They are standing on opposite sides of the deck, unable to speak to one another, and yet the audience is fully aware of what they are “saying” to each other about Lois and Ken. Kerr’s insertion of herself between Grant and Neva Patterson is hilariously dry. At first she hides her face behind her purse as bulbs flash from newspaper photographer’s cameras, who are hoping to get a picture of Nickie and Lois for tomorrow’s social columns. Then she expertly wedges herself between the two in order to both leave the ship, and to remind Nickie that she’s still there.
When Ken finds out about Terry and Nickie falling in love aboard the ship, Terry is riddled with restless anxiety and reluctance to hurt a man who has been good to her throughout their relationship. Deborah Kerr looks at the Empire State Building, that is cleverly reflected in the glass of the open balcony door, with an expression of longing and sadness that shows Terry is regretful about how it has ended between she and Ken, but that she is determined to honour the promise she has made to Nickie.
Despite this, due to a series of events and a tragic accident that is beyond her control, she is forced to break her promise to meet Nickie at the Empire State Building six months later. Nickie waits for hours on the observation deck of the Empire State Building. Right until closing time, and during a heavy thunderstorm. Cary Grant shows the terrible erosion of hope that Nickie feels with heartbreaking subtlety, which is juxtaposed with Deborah Kerr’s frantic and equally heartbreaking cries for Nickie from her sick bed.
Thinking Terry has abandoned him, Nickie learns of Janou’s death and returns to her home. This scene is keenly poignant, as Grant shows in every gesture that he is a man tormented by memories of a life half realised, haunted by the haunting melody from that long ago afternoon when he was so happy.
Thanks to the kindness of the priest who tended to her at her sick bed, Terry is able to find work as a music teacher. The idea of Deborah Kerr as a teacher to children from lower income families is once again made believable by the subtlety and sincerity of her performance. She has a real connection with the child actors who play her students, even if their scenes together are brief.
The first time Terry sees Nickie again, Kerr manages to show absolute sorrow and intense soul deep pain in a few moments. This is achieved by her facial expression and body language, which is neither overly dramatic nor too understated for the audience to fully understand. This reinforces her mastery for showing the inner workings of her character’s thoughts without dialogue.
The final scene of An Affair to Remember, is beautifully staged, with Nickie frenetic with movement and Terry unable to move, and to make him understand why she seems so distant. Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr’s interplay during the scene keep the audience enthralled, and hoping that Nickie will realise that Terry is still devoted to him. When he does realise, Grant and Kerr fully crystallise as Nickie and Terry, holding one another as if they will never let each other go again. The portrait that Nickie paints of Terry and his grand-mére, conveys everything about her character and the film. Terry and love may both appear to be an ideal, like the titian Madonna Nickie paints her as, but she has been through many trials to stay true to the man she loves. Love is comprised of trials that make it worth wanting and having.