"You, sir, are an unmitigated cad!"

An Appreciation of George Sanders

Published February 10, 1996 1:54PM (EST)

First and always, there was the voice: silky, insinuating, impeccable, its languid Oxford cadences reflecting a malice so well-bred, a lasciviousness so refined, that even the most exacting hostesses would always make a place at their tables for it. Then there was the face: supercilious, intelligent, a mask of urbanity that did not quite conceal a lingering hope that life might yet hold some surprise. It was the face of a man who had seen it all, but was too polite to point it out -- the face of George Sanders, the greatest cad of all time.

What gives Sanders' persona its enduring charm? Part of the answer lies in its strangeness: a Sanders
character is an emissary from a world that no longer exists. Just as there are no longer any circumstances in which one can imagine saying, with the chorus of puffing 19th century husbands, "Sir, your insolence is intolerable!" so the lamentable fact is that there are no longer any cads. Our
diminished modern keyboard of sexual villainy no longer possesses that peculiar note. Assholes, losers, creeps, yes. Bozos, jerk-offs, schmucks and idiots, to be sure. Men with "issues," co-dependents, sex addicts and those "unable to commit" -- these can be found on every bar stool. But cads? They have gone the way of dueling scars, vapours and the monocle -- an ocular accessory, not coincidentally, much favored by our hero.

To be sure, if one defines a cad simply as a man who trifles with the affections of what inexplicably used to be called "the sex," he is indistinguishable from a garden-variety asshole. And perhaps, at bottom, there is little ethical difference between the two. This makes Sanders' feat all the more impressive: virtually single-handed, he sublimated the scoundrel, transformed the bounder into a work of art. "In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing," said Oscar Wilde's Gwendolyn, a phrase one can almost hear emerging from Sanders' slightly-curled lips; and indeed, in the course of a long career in which he played every variety of sexual adventurer, he gave such glorious style to his characters that one would rather burn in hell with them than sit in heaven with the good, the true and the maritally dutiful.

It would be disingenuous to deny that a certain element of adolescent fantasizing informs one's delight in Sanders' slithering, inexorable progress from boudoir to boudoir. But the cad's appeal runs deeper than that. Without occasional plot twists, love stories, like other fables, grow stale and treacly. We are drawn to the cad for the same reason we are drawn to unhappy endings: He offers a holiday from a romantic vision that has become excessively sentimental. He knows himself too well to believe in the permanence of his feelings, and that icy knowledge is both horrifying and seductive. The continual deconstruction of his own heart is an impulse that he has long ago given up resisting. He is all mind and body -- no spirit. Beneath his elegant accent, his tailored clothes and his seat at the Paris Opera lurks a ravenous beast. The contrast is irresistible: the cad simultaneously represents the fullest flowering of civilized behavior and its decadence.

And nobody embodied stylish decadence better than George Sanders. Even when asking a hatcheck girl for his coat, he conveyed the impression of a malevolent cat fastidiously licking its chops over the prospect of a particularly toothsome mouse.

The definitive Sanders cad is generally considered to be Addison DeWitt, the cold-blooded theater critic he played in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's superb "All About Eve" (1950). (The role won Sanders his only Oscar.) Some sense of DeWitt's personality can be gleaned from his self-description -- although mere print can never do justice to the mellifluous Sanders voice, or the ironic hauteur of his delivery. "To those of you who do not read, attend the theater, listen to unsponsored radio programs or know anything of the world in which you live, it is perhaps necessary to introduce myself," he purrs. "My name is Addison DeWitt. My native habitat is the theater. In it I toil not, neither do I spin. I am a critic and commentator. I am essential to the theater -- as ants to a picnic, as the boll weevil to a cotton field."

DeWitt spends most of his time commenting sardonically on the machinations of Eve, an aspiring actress as ruthlessly unprincipled as he is. He finds time, however, to squire around a dimwitted would-be starlet -- played, serendipitously, by Marilyn Monroe in one of her first screen appearances. DeWitt introduces his protigi as a "graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts" -- and that was when he was being nice. "You have a point," he says after Ms. Monroe unbosoms herself of a particularly inane statement. "An idiotic one, but a point."

"All About Eve," along with Hitchcock's "Rebecca," was probably the best movie Sanders ever appeared in. But DeWitt, although one of Sanders' finest roles, represents just one facet of the quintessential Sanders cad. He lacks the requisite element of sexual voraciousness; he is driven not by lust but by a desire for power. An icy, asexual manipulator, he is the apotheosis of wit, not of carnality -- which makes the film's ending, in which he blackmails Eve into becoming his mistress, disturbingly artificial.

The Sanders cad, in fact, is made up of various parts of all his lounge-lizard incarnations: the lustful impertinence of supercharged bounder Jack Favel ("Rebecca"), the sexual maneuverings of ruthless climber Georges Duroy ("The Private
Affairs of Bel-Ami"), the obsessive pre-Trump-era passion of robber baron Clemente Sabourin ("Death of a Scoundrel"), the gross, authoritarian appetites of Baron Von Tranisch (the hideous musical "Bittersweet," in which Sanders' only redeeming deed is that he kills Nelson Eddy before he can sing again).

These are not figures likely to be chosen as poster children by the Fund for the Feminist Majority, and confessing to a love for George Sanders is uncomfortably similar to admitting that one owns the complete six-video set of "Bobby Riggs' Greatest Court Triumphs." In fact, even before our enlightened age, in which moviegoers demonstrate their moral rectitude by hissing at dialogue they deem chauvinistic, Sanders' ungallant, at times explicitly misogynistic, screen persona got him in trouble.

"It was a remark I made in 'The Moon and Sixpence' which resulted in my acquiring a reputation as an authority on women," Sanders notes in his witty, guarded, oddly moving autobiography, "Memoirs of a Professional Cad" (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1960). "In the film I said -- and they were Maugham's words, not mine -- something to the effect that the more you beat women the better they were for it. I thought nothing of it at the time, but several months later, when I was making another film, I suddenly found myself in the center of a storm ... a whole mass of women were up in arms against me. I begged them to see that I wasn't responsible for my own dialogue -- I just spoke the words that were given to me. The fact that on this point Gauguin, Maugham and I were in unanimous accord was, in my opinion, neither here nor there."

Not surprisingly, Tinseltown journalists seized upon the "woman hater" theme with alacrity, turning out magazine pieces on Sanders with titles like "He's Allergic to Skirts," "George Sanders Puts Women in Their Place" and "Ten Ways to Avoid Matrimony" (advice that Sanders apparently failed to implement properly, since he was married four times -- including once to Zsa Zsa Gabor and once to her sister Magda). Sanders did nothing to dispel the notion that he shared the less than enlightened views espoused by some of his on-screen characters. "If I have occasionally given brilliant performances on the screen, this was entirely due to circumstances beyond my control," he wrote. "The blunt truth is that I invariably play myself."

Despite his own droll professions of caddishness, however, the real George Sanders -- although unquestionably a ladies' man -- seems not to have been a cad at all. The portrait that emerges from his memoirs, and from Richard VanDerBeet's biography, "George Sanders: An Exhausted Life" (Madison, 1990), is of a shy, complex, obscurely troubled, imperfect but basically decent man (he was heartbroken when his beloved wife Benita died of cancer) who hid from the world behind a cynical mask. "I know, in my own case, that the kind of actor I have become has been determined to a large extent by the weakness of my character," Sanders wrote. "On the screen I am usually suave and cynical, cruel to women and immune to their slights and caprices. This is my mask, and it has served me faithfully for 25 years. But in reality I am a sentimentalist, especially about myself -- readily moved to tears by cheap emotions and invariably the victim of woman's inhumanity to man."

It is this softness, this sense of romantic idealism behind the disdainful front, that lends pathos to those roles in which Sanders was allowed to move beyond the mechanical definition of the cad. Even in his most misogynistic role, as a thinly veiled Gauguin in Albert Lewin's finely intelligent "The Moon and Sixpence" (1942), he reveals great depths of hidden tenderness; it is a marvelous portrait of a Nietzschean amoralist who discovers, late in his life, that he has a heart. In "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1947), not by any means a great film but a strange and strangely melancholy one, a lonely widow (Gene Tierney) is seduced by the outrageously flirtatious Sanders, plans to marry him -- and then discovers he is married, has children, and has done this kind of thing before.

In their last scene together, before Tierney discovers the truth, she tells him happily that they have all the time in the world. If Sanders had played the scene as a straight, villainous cad, he would have carried smoothly on with his lovemaking. But an expression of utter anguish shoots for an instant across his face, and we realize that he actually loves Tierney, desperately, and knows there is no way out for him. His ugly behavior is revealed to be tragic, as if moonlight had suddenly illuminated a blasted landscape.

One of Sanders' finest achievements, his portrayal of Charles II in the uneven Restoration drama "Forever Amber" (Otto Preminger, 1947), captures the essence of a man utterly disillusioned with life who still possesses the integrity to acknowledge his own emptiness. The ambitious Amber (Linda Darnell) has become the king's mistress, but she makes the mistake of making it too clear to him that she loves another. In a devastating speech before he sends Amber away forever, Sanders says, "If I hadn't been king, I might have managed sometime in my life to fall in love myself. But instead I've had to create an illusion of happiness. I've had to pretend to love, pretend to be loved. At best it was a fragile device, too easily shattered. And you've shattered it." It is a devastating speech, delivered with enormous skill by an actor who has touched something deep in the human character.

On April 23, 1972, George Sanders checked into a hotel near Barcelona. He was in poor health, lonely, bewildered, without a home: a woman he had taken up with in his last years had convinced him to sell his beloved house in Majorca. Two days later, his body was discovered next to five empty tubes of Nembutal. A note read, "Dear World. I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck."

The man who had made a career out of his mask, whose impeccable wit, unflappable demeanor and elegant force of life had brought joy to those who could appreciate pure, cold style, had died alone, in confusion and grief. But -- as one last gift, or perhaps one last ironic bon mot -- he had died in character, a wisecrack on his lips, professing boredom to the end. Of the thousand varieties of courage that exist in the world, perhaps this, too, is one.

In the meantime, in a penthouse somewhere in the sky, a lady is settling back on a luxurious divan in a sunken '40s living room. The hidden orchestra is playing, the moon is turned up to 10 on the heartbreak scale, and suddenly a man glides through the open 52nd-story window, dressed to kill, insinuation written all over his face. Love trouble is his business and it's useless to resist. He's three steps ahead of her, he's got the skyline on a dimmer switch, his voice is a three-martini buzz in the blood and the feeling of silk sheets and summer rain. He's James Bond quoting Byron, Don Juan with the original etchings, Jeeves with a hard-on. He's The Cad With the Broken Heart, he's the face half-glimpsed behind the mask, he's George Sanders, and he wants to be with her, tonight ...

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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