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The Man in the Smoking Jacket

1.

In 1920 Cary Grant—or properly speaking, Archie Leach—was a sixteen-year-old Bristol-born music hall acrobat, specialized in stilt-walking and pratfalls, who was on his way to America for the first time as a member of the Bob Pender troupe. In 1927, after various show-business ups and downs, he was a largely out-of-work actor living in a single-room occupancy hotel in New York, working sometimes as a male escort, sometimes as a tie salesman, sometimes as a sandwich board man for a Chinese restaurant. In 1935 he was a movie actor who, despite having appeared (over a period of only three years) in twenty films opposite such co-stars as Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Carole Lombard, Loretta Young, and Myrna Loy, had failed to live up to the high expectations of his bosses at Paramount, who had signed him in the hope that he would prove a star of the magnitude of Rudolph Valentino or Gary Cooper.

It is astonishing in retrospect to see him in a movie like Born To Be Bad (1934) getting effortlessly upstaged by a cigarette-smoking Loretta Young in deliriously campy “bad girl” mode. Grant, in the thankless part of a dairy company executive who falls for Young’s sleazy charms, looks like a radiantly handsome but otherwise inert male model who has rented out his face and physique to Paramount while his thoughts wander elsewhere.

Then, with mysterious suddenness, he clicked on. He imposed his presence in a striking character role, as a roguish Cockney vagabond, in George Cukor’s otherwise commercially disastrous Sylvia Scarlett (1936), and then came unmistakably into his own as half of the divorcing couple in the screwball masterpiece The Awful Truth (1937). From that point on he enjoyed—in both the audience’s pleasure and his own creative control and financial well-being—something like a perfect career as a movie star. In a move that was then radical, he cut himself loose from long-term studio contracts, and through a shrewd choice of assignments was able, with remarkable consistency, to work with exceptional scripts and superior directors: Cukor, Leo McCarey, George Stevens, Joseph Mankiewicz, Stanley Donen, and above all Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. A movie career that started in 1932 was still peaking in the late Fifties and early Sixties with tremendous box office hits like Operation Petticoat (1959) and That Touch of Mink (1962); then, with the elegant discretion of which he had made himself the embodiment, Grant withdrew from the scene just before signs of old age could dent the screen image he had elaborated with such perfectionist devotion.

When I first encountered Cary Grant in childhood in regularly repeated television reruns of such films as Gunga Din (1939), Mr. Lucky (1943), and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), he seemed both amusingly peculiar—those singular vocal inflections, especially, set him apart from any other actor—and enviably high-spirited. It became evident as well that for the female relatives and caretakers with whom I watched these movies Cary Grant was something quite special, an image of the dream date, the perfect man. His name was spoken with an affectionate sigh, as if he symbolized a better world somewhere on the other side of the screen. Yet on a closer look there was something isolated about him; it was as if with each of his movements and line readings he drew a boundary line between himself and everything else in the frame. Anyone that perfect would have to be something of a closed system. He suggested, however, that such a fate might be quite desirable.

There is an emblematic scene in the otherwise rather mild comedy The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer in which Grant, playing a successful painter of supposedly scandalous habits, returns alone to his luxurious apartment in a sleekly tailored double-breasted suit. What follows is a systematic cataloging of the joys of bachelor life: Grant ascends to the second floor of his duplex to change into a smoking jacket, then reemerges and walks over to his top-drawer postwar sound system to play some music on the radio. He switches the radio dial away from a discus-sion of “currency fluctuations” until he finds an orchestral arrangement of “My Shining Hour.” A small smile registers his satisfaction with the music, the smile sustained as he goes over to mix himself a highball and then—to complete the picture of this solitary paradise—settles in an easy chair with a serious-looking book which he begins to read with what looks like voluptuous contentment. Every move in the sequence might have been choreographed, to illustrate that ordinary life could be a succession of smoothly executed, intensely pleasurable actions, the intense pleasure derived merely from contemplating the smooth execution.

Apparently it wouldn’t be bad at all to be utterly alone, as long as one was Cary Grant. He suggested the possibility of a narcissistic self-sufficiency grounded in the consciousness of one’s own physical and behavioral perfection. There are other scenes, and films, that have a great deal more to do with Grant’s singular excellence as a screen actor; but this little episode encapsulates Grant’s supremacy as a screen idol. He was simply the man who lacks for nothing and who does everything the way it should be done. Even if comic situations repeatedly stripped him of his dignity and elicited from him exquisitely timed displays of petulance and near panic, none of that diminished the underlying sense that here was someone miraculously exempt from flaws: an impeccable specimen—“the world’s most perfect male animal,” in Time-speak—and thus a designated surrogate lover, companion, or self.

Marc Eliot begins his biography (published, along with Gary Morecambe and Martin Sterling’s Cary Grant: In Name Only, to coincide with the centenary of Grant’s birth) with the actor’s own aphoristic summing-up: “Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.” A few lines down Eliot quotes Grant again, responding to a reporter’s question about his goal when he started out: “I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person. Or he became me.” It’s in keeping with Grant’s onscreen persona that he should be his own wittiest and most succinct commentator. Between them these two remarks almost obviate the need for a biography. He has already told us his story, with the same concision and exact definition he gave to his acting; or he has at least warned us that whatever story we hear, it isn’t ever going to be the story of that man up on the screen.

If Grant always seemed the movie star’s movie star, it was perhaps because he conveyed such lucid consciousness of what was involved in the exchange between star and spectator. It was as if he was giving the high sign to anyone in the audience smart enough to pick up on his signals. Everybody wanted to be Cary Grant in order to partake of that effortless self-awareness, that remarkable capacity to be in on every joke, even the ones of which he allowed himself to be made the butt. What makes Cary Grant different from other actors is the way he suggests—by rapid and barely discernible means, a glance, a wink, a shrug, a turning aside—a constant awareness of that gap between the surface that is all we can know of him and what actually is. He plays intelligence so persuasively that we feel a kind of privileged complicity merely by appreciating the performance.

No movie actor ever achieved quite so total a mastery of surface. Watch him in his first scene in His Girl Friday (1940), as—with every vocal inflection and physical gesture, with flexing fingers and lifted eyebrows, with tiny shifting movements, sideways, up and down, leaning forward or back, that constantly reposition him in relation to others—he keeps the spectator absorbed in the spectacle of his self-presentation: and in the midst of all that there is the smile that floats elsewhere, as if he were actually perched a long way off admiring the formal perfection of his own performance. He is both funny and beautiful, all the while portraying a character—the newspaper editor Walter Burns—utterly self-absorbed, ruthlessly aggressive, and completely indifferent to others, a tyrannical child who has achieved real-world authority, capable of savoring his own self-pity even as he sets up his next con.

We learn from his biographers that Grant’s concern for surface went well beyond his own performance, extending to the minutiae of set decoration and lighting, so that he might delay the day’s shoot by insisting on “doorknobs painted different colors, windows changed, camera angles altered, lenses switched.” By the same token he seems to have taken extraordinary care to conceal whatever lay beneath the surface, at least until the LSD therapy that he began in the late Fifties (when the drug was legal) prompted some unanticipated soul-baring: but even then his revelations were more about his inner life than about how he actually spent his time when the cameras weren’t running.

As a result neither of these new biographies, for all the details that they amass, persuades us that we are getting more than furtive and incomplete glimpses of a life designed to be hidden. Marc Eliot’s Cary Grant is much the more elaborately researched, and turns up a fair share of surprising revelations along with much innuendo and surmise, while the Morecambe and Sterling book, on the whole far more respectful of Grant’s public image, fills in usefully with some diverting quotes and anecdotes. Finally, though, we are left with a fascinating incoherence, not so much a life as a jumble of possible lives. We are led to suspect that the pains Grant took over his professional life—aside from the care lavished on performances, scripts, and production details, he also served virtually as his own agent and was closely involved in the fine points of every contract he ever signed, right down to which of his beautifully tailored costumes he got to keep (ultimately, all)—left him little time to impart much order or direction to what happened offscreen. What he could not control he did his best to hide, and in the process he turned his life into a maze of false mirrors and beguiling misdirections. This was a matter not just of self-protection but of aesthetics; he believed that movie stars should be mysterious, and that to show the public too much was to destroy the source of their power.

2.

What feels most solid in Grant’s story is its point of origin in a world as far removed as possible from the ambience of a Cary Grant movie. Archie Leach was born in Bristol to Elsie Kingdon, a shipwright’s daughter, and Elias Leach, a tailor’s presser at a clothing factory, and grew up in an atmosphere of domestic misery which he later acknowledged, with a mother obsessed with orderliness—“I was fined for spilling things on the tablecloth”—and in perpetual mourning for her first child, who had died in infancy, and a wayward father who would ultimately set up house elsewhere with another woman. When he was ten he came home from school to find his mother gone; he was told at first that she had “gone away,” and later at least one relative suggested that she had died. Cast adrift when his father refused to take him into his new home, he spent a summer sleeping in flophouses and working on the docks of Southampton running errands for the troops shipping out for the war. A classmate from Bristol would later say of him: “He was very scruffy. An ugly duckling. Always poorly dressed. And we tended to ostracize him because of that.”

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