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.
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.”
He was drawn to music halls and cinemas from an early age, by thirteen was working as a lighting assistant at the Bristol Hippodrome, and not long after teamed up with the vaudeville troupe of Bob Pender. Pender taught him acrobatics and encouraged him to work on losing his brogue, an effort at self-transformation that led to his developing his own personal dialect: a flawed imitation of sophisticated speech that became a model of it. When he was expelled from school a year later—supposedly for stealing from a church, though it may have been more prank than serious delinquency—he became a full-time member of the troupe, touring extensively in England, Europe, and even, Eliot suggests, “the larger theatrical outposts of the Middle East.” In 1920 they sailed for New York. On board the Olympic, we are told, he befriended fellow passengers Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, thus initiating the transformation of Archie Leach’s fairly bleak reality into the luminous dream-life of Cary Grant.
It is here, on the threshold of this new world, that Grant already begins to elude detection. Eliot’s account of his life between 1920, when he opened at New York’s Hippodrome in Good Times, “a world-class extravaganza, complete with elephants, zebras, monkeys, horses, acrobats, fireworks, dazzling light shows, solo singers, cyclists, dancers, chorales, musicians, magicians, and a self-contained water show,” to 1932 when he shot his first picture for Paramount, This Is the Night, is a compound of rumor and hypothesis intercut with show-biz statistics and Grant’s own very selective recollections. He stayed on in America, touring the vaudeville circuit with Pender’s troupe and then on his own, encountering James Cagney and the Marx Brothers; he worked as a black-tie escort and made the rounds of Park Avenue parties passing for the kind of sophisticate he would play in the movies, “gaining a name as the number one gigolo in town”; he perfected his look by pomading his hair and laboriously polishing his teeth.
He was especially proud of his great teeth and practiced fixing his smile in such a way as to show them off to their fullest advantage. He brushed them compulsively, several times a day, often until his gums bled…. He carried a brush with him at all times and in company would excuse himself after smoking a cigarette to get to a men’s room, where he would scrub any dulling residue, real or imagined, from his three-packs-a-day habit.
When other employment failed he reverted to stilt-walking at Coney Island.
He roomed on Barrow Street with an older Welsh set designer who was “extremely effeminate and openly and unashamedly gay,” and who Eliot presumes was not only Grant’s lover but his instructor in matters of social style. The Morecambe and Sherman book, by contrast, remarks with tortuous discretion:
Archie’s sex life at this point remains shrouded in some mystery, but there’s no doubt that this superbly handsome, charming young Englishman was compellingly attractive to New York women of varying ages…. Though nothing has ever been proved, it is possible he was assumed to be gay by those directors and producers of a similar nature.
After several years the relationship ended badly and Grant began living alone, clinging to the fringes of show business, evidently at a very low ebb.
The late 1920s found him, in Eliot’s account, a familiar of the “elite gay Broadway social scene,” where he made useful connections and began to clamber out of a long period of depression and isolation. He frequented a show-business set that included Moss Hart, Preston Sturges, Humphrey Bogart, and the playwright Edward Chodorov, who later remarked that “he was never a very open fellow, but he was earnest and we liked him.” That remark is about the most incisive description of Grant to emerge from this entire period: his movements can be tracked, at least in part, but there is scarcely a hint of what went on within him. He worked on polishing his image as assiduously as he polished his teeth, perfecting his manners, his accent, and the flair for clothes he had picked up under his father’s tutelage (“shoes are important” was one major life lesson). When, after a string of increasingly successful Broadway appearances, he made it to Hollywood and, at Paramount’s strong urging, changed his name to Cary Grant, Josef von Sternberg completed the metamorphosis by demonstrating that he should part his hair on the right side instead of the left.
What is odd about the bare account of Grant’s early career is its tempo. Show-biz biographies tend to be imbued, especially in their early stages, with the élan of the striver; Grant moves at a more erratic pace, and it is hard to tell when he is pushing himself forward and when he is drifting on a tide of circumstance. His compul-sive self-discipline in matters of self-presentation—the powerful impulse to ensure that every aspect of what the world sees is not merely beyond criticism, but also apparently effortless—is shadowed by what seems like a tendency to hide out or go against the current. Once he becomes established as a movie star, his patterns become even harder to read: not least, perhaps, for himself.
He was anchored by an unwavering professionalism as an actor and filmmaker, and an equally unwavering regard for money. He had as much genius for business as for acting, and parlayed the freelance status on which he insisted after 1936 into a large fortune, infuriating the studio heads who, according to Eliot, saw to it that he never got an Oscar until his honorary award in 1970. His penny-pinching (he was a notoriously bad tipper and would present a bill for laundry and phone calls to houseguests who overstayed their welcome) became legendary. Beyond the stinginess lay something like austerity; the mansions in which he lived were often barely furnished. His stated ambition for his later years was to lie in bed reading.
Ordinarily we read biographies to get an idea of what it would have been like to know the subject. In the case of a movie star like Grant, however, we feel we already know him, can evoke his gait and tone of voice and facial reactions; so that we picture him in the scenes described by the biographer as if they were episodes from lost movies, movies that often seem oddly refracted versions of the ones we know. When we read of his long, on-again, off-again cohabitation with Randolph Scott in the 1930s—an open secret that Eliot describes as “one of the longest, deepest, and most unusual love relationships in the history of Hollywood”—we can immediately conjure up Grant and Scott’s poolside scene in My Favorite Wife (1940), with Irene Dunne suddenly a bit superfluous.
The account of Grant and Scott breaking up and each getting promptly engaged, then traveling together in November 1933 on an ocean liner to London where Grant was to meet up with his fiancée, Virginia Cherrill—a crossing on which Grant supposedly devoted himself to lounging in silk pajamas, drinking excessively, and playing dismal music on the piano—might have come from some slightly more subterranean screwball comedy of the era. Or, indeed, from the moment in Bringing Up Baby (1938) when Grant, in Katharine Hepburn’s bathrobe, announces to her astonished aunt: “I’ve suddenly gone gay!” Even Eliot’s theory that Grant may have been recruited by the FBI in 1942 to spy on his second wife, the Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, who was suspected of funneling money to the Nazis to protect her Danish ex-husband, resonates with plot elements of two of his films from the same period, Once Upon a Honeymoon (1943) and Notorious (1946).
Some of the speeded-up splits and reconciliations, lockouts and pursuits of Grant’s various marriages and love affairs (after the final parting from Scott, men disappear from the story) sound like nothing so much as the prom-night imbroglios of a bunch of adolescents just in the process of finding themselves, or more exactly of not finding themselves. Grant often comes across as someone who never quite had time to grow up and tried to make up for it hurriedly, between pictures. There is an air of barely contained chaos and emotional catastrophe that explodes in episodes of extreme possessiveness and violent jealousy (at one point he rammed the car of Oscar Levant, his rival for Virginia Cherrill’s affections), of heavy solitary drinking, prolonged depressions, and what may have been a botched suicide attempt.
He had at least one major legitimate motive for confusion. On returning to Bristol in 1934 as the triumphant movie star, he was informed, in a plot twist worthy of an early Thirties melodrama, that his mother had not in fact died, but had been confined (because of a “nervous breakdown”) to the Fishponds mental hospital (“one of the worst medical facilities in all of Great Britain,” according to Eliot) for the past eighteen years. This was evidently a matter of convenience for Grant’s father, freeing him from his wife in order to devote himself to his new family. Grant eventually obtained her release and saw her at regular intervals for the rest of her life, but this shock must have made his previous adult life appear abruptly unreal, or perhaps compounded a sense of unreality already present.
The contrast between Bristol and Hollywood—between the world from which he had escaped as quickly as he could, but whose claim on him came back in the grotesque form of his mother’s fate, and the alternate world created by the studio system, that immense farm where marketable talents were bred and luxuriously stabled but never allowed too much freedom—must have exacerbated his feeling of having nowhere really to call his own. He rebelled against both spheres, clearing out of Bristol and then slipping from the trammels of the studios by making himself a free bargaining agent. But his biography suggests a fundamental unease only alleviated, and then only temporarily, by making one picture after another.
At his worst moments the biographical Grant—as opposed to his eternally young and pleasure-giving cinematic double—begins to look like a classic twentieth-century neurotic, Western World division, sexually and emotionally confused, grumpy, peevish, self-pitying, complaining, a discreetly alcoholic chain-smoker, obsessed with personal appearance and social decorum, counting every penny while searching for wisdom in spiritual tracts and self-help manuals. Or he begins to disappear altogether, a cipher cunningly miming all the shades of emotional response while, behind it all, nursing a morbid shyness. The line between feeling and acting is never clearly defined: he never studied acting, and he always acknowledged that to some extent he was playing himself. (One thinks of James Mason murmuring to him—after Grant has protested his utter innocence—in North by Northwest: “With such exquisite play-acting, you make this very room a theater.”)
In his later years, particularly after his marriage (the third) to the young actress Betsy Drake in 1949, Grant actively sought mystical enlightenment and psychological release. He went to live in the desert with Drake to try to radically simplify his life; he cured himself of chain-smoking through hypnosis; they traveled through Asia seeking out “various religious, mystical, and psychological figures” (unfortunately left unidentified by Eliot). In 1957 he began to take LSD under medical supervision, and ultimately became an enthusiastic spokesman for the drug, telling the reporter Joe Hyams (in an interview he came to regret):
I have been born again. I have been through a psychiatric experience which has completely changed me…. Now I know that I hurt every woman I ever loved. I was an utter fake, a self-opinionated bore, a know-all who knew very little…. The moment when your conscious meets your subconscious is a hell of a wrench.
Grant wrote extensively about his LSD experiences, speaking of passing “through changing seas of horrifying and happy sights, through a montage of intense hate and love, a mosaic of past impressions assembling and reassembling.” It is startling to realize that Grant was undergoing these visionary revelations just around the time he was starring as the self-centered, martini-drinking, decidedly unenlightened adman Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest: another instance of the ultimate inscrutability of Cary Grant.
The debonair wit and man about town, rakish and nonchalant in tux-edo or smoking jacket—Wilde’s Algie in The Importance of Being Earnest provides the classic instance—flitted through drawing-room comedies of the late nineteenth and early twenti-eth centuries as an emblem of unfettered pleasure-seeking and sophisticated detachment. How odd that a muscular, thick-necked youth sprung from a gloomy lower-middle-class Bristol household should transform himself into the apotheosis of that type. The Cary Grant that Archie Leach invented was the imitation of an imitation—specifically, by his account, a compound of Noël Coward, Jack Bu-chanan, Rex Harrison, Fred Astaire, and Hoagy Carmichael:
When I was a young actor, I’d put my hand in my pocket trying to look relaxed…. I was trying to imitate what I thought a relaxed man looked like.
In the end, of course—as he romances Deborah Kerr on shipboard in An Affair to Remember or strides into the Oak Room of the Plaza as if it were his natural habitat in North by Northwest —he becomes the “real thing” that latecomers can only imitate.
Except to the dwindling band of those who actually knew him, any “real” life led by Cary Grant is wraithlike compared to his alternate, realer-than-real cinematic life. This could be true of any actor, but if Grant still strikes us as supreme in his domain it’s because all the contradictions of his being are present on the screen. The masks and the elusiveness are there, but so is a disarming sincerity: the sincerity of someone who has scarcely had time or opportunity to develop an inner life. For all his masterful control of surface, there is something unguarded about the way he lets us watch him in the very act of thinking.
In a sense he is always being himself: but because he has so many selves to choose from, he is never the same person twice. Recall Grant in his best performances—among them The Awful Truth, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, Suspicion, Notorious, Monkey Business, An Affair to Remember, Kiss Them for Me, North by Northwest—and it becomes apparent that he embodies a distinctly different personality in each, even if they might use the same gestures and flash the same smile. Small wonder that the directors who elicited his best work from him, Hawks and Hitchcock, dreamed of casting him respectively as Don Quixote and as Hamlet: having seen what he could do, they suspected that he could probably do anything.
December 16, 2004