The legendary mystique of Cary Grant is felt as keenly today as any major living celebrity, and if we’re being honest, probably more.
In just a few quick keystrokes, you can read articles praising the Hollywood star’s style, watch dozens of his films not to mention documentaries about him, learn how to copy his style (Grant’s himself wrote a 1962 essay about his sartorial philosophy,) and even buy Cary Grant sunglasses from Oliver Peoples, inspired by the ones he donned in North by Northwest.
Charade, The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby, and The Awful Truth are just a few of the memorably glamorous, witty and often goofy classic movies the debonair gent made during the Golden Age of Hollywood, after he was expelled from school in Bristol, England at 16 and apprenticed with a music hall troupe, determined to become a comedian. In 1920, he made his way to New York.
After a little more than a decade on East Coast vaudeville circuit, the actor formerly known as Archie Leach signed with Paramount in 1931 and was announced, in the New York Herald Tribune that December, as Cary Grant. Cary was name of his character in the play Nikki, the short-lived but praised lead romantic role opposite Fay Wray that led to his first screen test, and Grant chosen from a list of generic surnames.
In spite of the many biographies, few have satisfactorily solved the mystery of his enduring allure. This season brings two more attempts that fare better because they explore Grant’s personal papers that have been in the Motion Picture Arts and Science’s Margaret Herrick Library since 2002: Cary Grant: The Making of a Hollywood Legend, a drier account from academic Mark Glancy that focuses on his filmmaking life, and the more engaging, in depth Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise, by Hollywood historian Scott Eyman.
In a recent telephone interview from his home in Palm Beach, Fla., Eyman says he wasn’t sure he wanted to write about Grant, but during preliminary research, he read the diary Leach kept at 14 “for about five months, until he got bored with it.” That convinced the New York Times-bestselling author of biographies about Louis B. Mayer, John Ford, John Wayne and Ernst Lubitsch, because it was clear Grant “was absolutely on his own psychologically and emotionally. And I thought that was interesting, for a kid that young to be so self-contained.” It intrigued him enough to investigate the reasons why Grant invented such a highly stylized public persona. “I did also think that he’s been grossly misrepresented, and almost certainly oversimplified,” says Eyman.
Throughout Grant’s childhood his parents argued about money, because there was never enough of it. Elias became an alcoholic and philanderer, and was often absent for work. Elsie was prone to bouts of depression, emotionally erratic, and her mental health deteriorated. At 11, his father effectively told him she had died, but at 29, Grant learned the truth: Elias had attested to Elsie’s mania in order to have her committed to an institution so he could more easily remarry.
Grant’s childhood abandonment issues and guilt would plague him with dark moods as well as lifelong insecurity and anxiety. “He didn’t know where he was going,” Eyman says, “but he knew what he was gonna leave — and what he was gonna leave was Bristol.”
Refreshingly, the biography sidesteps psychoanalysis and sticks to uncovering facts that illuminate more of Grant’s life. The due diligence is extensive: he sifts through Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper’s interview transcripts, dozens of oral histories and archives and interviews contemporaries and friends such as Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Robert Wagner, and Peter Bogdanovich, as well as Grant’s only child, Jennifer Grant.
“Which I think is so full of bile and contempt and projection of dislike of the audience,” Eyman says, “in that he felt somehow imprisoned by their expectations and obviously by his own need to meet the audience’s expectation.”
As Eyman puts it: “His greatest performance was Cary Grant.”
It was informed by complicated and often contradictory layers, and the resulting biography is empathetic, but neither reverential nor particularly flattering. It also brims with insight by incorporating the greater financial, social, and cultural context of Grant’s Hollywood heyday. In addition to being notoriously cheap with all but a few close friends, the avatar of all that is suave and urbane (so much so that he was one of Ian Fleming’s inspirations for James Bond) was paradoxically full of charm and charmless – in real life prickly and often downright unpleasant.
But Grant always said, Eyman reminds us, the grumpy characters of Walter in Father Goose and Ernie in None but the Lonely Heart were closest to who he really was: self-absorbed and indifferent to many things society pretended to value.
“Grant was to romantic comedy what Fred Astaire was to dance – he made something that is extremely difficult look easy,” Eyman writes. Where some biographies allow Grant’s dashing icon status to obscure his performances, this one analyses the evolution of his unique acting style, including the particular way Grant had of being in the movie and slightly outside that movie at the same time, as Eyman explains it. “He seemed to have a slightly raised eyebrow about his own persona in the movie the other characters in the movie.
“Nobody really approaches him as an actor,” Eyman adds. “Or they approach him as this god-given blithe spirit who sort of sashayed through Hollywood for 40 years and then disappeared like a chimera.” What’s more, he continued to watch his performances with a critical eye and work on the finer points of his comic timing, gestures, and skills well into the 1950s, like a comedian always refining a routine. Like Grant seeing the rushes on To Catch a Thief and asking Alfred Hitchcock for additional takes, “he was always checking his swing, like a batter,” Eyman says.
As Grant became more successful he became risk-averse and eschewed roles that deviated from his expected urbanity (notably, he never played the villain). The more successful he got, the more cautious Grant became, Eyman says (wistful of roles in Lolita and The Third Man he turned down), right up until he withdrew from film acting in 1966 after Dyan Cannon – wife no. 4 – gave birth to Jennifer. By all accounts, including Jennifer’s, Grant was a devoted and doting parent. He wanted children, but his early marriages endured miscarriages, and he was a devoted stepfather to Lance, wife Barbara Hutton’s son. Lance’s childhood friend Tarquin Olivier (son of actor Laurence) fondly remembers how great Grant was around children. (“He was a marvelous kid and he helped me realize what I was missing by not having children,” Grant would say years later.)
Being bankable and earning money enabled Grant to withdraw from show business, so the finer details around his financial acumen, negotiated deals and profit percentages are essential to get a clear idea of the man. For all the acrobatic comedy and boundary-pushing screwball moments, he had an astute business sense and cravenly commercial instincts. According to Eyman, Grant’s refusal to go on television “indicates how smart he was about the nature of his appeal, which was upscale and upmarket. And he wouldn’t do anything to even possibly derail that.”