His reticent triumph and edgy uncertainty seemed elemental, and he was more absorbing than Famous Actors

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We​ are blessed with two books that combine to give us the fullest and most discerning portrait of a movie star we will ever have. But Cary Grant deserves this as much as we do. His subject is Pretending. There are those among us who felt our lives were shaped by the balanced but enigmatic Grant, even as we knew (without understanding properly) that this tanned Mr Lucky, a Beverly Hills rake, had once been Archie Leach, a pale kid from a cold, unhappy home in Bristol.

That was the magical cut in his career. It isn’t simply that some of his films are among the best or most enduring ever made. They show the mysterious rendering of an admirable yet unreliable paragon, who seems to be watching us. His reticent triumph and edgy uncertainty seemed elemental, and he was more absorbing than Famous Actors like Olivier, Brando or Anthony Quinn. But there hasn’t been a book, a Life to hold on to, a place to bring questions – and worries. Now, all at once, there are two of them, and I must warn you, you need both.

There have been books before, some of them opportunist, some earnest and candid about being incomplete. The biographies by Graham McCann and Geoffrey Wansell, both published in 1996, were steps in the right direction. There are memoirs, like Maureen Donaldson’s An Affair to Remember (1989); or Dear Cary: My Life with Cary Grant (2011) by Dyan Cannon, his fourth wife and the mother of his only child. And there is Good Stuff: A Reminiscence of My Father (2011), the very fond book by that child, Jennifer Grant, who was born in 1966, almost exactly as Dad retired from pictures. As she admitted, there was family history she didn’t quite know, just as there were films she wasn’t properly aware of.

A couple of years ago, there was a thoughtful, inventive television documentary, Becoming Cary Grant, made by Mark Kidel, which took advantage of the archive of home movies shot by Grant over the years, and gave clear proof that he looked at pretty women with the mood of an avid hunter. Mark Glancy was the official consultant on the documentary, having already put in several years’ work on his exemplary biography. Glancy is English, an academic film historian and the author of When Hollywood Loved Britain: The Hollywood ‘British’ Film, 1939-45. That is useful preparation for Grant, who never lost the unique mix of West Country and South London in his voice, who always looked up if the name ‘Archie’ was called out but hardly heard ‘Cary’, and whose legend – dire English background leading to daft American glory – had only one rival or model: Charlie Chaplin, slum-kid, then millionaire. But Grant loved or believed in America a lot more than Chaplin ever did.

Glancy’s companion (I refuse to say rival) in this quest is Scott Eyman, an American expert in movie history. His book on John Wayne from 2014 is extraordinary for its revelation of awkwardness in a cinema celebrity. Eyman has also written excellent books on Ernst Lubitsch, Cecil B. DeMille and John Ford, and about the moment when sound changed the art and business of pictures. I think this is Eyman’s best and most heartfelt book. And the reason these two biographies are so compelling is that the uneasy cut from Archie to Cary has got under both writers’ skins.

Archibald Alexander Leach was born on 18 January 1904 in a terraced house in Bristol. His father, Elias, was a clothes presser by trade. His mother, Elsie, had nothing to do but look after her men and, as Archie would realise, she had a need to be in control that could get out of hand. Elias was less than faithful, so Archie carried the extra weight of pleasing his mother. Archie didn’t know that there had been a previous son, who had died just before the age of one. That he didn’t know this is a sign of the oppressive secrecy that affected so much of life in Britain – and hasn’t gone away. Why do the British act so well? Perhaps because so much feeling has been pushed beneath the surface. To come to terms with Grant on screen is to wonder about the things his characters know that aren’t in the script.

It was not a happy household, but it seemed stable enough despite Elsie’s fits of temper. Until one day, when he was 11, Archie came home from school and Mum wasn’t there. Had she gone away? Would she come back? The matter was suspended in doubt. Elias wondered aloud if she was dead. In fact, he had placed her in an asylum in the Bristol suburb of Fishponds because she was ‘queer in the head’ – or more than he could take. She heard voices in the walls and felt she was being watched. Elsie’s confinement seems to have been accomplished without much medical questioning. So she was kept in a building that Archie knew and which he must have passed now and then without a thought. Glancy is careful to say that this was not a Dickensian asylum, or a ‘snake pit’. For that period, it was a decent place. Still, Elsie was held against her will and without anyone asking whether she should have been there.

Archie was quite good at school but had no taste for it, and no need once his mother was gone. He preferred picture shows and music hall at the Bristol Hippodrome. So he went away, too. He was apprenticed to the Pender Troupe of variety players and learned to be a ‘tumbler’. He could do a backflip with a full-body twist and tease a girl with straight-faced insolence. He’d been just a kid when he picked up the habit of parting his hair on the wrong (or right) side. Now he was growing to be tall, dark and handsome. The stage meant so much: the warmth from audiences was the most convincing he had known.

In the summer of 1920 Archie went with the troupe to New York and a rising career in vaudeville. That took him from 16 to 26, by which point his physical dexterity was matched by an ability to pass in America as debonair, charming and easy-going. Those would be the keynotes of Cary Grant. But he was still Archie, until the actress Fay Wray urged a name change (they had performed together in 1931 in a musical, Nikki, which flopped on Broadway, and he was smitten with her). ‘Cary’ was the guy he had played in Nikki; ‘Grant’ came out of the phone book. Thus equipped, he took on Hollywood. Glancy notes that in his screen debut, This Is the Night (1932), Grant kept his hands stuffed in his pockets because he didn’t know what else to do with them. But in the next few years, he benefited from playing with Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus, and with Mae West in She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel. Best of all – albeit in a big failure – he met George Cukor and Katharine Hepburn on a film, Sylvia Scarlett, that was too daring for its time, in which he played Jimmy Monkley, a Cockney con artist, and felt able to be himself.

He needed this, for his life was in crisis. In late 1933, at his father’s repeated urging, Grant went back to England, accompanied by his wife to be, Virginia Cherrill, a beautiful socialite who had played the blind girl in Chaplin’s City Lights. So what did Elias want? It was to tell his son that while he was in bad health, Archie’s mother was actually alive and well enough, but in Fishponds Asylum. Grant, furious, went to visit his mother. She was 57 with white hair and missing teeth. She didn’t know who he was. He had felt deserted by his mother, but now had to realise that she believed he had deserted her. In London, he had some kind of breakdown. Thirteen years later, in Notorious, Grant does a magnificent rescue of Ingrid Bergman, carrying her down a dangerous staircase in front of their enemies. But he hadn’t rescued his mother – and did not, even after he discovered the truth. Elias died in December 1935, yet it was July 1936 before Elsie was released from the asylum, without formal difficulty. And so the son, on the verge of stardom, had to recreate both a relationship with Mum and a cover story for what had happened.

This is hideous, of course, and it is no leap to assume that Grant was for ever stricken over Elsie, as well as abidingly awkward with her – she didn’t die until the age of 95, in 1973. Cary supported her. For a while he tried to bring her to Los Angeles. And he never escaped the shadow of guilt. This is easily cast as a cloud of conventional loss, and both books follow that line. But the more I think about it the more I wonder if there wasn’t an extra twist to the remorse. The Leach family in Bristol was extensive. Surely other adults knew where Elsie was. Did they keep silent for the sake of the boy? Perhaps, but that furtiveness can lead to gossip and rumour. So was Grant’s anxiety – and subsequent difficulty in sustaining relationships with women – sharpened by his having known, or guessed, years before? Elsie was shut up for 21 years and seven months, and no one ever said Archie or Cary was stupid.

Glancy has a further revelation. Elsie had a sister, Alice Kingdon, 17 years her senior. In 1891, Alice had been declared a pauper and sent to the workhouse. She moaned so much that she was passed on to Fishponds Asylum as suffering from ‘mania’, and would spend 27 years there. In other words, the sisters were confined in the same asylum, and with the same diagnosis. It isn’t just that Archie could hardly have escaped hearing about this; Cary may have wondered if there was insanity in his family line.

His system was in shock; there were stories of a suicide attempt, and these books understand that his urbanity could sometimes be reduced to tatters. His relationship with Cherrill was in ruins. It had been no more than a ‘mink and diamonds’ marriage. Those were the words of Orry George Kelly, an Australian who had been Archie’s flatmate in New York in the late 1920s. He would turn into Orry-Kelly, one of the most successful costume designers in Hollywood and a confident gay man who had an amused but sour view of Leach as an ambitious social climber, and not quite honest about his sex life.

It still isn’t settled how actively gay Grant was in these years. Glancy announces at the start of his book that he has found no evidence at all that Grant was gay. Eyman is more circumspect. I think he started out on his book feeling that a man married five times must be straight. But to study the insecurity of Hollywood people (then and now), and their craving for affection or reassurance, is to be less convinced about that. Grant was highly sexed and consistently faithless: both books make that clear. My feeling is that he was too curious or speculative to do nothing with the days and years of boredom that can befall a star. Through most of the 1930s he had another live-in pal. Randolph Scott posed with him in tanned beach pictures, rather in the way Grant might look at a woman on screen and let the caption sink in: ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ These shots weren’t private, they were studio publicity in magazine spreads that said ‘Batching It’. The suggestion is on the screen, and all over it. Grant was a flirt, and true flirts can’t help themselves; they will turn it on with mirrors, cameras, leopards, or chaps. When he visited Britain in 1933 with Cherrill, Randy went with them.

No one could say Cary Grant was natural robust casting. Who had the nerve to put him in a Western or a gangster picture? He did excellent knockabout adventure on the north-west frontier in Gunga Din (truly a boys’ club film). But for the most part, though he did carry off a white negligée with marabou trimming in Bringing Up Baby, it’s hard to think of Grant dressed in anything so informal as even an open-neck shirt. If he was going to be himself on screen it would require a suit and tie (so why not a Savile Row suit), with dialogue and tricky emotional situations. It’s a good thing his moment was in the late 1930s and not today.

As it happened, he soared. He had a hit with Topper (1937); then he was taken up by the director Leo McCarey to play opposite Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth (also 1937), a delicious commentary on marital duplicity and a sly celebration of infidelity. Never mind what America thought of adultery, Hollywood in 1937 was boasting: ‘This is how we do it.’ Bringing Up Baby came next, in 1938, with Howard Hawks and Katharine Hepburn. He was with Kate again the year after in Holiday, George Cukor’s version of a Philip Barry play. In 1939 Gunga Din was followed by Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings, with Grant in a sombrero, pantaloons and a flyboy jacket. Apparently at a desolate South American airfield, he might have been dressed by Orry-Kelly. His elegance was as surreal as Fred Astaire’s.

Next, for Hawks, with Rosalind Russell, he was the demon newspaper editor coaxing, goosing and one-upping His Girl Friday (1940). In a couple of years more, he had done The Philadelphia Story (Cukor, Barry, Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart, who got an Oscar). Only then did he make his first Hitchcock film, Suspicion (1941), as a rascal intent on killing his wife (the lovely, grand but slightly fatuous Joan Fontaine – she got an Oscar, too). Some of these films may not be as good as the others (there are Velázquezes like that), but in four years Grant had changed screen acting. Other guys won the Oscars – His Girl Friday was nominated for nothing, sufficient reason to disband the Academy.

Had he found clarity in his emotional life? Had his remorseless careerist ambition been set free? Or was he simply lucky enough to be there, looking terrific yet casual, as the Hollywood talking picture reached deeper into adult sensibility than it has ever dared since? How had backstreet Bristol and ignominy admitted him to the patio and salon of Hollywood society? In part it was because the film business was so desperate to go classy. As depression and then war fell on Europe there was an uncanny court of style and pretentious favour set up in Los Angeles. The idealisation of Cary Grant could not have happened without it.

Eyman’s book comes into its own once Grant is established in the movie kingdom, and helps us feel the wisdom of his subtitle, ‘A Brilliant Disguise’. We follow along as Grant absorbs the techniques of movie reticence and gains his reputation for fabulous assurance. Eyman’s biographical insights show that his jauntiness was a mask covering insatiable unease. It’s instructive to see the way the very likeable screen image was steadily trending towards unsound or dangerous characters.

Jerry Warriner in The Awful Truth is a merry cad. His wife decides to hold on to him, but the electric gaiety in Grant’s wry handling of physical comedy leaves us sure that Jerry cannot be trusted. In a way, that is the awful truth: the romantic dream is itself a lie. In Bringing Up Baby, David Huxley is brilliant and inept. He learns to have fun with madcap Susan, but he is consigning himself to a nocturnal forest of insanity. In Only Angels Have Wings, Geoff is a flamboyant but cold leader who refuses to be sentimental, and is reluctant to tell anyone he loves them.

Johnnie Aysgarth in Suspicion is a pathological liar. The dark ending that film deserved was cleared away for a stupid flourish of studio uplift. But if you look at Suspicion again, you have to see that Grant is revelling in Johnny’s disturbance and his polite hostility. It is the most disconcerting film Hitchcock had made up to that point. As for His Girl Friday, the story of two men in the newspaper business was revolutionised by Hawks’s idea that one of them was a woman. What’s more, the couple had been married and then divorced because Walter was such a stinker, then Walter decides to win her back. It’s a wild game, but hold on to the relentless male supremacy that Grant gives the guy and which even today is swallowed by audiences as charming. Grant was doing a backflip in which nonchalance turned deadly without viewers feeling upset.

And I haven’t properly explored Notorious (1946), where his Devlin can be flat-out hostile to the woman he loves. That was Hitchcock again, digging into Grant’s distancing, and they went on to make a screwball sequel – North by Northwest (1959), where Grant is a middle-aged wastrel, Roger O. Thornhill, or ROT on his monogrammed matchbooks. That irresponsible man undergoes a moral education at the cool but knowing hands of Eva Marie Saint. (The best thing she ever did? A lot of actors excelled with Grant.) These books remind us that Hitchcock once talked about likeability onscreen as a thing that couldn’t be faked. ‘There was,’ he said, ‘only one actor in the world so formidably skilled that he could fake a charm he did not in fact possess.’ Yes, he’s talking about our guy.

Sometimes,​ an actor may escape into his roles, as if to concede that life is too damn difficult. Grant was married to Barbara Hutton for a few years. She was maybe the richest woman in the world, but not the most interesting, and if he despaired of what he was doing at her luxurious social events, then kissing Ingrid Bergman for a few minutes at a time in Notorious may have been consolation. There was a third wife, Betsy Drake, an actress and writer so interested in psychology that she helped Grant towards levels of self-examination that included LSD therapy. Then he betrayed her, terribly, with Sophia Loren, whom he thought he wanted to marry. Dyan Cannon was marriage number four, and Barbara Harris, a hotel publicist in London, was the fifth. But we are left in no doubt that his daughter, Jennifer, was his best friend, offering him a role he could play for twenty years without shame or betrayal. She was entranced, of course, and utterly loyal, and I think they were happy together.

Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise 
by Scott Eyman.

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