Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise

From The Wall Street Journal:

H.L. Mencken was doubtful that Shakespeare wrote the plays assigned to him because there is substantial evidence that he acted in them, which is an amusing way of saying that actors are not notable for searing intelligence. Their intelligence and much else about famous movie actors was nicely kept under cover during the years, from the 1930s through the early 1960s, of the studio system in Hollywood. The men who ran the great studios—MGM, Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount—knew that the people went to the movies above all to see their favorite actors, and so the actors had to be protected from showing themselves the coarse, ignorant, foolish beings they often were. The studio bosses did this by controlling the interviews their actors gave, restraining them from making political statements, hiding anything peculiar about their sex lives. Actors were where the money was, the vehicles in which the movie business drove all the way to the bank.

One reads about the off-screen lives of actors at the peril of never again being able to enjoy in quite the same innocent way the movies they made.

. . . .

I began Scott Eyman’s biography of Cary Grant with some trepidation. In his movies Cary Grant was the embodiment of suavity, the master of savoir faire, elegant, witty, in every way winning. He was dazzlingly but somehow inoffensively (to men) handsome, for in most of his movies he won over women not by his good looks but by his bumbling yet invincible charm. Would Cary Grant, too, in so-called real life, turn out to be a jerk, a creep, a monster, another disappointment? I, for one, distinctly preferred not.

Cary Grant was born Archibald Alexander Leach in 1904 in Bristol, England, to an alcoholic working-class father (he was a tailor’s presser) and a mother who spent more than 20 years in a mental institution. In Mr. Eyman’s account, Grant, an only child largely ignored by his parents, “would spend the rest of his life coping with the damage inflicted on him during these years,” harassed all his days by unreasonable fear and uncertainty.

The young Archie Leach left school at 14—actually, he was kicked out—and found succor in Bristol’s music halls, the English version of our vaudeville, with a touch of bawdiness added. He soon acquired low-level work among some of the performers and not long after joined a troupe of tumblers, with whom he did acrobatics, stilts-walking and pantomime. The troupe traveled to America, where it played second- and third-line theaters, and when it returned to England the young Archie Leach chose not to return with it.

He found a place acting in B-minus movies in New York, then traveled out to Hollywood, where he gradually found parts in better movies. In 1931 he had his name changed to Cary Grant—or, as Mr. Eyman puts it, “the matchless specimen of masculine charm known as Cary Grant.” A friend of Grant’s once told him, “I always wanted to be Cary Grant,” to which he replied, “So did I.” The subtitle of “Cary Grant” is “A Brilliant Disguise.”

. . . .

What was disguised underneath Grant’s nonchalant aristocratic facade, according to Mr. Eyman, “was a personality of nearly perpetual anxiety.” Grant was a man who had no fewer than five marriages (he remarked late in life that he was a better judge of scripts than wives), spent much of his life in therapy, once attempted suicide, and claimed LSD (which he had taken under supervision more than 100 times) to be a wonder drug that quieted the rumblings in his soul and becalmed him by revealing his true self to him.

Whatever the rich complications in his personal life, Cary Grant was never less than keen about cultivating his professional life. He was sedulous about his personal appearance. He worked daily on his perfect tan. His clothes were, beyond impeccable, perfection. Never rumpled, even when chased by an airplane through a farm field or climbing Mount Rushmore, he was often on Ten Best-Dressed Men lists, and the other nine men, whoever they were, must all have felt themselves more than a touch shabby compared with him. “I consider him not only the most beautiful but the most beautifully dressed man in the world,” said Edith Head, the fabled Hollywood costume designer.

Over his 40-year career, Grant made 73 movies. 

. . . .

Romantic comedy was Cary Grant’s specialty. “Grant was to romantic comedy,” Mr. Eyman writes, “what Fred Astaire was to dance—he made something extremely difficult look easy.” Grant recognized that the key to comedy was in timing, and his own timing, first learned on the English music-hall stage, was consummate. He knew his strengths and limitations and kept his ambition in bounds. William Wilkerson III, son of the founder of the Hollywood Reporter, noted that Grant “was one of the few English actors who had no desire to play Shakespeare.” He avoided glum parts generally, sensing, correctly, that movie audiences had no interest in seeing him, in a wife-beater undershirt, screaming “Stella!”

Grant understood that a key to success for an actor in Hollywood was to work with the best directors. For the most part, he was able to arrange to do so. He worked in films directed by Leo McCarey, Howard Hawks, George Stevens, George Cukor and Alfred Hitchcock. Given his popularity at the box office, he had, as Mr. Eyman writes, “first crack at nearly every script that didn’t involve a cattle drive or space aliens.”

Equally careful about female co-stars, Grant played in movies with Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman. He especially admired Bergman. “Grant found that he liked Ingrid Bergman a great deal,” Mr. Eyman notes. “She was beautiful, but lots of actresses are beautiful. What made Bergman special was her indifference to her looks, her clothes, to everything except her art.” With Bergman he made “Notorious,” “the high-water mark,” according to Mr. Eyman, “of the Hitchcock-Grant collaborations.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)