One of the most interesting things about Cary Grant is how open he was about the fact that he wasn’t actually Cary Grant. Unlike most stars, Grant never hid the fact that his professional name was a pseudonym or tried to suppress the fact that he was born Archibald Leach. He was equally candid about the fact that the suave, debonair gentleman he appeared to be was every bit as much of a performance as his work in front of the camera.
Scott Eyman details both types of performance in his brisk, engaging biography. Archie Leach, born in 1904 in Bristol, England, grows up with an alcoholic father and a flighty, overbearing mother who was placed in a sanitarium when Leach was just 11 years old. (Told that she had abandoned the family, and later on that she had died, Leach was already a movie star by the time he found out that his mother was still alive.)
Archie fell in love with the theater and, desperate to leave home, he apprenticed with a troupe of comedians and acrobats, learning the tricks of the trade. Eventually, he made his way to Vaudeville in America, tumbling and doing music hall routines on bills with Jack Benny, George Burns, and others. From there he moved on to some middling roles on Broadway before someone finally realized that he looked like a movie star.
Archie Leach grew up poor and that may have manifested in Cary Grant’s legendary stinginess. He was known to be reluctant to reach for the check at dinner and frequently billed houseguests for phone calls. On the other hand his childhood deprivation of affection may have made him generous to other children. Eyman quotes many child actors who worked with Grant and they all seem to have adored him and appreciated how much he helped them improve as actors. As Grant, he had to look the part however, which meant bespoke suits made to exacting specifications and multiple Rolls-Royces in the garage.
Like his subject, Eyman is a bit obsessive about money. While he goes into detail about the filming of most of Grant’s better films, he pays particular attention to Grant’s pay. The barrage of salary figures and percentages of gross, rights to the negative, etc, all become a bit dizzying after a while.
While just as dizzying, the barrage of famous names is a bit more enchanting. As you might expect of one of the most famous men who ever lived, Grant knew pretty much everyone. Frank Sinatra was a great friend, as was Katharine Hepburn. Howard Hughes was the best man at his third marriage, the one after his marriage to one of the wealthiest women in the country.
All in all Grant was married five times, only the last of which could be said to be a happy one. In the first four Grant seems to have been desperate for the affection denied to him from his family, while at the same time suspicious of any affection he did receive. It was an infuriating contradiction for his wives, especially third wife Betsy Drake, who made titanic efforts to mold herself into the woman Grant seemed to want, and fourth wife Dyan Cannon, who refused to compromise her burgeoning film career to placate Grant’s ego. Grant found consolation in his daughter with Cannon, Jennifer Grant, and also with his fifth and final wife, Barbara Harris.
Eyman does his best to address one of the most persistent rumors surrounding Grant. Even during the time of his earliest successes, there were whispers about his sexuality. Grant lived with actor Randolph Scott for years, well after each could have afforded their own place, leading to speculation that they were a couple. Legendary gossip columnist Hedda Hopper was convinced Grant was gay and would say so to anybody, just not in print. Eyman lays out the evidence, such as it is, consisting of testimonials from his wives and other female lovers that Grant was an enthusiastic bedroom partner. No such testimony exists from men, though Eyman himself seems to be of the belief that Grant was bisexual.
Eyman also devotes quite a lot of time to the central question of Grant’s acting career: Was he a brilliant light comic actor who knew his limitations, or did he damage his art by refusing to take rules outside his comfort zone? Certainly after his string of successes in the late ’30s and ’40s, Grant developed pretty strict rules for what roles he would and wouldn’t take. He wanted to be the unquestioned lead and the object of desire, never the pursuer himself. He wouldn’t play anything too heavy or dramatic. One notable exception was None But the Lonely Heart, a movie directed by the playwright Clifford Odets (a lifelong friend) and which earned Grant one of his few Oscar nominations. Eyman notes that it is by far the role where Grant comes the closest to playing Archie Leach on screen.
Grant retired from acting at 61 because he was getting to old to play the romantic lead parts audiences expected of him. Though he lived another 20 years and never stopped getting offers to return to work, he spent those two decades doting on his daughter, protecting his legacy, and advocating to anyone who would listen about the wondrous effects of LSD.
Grant found the contentment that had eluded him for his whole life in retirement. He tended to credit fatherhood and LSD, but in Eyman’s view leaving the movie business allowed him to fully integrate the Cary Grant persona with the Archie Leach he had been all along. As Cary Grant was fond of pointing out, everyone wanted to be Cary Grant but nobody could, not even Cary Grant.