Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise by Scott Eyman

Simon & Schuster

Book reviewed by Lee Sobel

5 out of 5 stars

Who was Cary Grant? That seems to be the mystery at the core of Scott Eyman's outstanding new biography of the famous movie star. I'm not sure Eyman ever found out who he was because it's likely that Grant himself never found the answer either, despite his attempts to find himself by taking as many as a hundred LSD trips under psychiatric supervision. Was Cary Grant gay, bi, straight? Or was he simply just in love with himself? 

Grant made four iconic movies with director Alfred Hitchcock. The last one they made was the classic mistaken identity thriller North By Northwest (1959's sixth highest grossing movie) and by Eyman's account it was not a happy union during the making of the film. Once he was cast in the movie, Grant supposedly complained constantly about how much money he was making or about the arduous location shooting. All of that seemed to be forgiven when the movie came out and was an instant hit. Grant made a show of his gratitude to Hitchcock yet some ill feelings about it may have lingered with the director. In 1966, Hitchcock was speaking to a group of 

English writers and stated that an actor cannot fake likability on screen, citing Grace Kelly as an example of an actor who exuded likability which was why she was so popular with audiences - unlike Tippi Hedrin who Hitch said audiences did not embrace because she was not inherently likable (ouch). About Grant, Hitchcock said he was the one actor who was so formidably skilled that he could fake charm he did not possess. Hmm....so who was Cary Grant if he was just an illusion?

Cary Grant was born in Bristol, England, as Archibald Alexander Leach (they called him Archie) on January 18, 1904 and died at age 82 on November 29, 1986. Other than the Hitchcock movies, Cary Grant was best known for romantic/screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1938) with Katharine Hepburn and His Girl Friday (1940) with Rosalind Russell. Undeniably dapper and handsome, his trademark voice was ripe for parody in such Merrie Melodies cartoons as 1941's “Hollywood Steps Out." 

Archie's early years fueled his drive to escape England and come to America. His parents were working class. His father paid little attention to him -- preferring to spend time at the pub instead. He had a brother born before him who died two days short of the child's first birthday and his mother's anxieties took the form of being overly controlling of young Archie. When he was eleven years old, Archie's mother was committed to an asylum for the mentally ill where she remained for twenty years. She had been sent to the asylum after arguing with her husband. Harsh!

Archie found a new family to join - that of acrobatic performers and he worked behind the scenes in theater productions assisting with spotlights before joining a troupe called The Penders, performing in English music halls, which was similar to American vaudeville. At age 16, the troupe took him to America where he performed for nine months in New York and decided to stay. An early roommate was the actor who later became the famous Hollywood costume designer Orry-Kelly. Archie supported himself by selling ties hand-painted by Orry-Kelly and working as a stilt walker in Coney Island. By age 27, he was calling himself Cary Grant and making movies for Paramount Pictures. 

Eyman touches on the question of Grant's sexuality which there were rumors going around Hollywood about for many years, mostly based on Grant's living with actor Randolph Scott for more than a decade. Unable to keep a marriage together, Grant's concern that his personality was both the real Archie Leach and the character that he had become named Cary Grant, he attempted to fuse the two together through LSD therapy. He went through some 100 sessions at the office of a Beverly Hills psychiatrist starting in 1958, when the psychedelic drug was legal. Ultimately, Grant felt that the drug was highly beneficial to him, enabling him to stop blaming his parents for everything wrong with his life.

Scott Eyman is a master of writing biographies. I can't imagine another writer doing a better job in telling Cary Grant's life. This is a lively, engrossing read that I recommend to anyone who loves books about classic movie actors.

(c) Greasy Kidstuff Magazine 2020