Over the years, it’s been said, people told Cary Grant they wished they could be like him and the star responded, “So do I.” This is more than an anecdote; it’s the bittersweet truth about a superb actor whose greatest performance was the one he gave for half a century: convincing people that he was just like the debonair fellow he played so effortlessly onscreen.
As Scott Eyman puts it, “Cary Grant was an incrementally devised artificial construct, whereas Archie Leach was the authentic man. Archie had no particular problem being Archie, but playing Cary Grant would easily provoke the emotional equivalent of flop sweat at the risk of being exposed as an impostor.”
His insecurities ran deep, but so did his talent. Eyman understands both facets of Grant’s personality and details them in a biography I would call definitive. As in his books on John Wayne, Ernst Lubitsch, John Ford and others, he has conducted prodigious research and unearthed lots of dishy details. But his eye-opening stories rest on a bedrock of solid facts and sharp observation. He never underestimates Grant’s talent, or the through-line of his career, which sprang from acrobatics in vaudeville to the heights of Hollywood’s golden era.
“Romantic comedy is a battle of the sexes,” he writes, “and since sex was forbidden under the Production Code, the combat had to be expressed verbally or, on occasion, physically, which is where Grant’s comprehensive dexterity proved invaluable.” He also ventures an opinion it would be difficult to debate: Grant’s best performances don’t date a bit. Eyman offers illuminating behind-the-scenes stories about all of the actor’s great films: The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, Notorious, et al.
As to the age-old buzz about Grant’s sexuality, given his long friendship with Randolph Scott and openly-gay costume designer Orry-Kelly, Eyman acknowledges facts as facts and hearsay as hearsay. There seems little doubt that Cary Grant had experiences with men as well as five marriages to a variety of women. Make of it what you will.
The wistful truth is that being Cary Grant didn’t bring the British-born actor much happiness. (That’s one reason he experimented with LSD.) But toward the end of his life he did experience a level of contentment he’d never felt before. It’s the least one could hope for a man who brought so much joy to all of us through his work.