Mr Perfect: the enigma of Cary Grant
Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30
This weekend Bristol is paying tribute to its most famous son. The Cary Grant Festival, which features open-air screenings, talks and documentaries, reaches its climax tomorrow night with a showing at the Bristol Museum of one of Grant's best loved films, Bringing Up Baby, a delightful screwball caper that helped establish him as the pre-eminent comic actor of his time.
He died 30 years ago this November, but remains among the most popular of the great Hollywood stars. He's certainly the most enigmatic, because while his name has become a kind of byword for masculine suavity and elegance, it wasn't his real one, and even Grant himself acknowledged the large distinction between his screen image and actual self. "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant," he once said ruefully. "Even I want to be Cary Grant."
The tanned and smooth-talking ladies' man who was always perfectly dressed and never seemed ill at ease was of course a construct, a persona Grant developed by copying the mannerisms of the English upper class. He could never quite get their accent right, and his own strange mid-Atlantic drawl was the result of his attempts.
"Nobody talks like that!" Jack Lemmon insisted to the Grant-impersonating Tony Curtis in Some Likes It Hot, but those strange locutions just added to the overall untouchable effect.
It must have been a cross for Grant to bear in his private life, because everyone who fell for him (he had five wives, many lovers, perhaps not always female) may have been seduced as much by the image as the real man.
That real man was born Archibald Leach on January 18, 1904, in the Bristol suburb of Horfield. He was the only surviving child of a tailor's assistant and a seamstress, and his childhood sounds rather miserable. His father drank too much, his mother was clinically depressed, and young Archie sought refuge in the rough magic of the cinema and the music hall.
His favourites were the comics, like Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle, and by the age of 10 he'd joined a troupe of acrobats and mastered stilt-walking. Performing around Britain and Europe provided a welcome distraction from the miseries of home: when Archie was nine, his father had placed his mother in a sanatorium and told the boy she was dead. It wasn't until many years later that he found out she was alive.
In 1915, he won a scholarship to a grammar school called Fairfield, where he soon earned a reputation for being disruptive. After getting expelled in 1918, he began performing in music hall, and in 1920 travelled to America as part of a touring show.
In New York, the 16-year-old Archie initially hit the big time, spending nine months at the enormous New York Hippodrome performing in a popular review show. He was hell-bent on staying in America whatever it took, and began picking up spots performing comic turns in vaudeville. But times were tough, and he made ends meet by walking the Coney Island seafront on stilts promoting a local racetrack, and working as an escort in swanky Manhattan nightclubs. There he learnt to walk properly and wear a tuxedo.
Through the 1920s he gradually transformed himself into a romantic leading man and appeared with some success in a series of Broadway comic dramas and musicals. Then, in 1932, he decided to move to Hollywood.
Now 27, Leach still had a lot to learn about acting, and early screen tests were underwhelming. In December of 1932, he did a test for Paramount, whose general manager, BP Schulberg, saw something and offered the young Englishman a five-year contract on one condition - that he change his name "to something that sounded more all-American, like Gary Cooper". Cary Grant was born.
Grant had good looks of course, he was tall (6ft 1in) and tanned, but so where a thousand other guys hoping to get a break in Hollywood. The thing that initially made him stand out was a kind of easy, unforced charm that shot out through the lens and soon got his career started.
He knocked about for a few years playing second wheel in romantic comedies and villains in more serious dramas. But nothing quite seemed to suit, and he'd been shunted around several studios before he was loaned to Hal Roach for a screwball comedy called Topper. Released in 1937, it starred Grant and Constance Bennett as a gad-about couple who die in a car crash and return as mischievous ghosts. Grant revelled in the film's giddy atmosphere, which allowed him to showcase his flair for slapstick. It was a big hit, and a string of screwball comedies followed that established him as a major box-office draw.
Chief among these was Bringing Up Baby (1938), a Howard Hawks comedy that underwhelmed cinema-goers but was lauded by critics, who praised the chemistry between Grant and co-star Katharine Hepburn. They would team up again delightfully in Holiday (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940), but Grant also worked well with Irene Dunne in the wonderful screwballs The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favourite Wife (1940), and was superb playing a ruthless newspaper editor opposite Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940).
All those films had great leading ladies, sparkling scripts, but Cary Grant had an insouciance, a deftness of touch, that brought them fully to life. He made it look so easy, but it really wasn't, as became evident whenever other Hollywood actors tried their hand at screwball. Grant would improvise, and his prat-falls were positively balletic: watching him in screwball was like witnessing a great tenor in his prime. Take a look at his glorious performance in Frank Capra's 1944 caper Arsenic and Old Lace.
But there was more to him than that, and he was clever enough to realise that the screwball craze would pass, and that if he didn't diversify, he'd soon be in trouble. And so, in 1941, he began what would be a long and fruitful partnership with his newly arrived compatriot Alfred Hitchcock. Suspicion cast him opposite Joan Fontaine in a spine-tingling thriller about a cold-hearted playboy who targets a rich spinster.
Grant's character, Johnny Aysgarth, was callous and manipulative, and in the film's most memorable scene, walks slowly up a grand flight of stairs carrying a glass of milk for his wife that seems to glow from within and may or may not be poisoned. His performance in Suspicion was delightfully ambivalent, and proved he was not merely comic. And as he grew older, Grant interspersed light romantic comedies and dramas like The Bishop's Wife (1948) and I Was a Male War Bride (1949) with more Hitchcock collaborations, most memorably Notorious (1946) and North by Northwest (1956).
That latter showcased his longevity as a screen star: in his mid-50s but still fit and handsome, he gave a commanding performance as Roger Thornhill, a suave and self-absorbed Madison Avenue advertising executive who goes on the run across America after being mistaken for a spy.
He seemed to have decades of film work ahead of him, but Grant was already planning his escape. He did score one last big hit in 1964 with the comedy Father Goose, but when Alfred Hitchcock sounded him out about starring in his 1966 thriller Torn Curtain, Grant told him he'd retired.
"I could have gone on acting and playing a grandfather or a bum," he said later, "but I discovered more important things in life."
He'd become a father for the first time, and wanted to make sure he spent plenty of time with his baby daughter.
During his last years, he was constantly asked to return to the screen but, perhaps wisely, always said no. Instead, he concentrated on running his various business interests - he was a very astute investor, and served on the boards of Fabergé and MGM.
He was a shy man, socially awkward, and wives and friends would describe him as remote, unknowable. But perhaps that's not surprising given his upbringing, and the sense of rootlessness it inspired. He spent years in psychotherapy trying to find himself, and for a time used LSD, which didn't help. But at the end of his life Grant was philosophical, proud, though not overly so, of his remarkable legacy in film, and more at ease about his life's contradictions. "I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be," he once said, "until finally I became that person - or he became me."
IF YOU WATCH ONE MOVIE
Irish filmmaker Ken Wardrop charmed everyone with his 2010 feature debut His & Hers, a knowingly quirky documentary which used straight-to-camera interviews to chart the love lives of midlands women, young and old. And in his winning new film, Mom and Me, he casts his net a little wider. A study of men's relationships with their mothers, Wardrop's low-key documentary was filmed in and around Oklahoma City, a no-nonsense Midwestern burg that reckons it's "the manliest city in the US". But instead of macho men, we find tender and emotional chaps who come over all teary when the subject turns to their mammies.
Those men come from all walks of life: there's a mournful drug addict who's serving time in prison and knows he should have listened to his mom; a high-flying lawyer whose weekly visits with his mother help to keep him grounded; and a rueful Native American man who worships his frail, 80-something mother and dreads losing her. While very personal, these stories are given universality by Wardrop's sensitive editing and the comments of an Oklahoma talk-show host, whose rueful musings form a neat framing device to this slight but very likeable film.