One of Hollywood's legendary leading men is the subject of a new book. Cary Grant: A Biography by Marc Eliot examines the life and career of the late actor so many women were infatuated with and men wished they could be. Even Cary Grant said he, too wished he "could be Cary Grant" a creation all his own that was a long journey from an impoverished, traumatic childhood in Bristol, England.
The tall, dark and classically handsome actor was the epitome of urbane sophistication. But what Cary Grant brought to the screen that made him Hollywood's favorite movie idol for nearly four decades was more than simple good looks. He could play leading man and comic foil, as he did with actress Katherine Hepburn in such groundbreaking 1930s comedies as "The Philadelphia Story and "Bringing up Baby."
Later, under the direction of Alfred Hitchcock, Grant would play darker, more chameleon-like characters in such thrillers as "Notorious," "Suspicion," "To Catch a Thief," and ""North By Northwest." Cary Grant biographer Marc Eliot says part of Grant's ability to keep audiences guessing goes back to his deliberate attempt to distance himself from a childhood trauma when he was a young boy named Archibald Leach. "At the age of nine, his mother disappeared. First they told him that she had gone to the seashore for a rest, and, when she didn't return they told him that she was dead. He then ran away from home. His father was involved with another woman on the other side of England."
Archie Leach assuaged his grief by hanging around the back-stages of Bristol music halls, and, at the age of fourteen dropped out of school to join an acrobatic troupe. There he learned to do back-flips and to walk on stilts, and he trained in the art of physical comedy. When the troupe was invited to perform in New York, he fell in love with the city and never returned to England. When the young performer first tried his hand at acting on Broadway, he flopped. Audiences didn't seem to care for his deep Bristol accent and working-class ways. What he needed, says Grant biographer Marc Eliot, was a touch of "refinement."
"A friend of his said, 'I can get you a job as an escort. If you can look good in a tuxedo and
pass yourself off as a Park Avenue man about town, there are several wealthy women who would hire you so they could be seen with a good looking man in a tuxedo.' Mr. Eliot adds that that image is what was later translated onto the screen. "Grant went to these parties and studied the way rich people act, the way they stand, the way they speak, the way they relate to each other. And that is the basis for the first thirty movies that he makes where he's in a tuxedo and he plays very sophisticated characters."
Archie Leach's quick study in the ways of sophisticates eventually paid off. He auditioned for and got the Broadway roles, changed his name to Cary Grant and moved to Hollywood where his ascendancy to leading man was swift. Then, at the age of thirty-one and an established movie star, says Marc Eliot, his father dealt him another shock.
"And he met with his father who was now a kind of disheveled alcoholic and he said, 'I have something to tell you, your mother isn't dead. She is alive and in an insane asylum, and you can go get her if you want to.' Well this was a major trauma for Cary Grant on several levels."
Cary Grant went to the insane asylum, found his mother, and brought her back to the same house that she had been taken from when he was nine years old. In the new biography, "Cary Grant," author Marc Eliot explains how Grant's shock at losing his mother and then re-discovering her years later resulted in a fierce independent streak which would affect the actor's relationships with women as well as the Hollywood establishment. Grant was married five times. And at a time when Hollywood actors were bound by long-term contracts to movie studios, Cary Grant was the first to successfully resist being "owned" by any one studio. Being a free agent in Hollywood gave him the freedom to choose the kinds of roles he wanted to play. Author Marc Eliot says in nearly every Cary Grant picture you'll find his character often pursued by women, but never actually pursuing them himself.
"For women it translates as 'what a wonderful guy.' He's not jumping over all these women, he's not Errol Flynn, he's not seducing them. He's polite, he's restrained, he's cultured." Mr. Elliot adds that, "To men, it translates as a total non-threatening image. This is not a guy who's going to steal your wife or girlfriend away behind your back."
Throughout his career, Cary Grant's independence of the Hollywood studio system won him few friends among industry executives. Although he made more than seventy films and was one of the most popular movie stars of all time, he was snubbed by judges of the Academy Awards. That was until 1970 when the actor was retired and some younger members of the establishment lobbied to give Cary Grant an honorary Oscar.
Now, almost twenty years after Cary Grant's death, Marc Eliot's new book, Cary Grant: A Biography is one of the first to look at the actor's life from a historical perspective. Written as a character study as much as it is an examination of Grant's body of work, the book takes readers on the remarkable journey of a poor immigrant whose dreams of achieving "perfection" actually came true -- if not in his own life, then forever onscreen.