“Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant,” the debonair movie star himself is said to have quipped.
That gap between the sublimely charming screen invention and the real man born Archie Leach is at the center of Scott Eyman’s new biography, Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise (out Tuesday), a complex portrait of Hollywood’s original leading man.
Beyond Grant’s singular stardom that’s transcended his Old Hollywood trappings, Eyman paints a picture of an emotionally wounded man, plumbing everything from his contested sexual identity to his proselytizing for LSD to his potential stint working for MI6.
We called up Eyman to dig deeper into Grant and the discoveries he made along the way.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, can you explain the book’s title?
SCOTT EYMAN: Cary Grant was Archie Leach’s brilliant disguise. [Grant] was outwardly charming, never raised his voice or said a cross word, but you could not get beyond that practiced charm — it was how he made his living for 40 years. And you made a terrible mistake if you assumed that there was some sort of smooth segue from Archie Leach to Cary Grant.
Biographies are often about cutting to the heart of someone. Does it make your job harder when it’s someone who had so much confusion about who they were?
Most movie stars play off certain emphasized representations of qualities they have. But there’s always this gap between what a person plays and who they actually are. Most of the people that do it are aware of that gap.But I don’t know of anybody whose gap was greater. Cary Grant was a complete self-invention. After he left the business, by some weird metamorphosis, Archie had become almost completely Cary. He needed to be that person so badly, he became [him].
Because of that, was Cary easier or harder to pin down than any subjects you’ve tackled?
More difficult. Because of a gap between where he started psychologically and emotionally and professionally and where he finished psychologically and emotionally and professionally. Nobody went further than Cary Grant, except maybe Charlie Chaplin. The interesting thing about him is most movie stars are locked in their period. They don’t really transcend their own period; they’re like fashions. There are certain movie stars that do transcend their own period, but Cary Grant’s one of the few movie stars of that period who still has some meaning to a modern audience. I wanted to get to the bottom of why he meant so much to audiences the, and why he continues to mean so much to audiences now, because there’s very few people you can say that about.
Undoubtably some people will be disappointed by this disconnect, but how did you feel as you went along and discovered the extent of it?
Well, I’m not a prosecuting attorney, nor am I an attorney to a defense, frankly. What I try to do is be as objective and as impartial as possible. He is a difficult subject, because of his emotional journey and his motivations, which were to escape. He desperately wanted to get away from everything that he experienced, the emotionally compromised mother, the alcoholic father. He wanted to put as much distance between that and wherever direction he was going as humanly possible. That flight from foundations is something you often find with actors. If they really enjoyed being themselves so much, why would they want to be somebody else? Especially with a personality that he created — a little bit of this, a little bit of that, a little bit of Douglas Fairbanks, a little bit of this guy — and then strained it all through his personality to come up with a psychological version of a smoothie that went down easy.
What do you think is the most misunderstood thing about him?
How hard he tried to be the person he played, and how, in a realer sense, he succeeded. There’s everything about the LSD business, this wobbly sense of gender identification, and all these things. That’s common knowledge. What’s not common knowledge, aside from respect for his extraordinary professional capabilities, is how much he did succeed in becoming the man he wanted to be. And the terrible cost.
There’s long been a tenuous connection between Grant and James Bond [he was the first choice for the role]. But now you posit he might’ve really worked for MI6? How did you latch onto that?
He was making every move to enlist, and then suddenly he gets this letter from the head of RKO, which is extremely vague, saying that he’d be presented with certain jobs he’d have the option of accepting or rejecting. That’s not the way studio heads wrote to actors in 1943. Then there were rumors about [director] Alexander Korda being very tied into MI6, and he and Korda had this bond [though] they never worked together. [There] was a real, large-scale spy ring run out of Korda’s London film offices. That explains why Grant’s attempts at enlistment suddenly vanished when they dangled some vague list of jobs that could not be mentioned in writing. There was a fair amount of that going on in Hollywood. It was discreet, just conversation and observation. It’s not like anybody was carrying a Walther PPK. It was reconnaissance a lot of people in show business were doing. Can I prove this? No. But there’s an awful lot of circumstantial evidence to indicate he was involved.
What surprised you the most in your research?
The diary he kept for some months when he was 14. You can already see how self-contained he is. There’s nothing about his family, his friends. World War I is raging, and there’s nothing about the outside world. It’s all about Archie and what Archie’s going to do that day and the next. He’s so self-possesses and self-determined [already].
That goes back to probably my favorite line in the book, which relates to the question of Grant’s sexuality, which is when you say that neither Archie Leach nor Cary Grant ever played on any team but his own.
There’s sufficient evidence to put him in any box you want. Straight, gay, bi, or whatever. The people who are invested in being straight [can point to] he had a child, he did this, he did that. And people who were invested in him being gay will point to his fairly long-term living with Orry-Kelly and other things. All the rumors that were floating around for years.
You interviewed a lot of his contemporaries, and former family and friends. Was there anyone you found most enlightening? Or that you enjoyed the most?
Oh, absolutely, Walter Odets, the son of Clifford Odets, he’s a psychologist by profession. Walt knew Cary as a child, when Walt was young as a child and teenager. His responses to Cary as a child, and then filtered through Walt’s professional expertise as a psychologist, I thought were absolutely invaluable. He played both from the point of view of a 14-year-old kid and from the view of a 70-year-old psychotherapist, who’d been doing it for 45 years. And that’s the kind of insight that you just don’t get.
What films for you most define him?
To Catch a Thief. It’s the Cary Grant that people like to think Cary Grant was. Hitchcock’s Notorious. He’s absolutely hard and unyielding, and cruel and disturbing. I love that performance. Bringing Up Baby — it’s as far removed from Notorious as you could possibly imagine, which shows his huge range as an actor. It’s also a physically brilliant performance. When he has to run, he runs like his ankles are tied together. The character is so emotionally constrained, he even moves like that. I love that kind of imagination that he brought to the craft. The fourth None But the Lonely Heart, where he was exposing himself the most. I think it’s underrated. He allows this anger to come through, and his discontent to who he is, it just moves that from Archie to the character in the film. Between those four films, we get a sense of his protean abilities and his range.
What would you say is the core of who Cary Grant was?
You go into show business thinking it will make your life better, and it doesn’t. What do you do then? You don’t want to go back to being poor and unknown, but what do you do? That was the crux of his problem. That was what led him to five wives, to therapy, to LSD. Ultimately, he put the pieces together and became someone that, in old age, resembled Cary Grant. But it was very painful for him. [His adolescence], the lack of any concrete, emotional foundation — money doesn’t address that. Neither does a beautiful house in Palm Springs. You can run a long time, and you’ll still be dragging that behind you.