Film stars are like mirages: although we can see them, we know that they’re not really what they appear to be. They play characters born of scripts, but they also exist independently of them. At the same time, they’re inextricably connected to the flesh-and-blood actors they play in “real life” (even if digital technology promises to add a new twist on this). But they’re also somehow apart from them too. As Archibald Leach (1904-1986) is said to have put it, “Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.” The issue facing stars’ biographers is how best to untangle all of this.
Star biographies can not help but turn their subjects into characters as they tell the stories of their lives, or at least of the lives of the actors who carry their names, following their ascensions to stardom. Many authors do a lot of research beforehand: they watch the films that turned the actors into stars and the ones in which they were merely the supporting act; they talk to them (if they’re still alive and willing) and to lots of people who knew or encountered them; they read numerous letters by them and others, if they’re available; if their own biographies have been preceded by others, they read them too; and they excavate official documents about the star from studio vaults and library archives. The end product usually takes the form of a star-is-born story, travelling from the star’s childhood through to his or her death (or to the biography’s publication date, whichever comes first). Alternatively, their narratives trace rise-and-fall trajectories. Not all stories end happily.
Alas, too often these biographies are content to cash in on their subjects’ names, exploiting the mirage and attaching to it an extended version of the kind of perfunctory profile that you might come across in a press kit or in a magazine article published to coincide with the release of a star’s latest film. Occasionally, however, they are more ambitious. They’ll try to do more than gather a lot of information and put it together in chronological order. They’ll endeavour to look beyond the surface of what their research has told them and, rather than simply reproduce it, they’ll attempt to rethink it, to seek out contexts in which it might make a new kind of sense.
Inevitably, it capitalises on its subject’s fame. I am sure that one of the reasons that Oxford University Press accepted Mark Glancy’s original proposal for this book is because Cary Grant is a household name, one attached to a charismatic actor who led a very public private life. And one of the reasons I wanted to read it is simply that I have long enjoyed watching Grant on screen and wanted to understand more about what made him tick, about how he became the living embodiment of 20th-century cool, and about how he collaborated with the filmmakers and other actors he worked with. I would have bought it had I not received a review copy. And it would have been a good decision.
In outline, Glancy’s biography of Grant is your usual star-is-born story, one with which even the most casual of observers is likely to be familiar. It begins with Grant’s childhood: growing up as Archibald Leach in a troubled working-class family in the city of Bristol in the southwest of England; being separated from his mother two weeks after his eleventh birthday (she had been institutionalised nearby; he was told she had died); being drawn to the theatre in his early teenage years; joining the Pender Troupe of music hall performers shortly afterwards and touring the country; travelling with them to America; making his way to Hollywood via Broadway (where his first role was as an Australian character named Anzac in Golden Dawn, an Arthur Hammerstein operetta); and learning from his ailing father in late 1933 that his mother was still alive.
The book follows the development of his career in Hollywood, from the second-string beginnings that had him playing opposite Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus (1932) and serving as “window dressing” for Mae West (his cited description) in She Done Him Wrong (Lowell Sherman, 1933) and I’m No Angel (Wesley Ruggles, 1933); to the glorious heights of his starring roles in films such as The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937), Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938), His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940), Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946), An Affair to Remember (Leo McCarey, 1957), North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959) and Charade (Stanley Donen, 1963); to his retirement in 1966 at the age of 62 after a 34-year career and 72 films, and the years leading up to his death twenty years later after a severe stroke in Davenport, Iowa, as he was preparing for another of his Conversation with Cary Grant series of question-and-answer sessions with paying audiences.
However, Glancy does not just present a superficial outline of a star’s career. He takes us backstage, behind-the-scenes, where he thoughtfully scrutinises Grant’s private life and his off-screen relationships with a host of collaborators. There are the marriages: five, all bar the last ending in divorce, Glancy reasonably suggesting that their failures might have had something to do with the actor’s fear of abandonment following the childhood separation from his mother. He also proposes, equally reasonably, that the marital breakdowns might have had something to do with his passion for work that took priority over everything else, with the stresses of living in the public eye, and with the fact that he was sometimes a cad. The wives are all depicted as decent women, although heiress Barbara Hutton emerges as something of a lost soul enslaved by her riches.
Glancy works hard to link situations and incidents in Grant’s life with the films he made and the circumstances of the characters he played in them. And many of the connections make sense, as he points to the ways in which they arise. For example, his surmising that, with Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942), writer-director Leo McCarey “intended to make a film that had some broad parallels with (Grant’s) relationship with Barbara Hutton” seems to be on the mark, even if it is only on the basis of an “uncredited newspaper clipping”. Hutton had been divorced from her Prussian aristocrat husband, an officer in the German army in World War I; in the film, Grant’s Patrick O’Toole rescues Ginger Rogers’ American showgirl Katie O’Hara from a marriage to Walter Slezak’s Nazi official with the Holocaust swirling in the background.
Associations like this, Glancy proposes, are “examples of a much broader phenomenon in Grant’s career: the boundary between his characters’ identities and his own life would always be permeable, and elements of one would continually infuse the other.” (p. 147)
And the points of overlap weren’t always playful. Glancy lays solid groundwork for his conclusion about Grant’s role as a government agent playing opposite Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock’s Notorious: “The star and the character shared a predilection for falling very quickly in love and then growing suddenly jealous, distrustful, and cold.” (p. 272)
The book is also especially useful for the insights it offers into the development of the Grant persona through the comedies he made during the 1930s and ’40s, and how “he became a master of a kind of contrived nonchalance that allows him to be at once within the screwball world and at the same time outside of it, laughing with the audience at its absurdity”. Glancy points to how Grant mimicked McCarey’s “mischievous, light-hearted flirtatious manner” for his role in The Awful Truth; and to how Howard Hawks’ advice to him that he should play his constantly befuddled paleontologist in Bringing Up Baby like a Harold Lloyd character unlocked the role for him. And he discovers a recurring feature in a range of Grant’s films that demonstrates a sharp analytical mind at work: discussing the slapstick in Bringing Up Baby, he notes that “the key moment for Hawks, which would be repeated in many later films (and not just those directed by Hawks), is the removal of Cary’s clothes, which serve as a form of armor for him, protecting his dignity and composure.” (p. 165)
There is plenty of detail about Grant’s working methods, especially his fondness for improvisation, which unsettled some fellow cast members (including Jean Arthur) but became a source of mutual stimulation with other collaborators, notably Hawks, H.C. Potter, Hitchcock, Stanley Donen, Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn. It was, as Glancy points out, no secret that Grant became increasingly hard to work with when he felt uncomfortable with a production, as he was working with Michael Curtiz on Night and Day (1946), in which he played Cole Porter.
Glancy details the ways in which Grant learned quickly how best to deal with being a working stiff under Hollywood’s studio system. When his contract with Paramount came up for renewal in 1936, he demanded a “story approval” clause be inserted into his contract, which was declined by studio boss Adolph Zukor. So Grant took on a new agent, telling him that studio executives were no longer going to rule his career. “He was going to take control by becoming a ‘freelance’ star.” (p. 148) And he did, exerting an ever-increasing control over the projects he took on.
Glancy’s research is impressive, as is the thinking he has done about his findings. Frequently reading between the lines, he has made extensive use of the private collection of letters, photographs and other documents that Grant had kept in a steel-reinforced, fireproof vault in his home, and that his widow had donated to the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, where they are known as the Cary Grant Papers. He also draws heavily on a series of autobiographical essays Grant wrote for The Ladies Home Journal in 1963 and on Evenings with Cary Grant: Recollections in His Own Words and by Those Who Knew Him Best, published after his death (Citadel Press, New York, 1991).
Nevertheless, he’s probably far too reliant on gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons for coverage of Grant’s social life, something which he implicitly concedes when he discusses the way the two women went about their nefarious reputation-building-and-destroying business. Of Hopper, he observes, “She had a particularly malign perspective – nativist, right-wing, Anglo-phobic, and homophobic – that she turned on anyone she disapproved of.” (p. 295)
That said, one of the many ways in which Glancy’s biography distinguishes itself is in the scepticism it brings to so-called “given truths” about its subject, regardless of the sources. A single example illustrates the point: its commentary about Grant’s relationship with Randolph Scott.
As Glancy tells it, the two young actors met in 1932 at studio director Stuart Walker’s drama class at Paramount, became friends, and, soon afterwards, recognised that it was cheaper to share a decent house together rather than rent separate accommodation. First came “a Spanish-style bungalow” with six rooms; then, after a year and two further moves, they were living in “a high-walled mansion (with) the essential requirements of movie-star living: sprawling rooms, a swimming pool, and views overlooking the city”.
Over the years, their decision to pool their resources like this and the way it was depicted in the fan magazines of the time has led to the widely-held conclusion that the pair were secretly gay lovers. Glancy argues that there is little evidence to support this notion, charging previous Grant biographers – Marc Eliot (in Cary Grant, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2004) and Charles Higham and Roy Moseley (Cary Grant: The Lonely Heart, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, New York, London, 1989) – with getting it wrong. Women He’s Undressed, Gillian Armstrong’s 2015 documentary about famous gay Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly (who was a friend of Grant’s during his early years in Hollywood), is also chided for its misrepresentation of the relationship.
Glancy persuasively explains what he sees as their mistake. Identifying the 1930s as “the ‘golden age’ of the Hollywood fan magazine”, he examines the way in which Grant and Scott’s life together was depicted in studio-approved publications such as Hollywood and Modern Screen. For Paramount’s PR department, the pair’s shared residence became “Bachelor Hall”, and the studio depicted their “Eve-less Eden” to highlight how eligible these two bachelors were.
“From a modern perspective,” Glancy writes, “the photographs of Cary and Randy at home are easily misconstrued. The pictures of them dining, washing dishes, making coffee, and collecting mail from their mailbox together suggest that they are an inseparable, very happy gay couple.” (p. 107) He adds that the photos were not leaked to the press as “evidence of Hollywood’s hidden gay history”, as some have claimed, and that, “far from trying to hide Cary and Randy’s relationship, Paramount actively publicized it.” (p. 107)
Furthermore, he argues that “the sexual frisson” many of the shots that are now used to suggest that the two actors were a couple tell us more about Jerome Zerbe, the famous studio-employed celebrity photographer who took them, than about his subjects. “He was gay,” Glancy reports, “and his images of Cary and Randy idealize both their relationship and their bodies.” (p. 147; for examples, see here.)
No other Grant biography has probed beneath the actor’s tuxedo elegance with the urgency, critical acumen and basic common sense that are on display in Cary Grant: The Making of a Hollywood Legend. It’s an exceptional book.
Mark Glancy, Cary Grant: The Making of a Hollywood Legend (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020)