Book Review – Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise by Scott Eyman

Grant was to romantic comedy what Fred Astaire was to dance–he made something that is extremely difficult look easy. pg 128

INTRO

Cary Grant is a silver screen legend whose popularity endures even today. He is remembered for his onscreen persona, sartorial elegance, troubled marriages and his medical use of LSD. Lesser known is his well-disciplined business sense and financial prowess.

Grant has always been my favorite actor and I’ve seen almost all of his films, multiple times. (I still haven’t been able to find  Singapore Sue). I’ve also read  the majority of the books written about him. Over the years, I’ve learned that if you really have an interest in a famous figure, the best way to get a well-rounded view of them is through reading more than one book about them. Authors generally approach their subject through their own perspective and understanding, as much as they try to be objective. So when Scott Eyman released the latest book about Grant, I snapped it up.

REVIEW

“Everything starts with pretense,” he would say later in life. “One pretends to do something or copy someone…until it can be done confidently and easily in what becomes one’ own manner” pg 47

As mentioned, there are many books written about Cary Grant’s life. Eyman’s is the first to present a psychological analysis of the man.

The trauma of Archibald Leach’s early childhood created a ripple effect which influenced the rest of his life. The disappearance of an over protective mother, his father’s subsequent lies about that disappearance and emotional neglect created a void in his life. This led him to invent the public identity of Cary Grant, behind which Archie Leach could safely hide.

“His childhood was like a black cloud hovering over him.” Ray Austin, pg 336

This schism of identity affected him both personally and professionally. In his personal life, it led to Grant’s constant need for love and acceptance while eventually pushing away anyone who got too close or dependent on him so they wouldn’t have the opportunity to reject him. His early years of not just emotional but material deprivation also eventually motivated him to take enough risks to become very financially successful, while also acting very frugally and even stingily towards others when the old fear of lack reared its’ ugly head.

Professionally, these same emotional and material needs affected his career, even to which directors he would choose to work with  and which films he made.

Grant’s shying away (from Billy Wilder) derived from an intense dislike of any personality that might even be potentially abusive. Grant liked charmers–Leo McCarey–or cool collected customers like Hawks and Hitchcock–men who never raised their voices.

After working hard to build the well-loved public construct of Cary Grant, Grant found that audiences of his day didn’t want to see him in roles which didn’t uphold that image, even if they were closer to the Archie Leach that Grant really was. So he accepted the public’s edicts and quit taking onscreen risks.

“The only time I played myself was in None But the Lonely Heart and nobody wanted to see the real me. So I put Archie Leach away and went back to being Cary Grant.” pg 212

While this made him very popular and wealthy, and his films very commercially successful, it also potentially kept him from being regarded as a critically talented actor.  Grant learned to see himself as a commodity and always struggled with the dichotomy between how he was viewed by the public and how he viewed himself privately.  Even his co-stars recognized this disconnect between the private man and the public persona.

“When he exhibited himself,” said (Stanley) Kramer, “he was Cary Grant’ – the handsome leading man, star-incarnate. Grant never gave the appearance of being ‘commercial,’ and he was probably as commercial an actor that ever lived.” pg 373

MY THOUGHTS

I chose Eyman’s book because I love Cary Grant and wanted to learn something new about him. And while Eyman did share some new details I had not been aware of before (such as a possible theory of what he REALLY did during WWII), what he did with his book is force me to see my favorite actor from a new perspective. Although Eyman is a talented writer and more than adequately supports his title thesis, I sometimes found it hard to take. It shattered a few of my notions about Grant and also challenged me to look beyond that actor’s persona that I’ve always admired.

Thanks to my prior readings (and lifelong obsession), I already knew quite a bit about Grant. However, I was surprised to read Eyman’s theory of Grant’s war time activities.  Grant was one of a few healthy male stars that didn’t actively serve during WWII. However, Eyman theorizes that Grant may actually have been part of a British spy ring headed by Hungarian turned British director Alexander Korda  (which also included fellow Brit Reginald Gardiner). Whether this is true or not, no proof exists, but it is very possible.

I also enjoyed learning more about his relationships with people like playwright Clifford Odets, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and particularly Katherine Hepburn. As his films with her are among some of my favorites, it was particularly gratifying to know they maintained a life long friendship, especially since I have never been able to find much proof of this in his public statements.

Many of those who worked with Grant praised him, his kindness, his professionalism and onscreen genius, his thoughtfulness. But just as many mentioned his driving perfectionism and lack of self-confidence which caused him to dither over his decisions.

Eyman presents a nuanced and not always pleasant picture of Grant. And often I found myself hurt and heart-broken on Grant’s behalf, finally realizing what his public image must have cost his psyche. I also found myself upset with Grant at times for the way he treated the people who cared about him while realizing it was a protective mechanism he used as an escape.

It was also interesting for me to see the developing pattern of Grant’s need for control as his career became more established. The more successful he was, the less he was willing to take professional risks. Eventually, this led to Grant’s career decisions being made on the basis of financial and commercial success rather than  choosing satisfying or challenging work.

“Speaking as Archie Leach, I’m not ungrateful for all that being Cary Grant has done for me.” pg 479

For fans of Cary Grant, Eyman’s book gives the detail on the actor’s career and personal life that we all crave. And it is the only book to delve deep into Grant’s emotional and mental state. In fact, it is the only biography of any public figure I’ve ever read to do so.  One would expect that such an exploration would make Grant feel more relatable. But for me, it made him feel further away and I think that is partially because Eyman does such a great job showing how truly insular, insecure and self-protecting Grant was.  Because of this, it will not be my favorite of the books on Grant, but it is definitely one worth reading in order to understand the man behind the mask.

It was a brilliant disguise; he could present himself as Cary Grant at will, and because his audience found him to be more or less like his screen self they relaxed and took him at face value, without bothering to wonder about his affinity for and sympathy with other people’s emotional distress. pg 454

Overall, Eyman succeeds at what he sets out to do with his biography of Cary Grant and I’m very glad I read it.

 

 

 

Please follow and like us:

Leave a Reply