The Reading Chair: “Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise” by Scott Eyman
A brilliant look at how Archie Leach from Bristol England, created the brilliant disguise we know and love as Cary Grant.
Nearly sixty years after his last movie in 1965 and thirty-four years after his death in 1986, Cary Grant remains the Man, the One. His appeal to both men and women remains intense and universal and his image genuinely irreplaceable. (Only George Clooney comes close . . . but not that close.)
I knew nothing of this early in my life. I needed to be in the right spot to be captured by Cary Grant.
When I was a boy film buff in the 1960s, horror and slapstick comedy were my dinner and dessert: Bela Lugosi, The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy. Later, after an involuntary move from a rural area to a dreary small city, Westerns became my thing.
To me, Cary Grant played no part in any of those genres: He was a romantic leading man, appearing in pictures that my mother and girls liked — “women’s pictures” as the marketeers of days past called them. I wanted scares. I wanted action. I wanted slapstick! Grownups kissing!? Ewwww!
In the mid-1970s, I entered a pseudo-hippie leftish phase, in the soup of an egalitarian zeitgeist. Now Grant was a fusty square of dying Establishment Hollywood. He was The Man, a Suit, as shallow and hollow as the movies he appeared in.
I was a very serious actor in college and among our idealistic, rather puritanical, tribe, movie stars weren’t real actors. They were bad and they were sellouts; moneygrubbers beneath our oxygen-deprived idealism. It was Brando or Bust (though Brando “sold out” plenty, if you look just a little). To admire any movie star required a monkish vow of silence, one I kept well. (I based one of my best-received college performances on character actor and Euro-western star Lee Van Cleef, a dark secret I reveal only now.)
For a time, I drifted around Minnesota Lefties, who, despite their vaunted progressivism, were deeply Midwestern, as sternly utilitarian and culturally conservative as Shaker furniture. As one of “Them,” a capitalist oppressor, Cary Grant barely existed. (“Oh, I spent my weekend eating boiled spinach and reading Saul Alinsky,” I’d say when I’d really been watching The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for the fifteenth time, before downing a juicy steak and a couple of shots of Johnny Walker like a Republican on Training Wheels.)
I’d been free from that influence for awhile when, shortly after I moved to California in the early 1980s, I saw Suspicionat San Francisco’s palatial Castro Theatre. I was there more for the sake of Hitchcock but as I bathed in the sweep of silver and shadow painted by the Master and his crew, Cary Grant at last caught my fierce attention.
It was an early scene between Grant as Johnny Aysgarth and Joan Fontaine as Johnny’s bride, Lina, as he charms her into lending him scratch for yet another losing day at the racetrack.
As a student actor, I’d been trained to infuse my characterizations with just the right amount of right detail. Those lessons came back as Cary Grant, his arms wrapped easily around his knees, brought the same focus that had been expected from me. He in that scene, being an actor, his inner eye attune to his every move: that teasing winsome smile and his twinkling eyes worked together. He’s as relaxed and natural as a rightly worn cashmere sweater. And even though both Lina and the audience know you can’t trust ever-charming Johnny with a ha’penny, we’re all digging for our wallets: Sure Johnny, here’s ten bob . . . oh hell, have another ten . . . .
I learned something else new: Cary Grant was funny. Very funny. He made me laugh. He had the same precise musical sense as the other great comedians I adored. Until then, until Suspicion, with Grant playing a (maybe) murderer of all things, that had never occurred to me, even after multiple viewings of North by Northwest.
Not long after, like a gift from a mysterious benefactor, Cary Grant came to town. He appeared at San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium, probably in January 1985, a stop on his lecture tour, “A Conversation with Cary Grant.”
I was up in the cheap seats and we all stood with a roar when that tall, elegant figure strode confidently out on the stage, a man who didn’t need a spotlight — he had the movie star’s inner light.
For almost two hours, one of the last great stars of Old Hollywood regaled us with tales and insights of his life in the movies. His timing was impeccable, his manner infinitely gracious as he fended off inane questions and remarks in that wonderful voice (including one fan’s insistent plea that he stage a comeback by taking a role in Dallas or Knotts Landing, nighttime TV soaps enormously popular at the time.) One lucky gal even received a kiss (and whoever she was, she must still be telling that story.)
He told us about his favorite leading lady (Grace Kelly), his least favorite (Mae West) and his least favorite performance (Arsenic and Old Lace, correctly it’s generally agreed). And, finally, his favorite exercise (“making love.”)
Grant even turned professorial as he demonstrated the minute mechanics of moviemaking, showing how even a simple drink from a glass of water was fraught with complications that could take hours to untangle. “It’s dull tedious work, movie making,” he seemed to be saying, perhaps hinting why he’d walked away twenty years before. And when he did finally stroll offstage, we all but wept: We had been to heaven. We had been in the room with Cary Grant.
Of course, that glorious looking man, who likely inspired the phrase “tall, dark and handsome,” was a façade, a cultivated mask. My youthful skepticism had its point. These men and women in whom so many invest (and overinvest) their souls are but dreams.
To act is to pretend. When they say “show business” they really mean “show” and “business.” That tall, elegant figure, “Cary Grant,” was a show and a business, a manufactured product. “Bette Davis” was another product, as was “John Wayne.” They were all assembled, in part, as profitable facades to make money both for the performer and, especially, the studios and others who spent hours of money to entertain and transport audiences out of dull, often difficult, lives. No, they don’t cure Covid or fight tyranny, but they’re no small thing.
Being a movie star is an epic form of compartmentalization. Once that’s understood, it’s easy to grasp how “John Wayne,” as one great example, would be so different from the man behind the mask, Marion Michael “Duke” Morrison. The gap is often stunning. Morrison was a fanatical, and excellent, chess player with a huge library of books on Native Americans and who enjoyed interior decorating his friends’ homes. His political adversaries got plenty mad but even they had a hard time hating him.
But where Duke Morrison seems to have quite enjoyed being “John Wayne,” Archibald Alexander Leach, the man behind “Cary Grant,” seems to have taken little pleasure in his creation.
The best Hollywood biographies reveal and explore the light and dark of these contradictions, with both honesty and sympathy. And no one does it better to my mind than Scott Eyman, the author of many Hollywood bios, including his superb biography of Wayne (a genuine eyeopener) and John Ford.
His latest, Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise (Simon & Schuster) shows how the gap between Grant’s image and his reality created almost unbearable stress. The book is a rich and brilliant portrait of a brilliantly conceived “show” and the man — and world — who created it; in Grant’s case, out of pure, whole cloth. It’s a long, hard story, both distressing and touching, of how a poor Englishman and struggling vaudevillian named Archie Leach created the facade of elegance and grace known as “Cary Grant.”
Archibald Alexander Leach was born in the southwest English seaport city of Bristol in 1904 to a poor working-class couple. Life was cold and hard for both young Archie and his fractious parents. His father seemed to drift about in an alcoholic cloud while his mother, who’d already lost one child, was fiercely controlling and clinging, to the brink of madness.
One day, Archie’s mother vanished. Not long after he concluded, without anyone ever really telling him, that she had died. He was eleven years old.
Staying alive, warm, and fed became an even greater struggle for young Leach. Left on his own, he grew up a lone wolf, self-sufficient, developing habits of being, good and bad, that would remain all his life. He grew to live with near-constant anxiety, punctured by chasms of depression. As Dyan Cannon, one of his five long-suffering wives, put it, he was like a clam opening and closing, lighting room one minute, closing into a hard shell of silence the next, a typical symptom of manic-depressive illness.
While unusually intelligent, Leach had no aptitude for the classroom. He was in risk of becoming a nobody on the road to nowhere when, in his mid-teens, he wound up backstage at Bristol’s legendary Hippodrome theatre and in a “dazzling land of smiling, jostling, people wearing and not wearing all sorts of costumes and doing all sorts of clever things. And that’s when I knew…. An actor’s life for me.”
He soon became a call-boy, alerting the performers when it was curtain time. He then moved onto other venues as a lighting man while also developing a lifelong passion for stage magic.
In 1918, he finally became a performer, joining the Bob Pender Troupe as a tumbler and acrobat. This was the first step to becoming a great comic artist as he learned to use his body, developing the physical grace and musicality seen in great comedians.
Archie Leach started playing in music halls throughout Britain. As fun and carefree as it looks to us peanut-munching punters, music hall performing was hard, rigorous work requiring hours and days of practice and rehearsal between up to four performances a day. . . but once the curtain rose and the lights fell, there came the reward of applause and approval: “ . . . it ruined me forever.”
In 1920, Leach accompanied the Pender Troup on their first tour of America, riding the vaudeville circuit. Eventually, the Pender Troup returned to England, but Leach contrived to stay, not returning until 1929. During the mid-twenties, Leach spent much of his time in New York, working his way through the “implicitly democratic” world of vaudeville, a wonderful time in showbiz history that Eyman captures with a fond and vivid eye.
Young Archie grew close to many of the legends of vaudeville, some of whom would also be big stars, among them George Burns, Gracie Allen, and Jack Benny. But while they were climbing the heights, Archie remained stuck. He hustled, selling ties on a street corner like a Bud Abbott (minus Costello), even becoming a stilt walker on Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park, a job at which he was, as Burns describes with his classic succinctness, “rotten.”
He finally joined a comedy act known as Robinson, Janis & Leach. By then, he’d been working hard on making over Archie Leach from Bristol. The “Bristol accent,” provincial even to Londoners, had to go, refashioned into a voice of his own invention with some borrowing from Noel Coward. He also further honed the music of comic timing. Leach slowly assembled and polished the disparate pieces to create a new man practically nothing like himself. The American story is often a tale of reinvention and, in this, Archie Leach became very much an American.
His soon wound up on the musical-comedy stage. His first appearance was in an Oscar Hammerstein II show called Golden Dawn, the first — and likely, thank God, the last — musical about the African slave trade. (It somehow managed to last 184 performances.)
In 1931, Archie Leach appeared in a movie, a bit part in a minor Paramount production called Singapore Sue. He still had his baby fat, concealing his magnificent bone structure and cleft chin. He was awfully pretty but not yet handsome and too much the overeager ingenue. He also performed in the long-lost genre of operettas, mostly around St. Louis.
In 1932, Archie Leach made the long drive from New York to Hollywood, with a new career in mind and a new name for his mask: the “Cary” was from a character Leach played in Broadway show called Nikki. The origins of “Grant” seem generic, but the close alliteration and single syllable must have pleased the ear — three syllables, hard at the ends, soft in the middle and there he had it:
Cary Grant, the right name, in the right place, at the right time. And the real work of invention began.
At the time, British actors were flooding Hollywood, their plummy accents resonant with the sound era. Most of them had received formal training at the best schools in England — except for Cary Grant. He’d gone through the same tough schooling as Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel and so remained mostly aloof from the colony.
By then he sensed what he had and how to use it to get ahead. He grabbed at and pushed for every opportunity. Ambition mixed with vanity is not a pretty thing and his pursuit of fame and riches made Grant sometimes unpleasant as he alternated between extraordinary stinginess (such as billing houseguests) and extreme generosity toward his ex-fellow vaudevillians that seemed to match his mercurial moods.
It didn’t take too long to get rolling: an appearance as Marlene Dietrich’s lover in Blonde Venus led to She Done Him Wrong, a Mae West vehicle (meaning everyone in the cast was a mere foil to the star).
As Paramount’s interest in Grant intensified he, struck up a keen friendship with Randolph Scott. The two men became roommates (and lovers, rumors say, though there’s really no proof. Even after Eyman’s thorough digging, he finds only indirect evidence that Grant was gay, though he was certainly gay-friendly.)
Grant and Scott, exquisitely handsome young men, joined the wild swirl of Hollywood social life. Soon, Grant entered into the first of his often turbulent marriages, this one with Virginia Cherrill. He was not a good husband — extremely moody, extremely jealous, and extremely controlling, even tipping over into abuse. This first marriage lasted only ten months.
In 1933, Grant paid a trip to his hometown of Bristol where he made a profoundly disturbing discovery — his mother was alive. She’d been committed to an insane asylum by his father, likely because he just wanted her out of the way so he could marry someone else. Grant spent the rest of his mother’s life trying to reconnect with her, looking after her, showering her with gifts, but the gulf remained. Neither of his parents showed an ounce of pride in their only son’s success.
In 1935, Grant co-starred in Sylvia Scarlett, teamed for the first time with Katherine Hepburn. The film was directed by George Cukor who called him “too good-looking” a back-handed compliment that provides a clue to Grant’s emotional difficulties.
That film made little money, but Cary Grant received high praise, playing a cockney hustler not too far removed from Archie Leach, one of the few roles where something darker peeked out from behind Grant’s carefully woven curtain.
As his façade developed, the hits started to come. Among the first was Topper, a happy ghost farce where, Eyman writes, “Cary Grant appears in full,” polished, debonair and funny. From there, it was on to The Awful Truth under the improvisatory hand of director Leo McCarey, who worked for producer Hal Roach and helped unite Laurel with Hardy.
Harold Lloyd, a close friend of Grant’s, is quoted as defining comedy is “a man in trouble.” This casts another light on Grant’s skill as comedian. Like all great comic actors, he was as much reactor as actor. The most handsome man in the world had a great face for comedy and knew how to use it. The spectacle of a tall, debonair, dignified man getting his feet knocked out from under him is simply funny. He had that special musicality unique to comedy, much of which he learned as an acrobat. Handsome men are thought of as narcissists but Grant was not.
Cary Grant was also a singular character. Like Harold Lloyd, he was an aspirational figure, a man women would want and men would like to be, even a homely man, so long as he’s wearing a good suit.
Meanwhile, Archie Leach was at war with Cary Grant who seemed to be leaving him behind. The conflict between Leach’s coarse, bumpy reality and Grant’s increasing polish provoked constant anxiety and ill-temper. Being Cary Grant meant hiding Archie in the attic. He always feared Archie would escape, reveal him as a phony and close the whole show. Four divorces from four wives was one thing. Cary Grant divorcing Archie Leach would always be a near impossibility. The two were stuck with each other. No star would ever suffer so much from imposter syndrome.
With The Awful Truth “Cary Grant” finally rolled gleaming off the assembly line. There followed an incredible run of hits, some of the greatest films from Hollywood’s Golden Age: Bringing Up Baby, Gunga Din, The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, and Suspicion. With great movies and his polished persona, he became fantastically popular and remains beloved even now, almost sixty years after his last movie, maybe more than any star in movie history.
Yet, as we learn time and again, fame and fortune is a devil’s bargain. “A particularly beautiful woman is a source of terror . . . a beautiful woman is a terrible disappointment,” Carl Jung wrote. It could also apply to men like Grant. To paraphrase Rita Hayworth, women went to bed with Cary Grant only to wake up with Archie Leach. He was too beautiful a man to go walking about with the rest of us drab mortals. Eyman’s portrait sometimes gives the sense of a god gasping for air as he wrestles to stay on his pedestal. The expectations were impossible, the failure to meet them punishing.
On one notable occasion, Grant tried to give Archie some air with None But the Lonely Heart. This film was adapted from a Richard Llewllyn novel and directed by leftwing firebrand Clifford Odets, with whom Grant would forge one of his famously intense and touching friendships. As Ernie Mott, an embittered London slum dweller, desperately trying to connect with an uncaring mother, Grant attempted things he’d never done and would never do again.
The film was regarded as a failure. Audiences wanted to see “Cary Grant,” not lowly Archie Leach, who found himself returned to the attic. The failure of None But the Lonely Heart contributed to Grant’s innate conservatism. He’d never really step out of his box again and became even more conscious and protective of his image.
And, as winning streaks must end, so did Cary Grant’s. Audience expectations changed after World War II and while he remained tops with moviegoers, the quality of the films dimmed somewhat after his superb glowering performance in Notorious, where his handsomeness created an unnerving tension with his cruelty as T. R. Devlin. (Another step and he might well have added “greatest film noir actor” to his laurels.)
He remained a huge star, even when the movies went flat. His work with Hitchcock in To Catch a Thief and, especially, the suspense comedy triumph called North by Northwest, remains among his most memorable. (There’s also a wonderful sequence in Indiscreet, with Grant cutting the rug like Astaire). His later comedies mostly lack the tempo and spark of his classic screwball works, with the exception of 1963’s Charade; there we find one of those quintessential Cary Grant moments as Audrey Hepburn gazes up at him and says, “You know what’s wrong with you . . . ? Nothing!”
By the mid-1960s, Archie Leach was done playing “Cary Grant.” Multiple LSD trips gave him a new perspective on himself and life, where the tedium of movie acting and the demands of stardom became less worthwhile. The birth of his only daughter, Jennifer, whom he intensely doted on, further sundered his relationship with the “show.” He saw how audiences were changing again, and therefore, changing the movies that were being made. He might’ve changed his pitch, as John Wayne did, but he’d simply lost interest. He left the “show” behind but kept to “business:” He was already one of Hollywood’s best businessmen and found plenty to occupy him.
With “Cary Grant” no longer demanding his attention, Archie Leach from Bristol mellowed out to become a happy man. Throughout his life he’d swung violently between being a bad man and a great man, but now the great part at last won out. His fifth marriage, to Barbara Harris, was a success. Though he loved the applause and adulation enough to start his lecture tour (where being “Cary Grant” was comparatively simple and the rewards more immediate), at home, he was Archie Leach: a baseball and horseracing fan who wore sweaters and jeans (elegantly) and at dinner on a TV tray while watching Carol Burnett or Barney Hill — the ordinary pleasures gods and serious artists are told to disdain.
Archibald Leach died in 1986, shortly before he was due to walk “Cary Grant” out onstage once more. The man from Bristol is gone, but his wonderful mask, beautiful and elegant, funny and sly, remains with us. No man could be Cary Grant — not even Archie Leach — but it’s a goal worth dreaming.
Thomas Burchfield’s short story “Lucky Day” is in the anthology Berkeley Noir (Akashic Press, May 2020), now available in bookstores everywhere. “Visconti Noir” a look at the surprising film noir of Italian cinematic grandmaster Luchino Visconti is in the November 2020 issue of Noir City e-mag. Another story “What Now, Masked Man?” is in issue #1 of Hello Goodbye Apocalypse. He’s also the author of Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster thriller and the award-winning contemporary vampire novel Dragon’s Ark. His original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night are available in e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell’s Books, and other retailers. His reviews and essays have appeared in Swing Time Magazine, Posthoc.com, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Strand Magazine, and Filmfax. He also posts essays on Medium and his own webpage, A Curious Man. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.