There have been many accounts of Cary Grant’s life and career, tracing his ascent from British music halls to American vaudeville to Broadway to a career of over three decades as one of Hollywood’s most popular and talented leading men. Movie buffs know about his shrewd business acumen, his five marriages, and his therapeutic sessions with LSD before the drug became part of 1960s counterculture.
Yet what made Grant one of Hollywood’s biggest stars was an elusive quality, a sense of depth under the early zaniness and later suavity. There is, in Grant’s best work, a sense of something unreachable and a bit dangerous lurking underneath a carefully controlled surface. What can a novelist tell us about Grant that isn’t in the biographies? Does it take a creative writer to get beneath the surface? In The Acrobat, Edward J. Delaney tries to give us the “real” Cary Grant. For the most part, he doesn’t add much to what we already know. Basically Grant is as elusive to himself as he is to others.
It is 1959 and Grant is attempting to deal with a mid-life identity crisis, an unhappy childhood, and his failures in relationships through guided LSD trips with Dr. Hartman. The actor makes the mistake of discussing these sessions with columnist Joe Hyams, then foolishly denies speaking with Hyams, which leads to a lawsuit that can only be settled by Grant opening up even more to the journalist.
Basically, Grant’s LSD “trips” allow Delaney to recount Grant’s life and career from an unhappy childhood in Bristol, England, to his early career as an acrobat and stilt walker. Delaney’s Grant is always part acrobat. Desperately poor in New York, Grant masters convincing falls down the lobby stairways of posh hotels in order to solicit money. When he shares a home with actor Randolph Scott, he loves showing off his physical prowess to their young female admirers. When his second wife, heiress, Barbara Hutton, insists that he appear before the drunk hangers-on who populate her many dinner parties, he makes an entrance in full dress and on stilts. If he is to be put on display, he will control the display. Hutton is the only one of Grant’s wives to have a leading role in this novel.
Delaney’s Grant is only happy when he is “one of the boys” with Randolph Scott (they shared a house for eight years). In Delaney’s telling, there is no sexual element to Grant’s relationship with Scott, even though Scott is the only person with whom he can be truly honest.
Before sharing a Hollywood home and much-publicized bromance with Randolph Scott, Grant shared a New York apartment with a gay couple, Orry-Kelly, who would become a major Hollywood costume designer, and his lover Charles Phelps. Kelly and Phelps were the closest thing to family the young acrobat knew. Kelly started Grant’s brief career as a male escort to wealthy women and encouraged him to “get class,” which later became the Hollywood star’s image. Delaney hints at a sexual relationship (the real Orry-Kelly claimed to have had a relationship with Grant), but is generally prim about Grant’s sex life.
What does The Acrobat tell us that we don’t already know? Jumping back and forth from 1959, Delaney offers a conventional linear biography, stopping occasionally to depict some relationship in detail. A meeting with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford aboard a New York bound ocean liner leads the young Archie Leach to realize that stardom like theirs is his goal. “We always take somebody’s place,” Fairbanks tells him, and Archie eventually can see himself taking Fairbanks’ place.
In one telling moment, after an LSD session, Grant hires a makeup artist to make him unrecognizable. In disguise, the actors goes into a coffee shop and chats with a waitress. Eventually, the makeup starts to melt, and the actor sees that this new persona is just another role. Who is The Acrobat, “Archie Leach or Cary Grant?” Like many performers, he’s a person who was denied love at an early age and filled that void with the adulation of audiences. Like many performers, he has found that that adulation doesn’t cure the loneliness. As an interpretation of the life and work of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, this is all a bit trite.
There isn’t much style or elegance to Delaney’s prose. Even his descriptions of Grant’s LSD sessions are flat. If one wants to understand Cary Grant, it’s a better idea to read one of the many biographies (Scott Eyman’s Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise is a good starting point). Better yet, watch his films.