Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise

Image of Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise
Release Date: 
October 20, 2020
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by: 

“This is a well-sourced biography and dimensional portrait that bypasses much of the usual gossip around this inimitable star.”

Cary Grant was in the pantheon of Hollywood icons who never lost his luster even after he stopped making films in the last decades of his life. Biographer Scott Eyman chronicles Grant’s journey growing up as the rebellious Archie Leach in Bristol, England, to became one of Hollywood’s immortal idols in his engrossing portrait of the public and very private star. 

Archie was the son of an alcoholic father and a mother so depressed after had a losing a child, Grant’s father Elias had her committed to an asylum, where she remained for years. He fled poverty, school, and his trouble home life at age 15 to apprentice with a theatrical troupe. 

A natural athlete, Archie jumped at the chance to tour the US as an acrobat on the Vaudeville circuit. He landed on the Broadway stage and was soon scouted by Hollywood agents, and campy film star Mae West cast him as her lover in She Done Him Wrong. And Cary Grant was born. 

Despite the flimsy material of Grant’s early films, he was luminous onscreen, uber-handsome, a natural mover with tons of screen charm and a real gift for comic timing.

He had a string of hits in the ’30s with the top leading ladies of the era, including Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunn, and Rosalyn Russell in screwball comedies. He also took risks by appearing in period dramas like Gunga Din and showed dramatic range in George Stevens’ sentimental classic Penny Serenade. He was Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite leading man cast in the classic thrillers Notorious (co-starring Ingrid Bergman), Suspicion (co-starring Joan Fontaine), North by Northwest (co-starring Eva Marie Saint), and To Catch a Thief with Grace Kelly. His late career hit, An Affair to Remember, co-starring Deborah Kerr, is now considered a classic.   

As much as Archie wanted to leave his rough childhood behind him in his movie star persona as Cary Grant, inside he knew that he was still Archie, whose insecurities, as Eyman reveals, drove and haunted him for the rest of his life. Eyman investigates Grant’s often troubled personal relationships, his frequent depressions, his personal demons, and the constant innuendoes about his secret gay life

In the ’40s, Grant was criticized by his compatriots for not volunteering to serve in the British military during WWII; in fact, he had signed up, but British officials thought he would serve his country best by using his celebrity to entertain the troops and continue to raise war funds.

Throughout his career, Grant was rumored to be a closeted gay man, starting when he shared a Greenwich Village apartment with openly gay designer Orry-Kelly. But when he shared a house with actor Randolph Scott, the Hollywood gossip went into overdrive. The housemates were continually gay-baited by gossip maven Hedda Hopper.

Meanwhile, nothing dented Grant’s image as Hollywood’s most successful leading man. Off-screen, Grant's personal life had highs and lows, and endured five marriages, which Eyman writes about with insight and sensitivity.

Grant was very public about not giving autographs and his loathing of the public encroaching on his privacy. He was regularly charming in public, but mostly wanted to be left alone.  

Even though Grant had a reputation as a skinflint, which was true in some respects, privately, without fuss, he would be generous to friends in need, including playwright Clifford Odets, who was constantly broke.

His final films were mostly light comedies that Grant basically phoned in, but it didn’t seem to damage his public image, meanwhile he alienated many colleagues without much thought, but also had mostly loyal defenders. He starred in light comedies like Houseboat to bloated period dramas like The Pride and the Passion, which he acted in basically so he could have an affair with Sophia Loren, who was married to Italian producer Carlo Ponti.

He was obsessive on sets and details of his movies as he became a name above the title star and producer. He only wanted to work with directors he could override, many times making the wrong decision for the success of the picture.

As much as Grant did not like speaking in public about his career, in his later years he went on a speaking tour and did just that.

He was very public about his advocacy for the use of the hallucinogen LSD, claiming his trips had liberated him. His real journey, though ,was to remake himself as Cary Grant, movie star, while privately harboring all of the insecurities and haunting characteristics of Archie Leach. This is a well-sourced biography and dimensional portrait that bypasses much of the usual gossip around this inimitable star.