(Apologies for the ‘sticker marks’ on the b&w cover pic, purely my fault)
There are only six Cary Grant movies (spanning a 34-year career) that I have seen in their entirety: North by Northwest, To Catch A Thief, The Philadelphia Story, Topper, Arsenic and Old Lace, and His Girl Friday. An impressive enough list of films, but not enough qualification to comment in any depth on the scope of Grant’s film career; quite honestly, I’m not that anxious to catch up on every single film of his, even after just finishing the second of two books on his life. But I obviously enjoyed The Lonely Heart (1989), not one I would have normally checked out when it was one of the last books in my library’s ‘Performing Arts’ section around two years ago that I hadn’t already read (their ‘Music’ and ‘Entertainment’ shelves aren’t exactly overflowing, or regularly updated). So, when noticing A Biography (2004) in softback at a bookstore sales bin around last Christmas, it seemed that the opportunity to read and compare two ‘intimate’ biographies of an actor I had always been fond of, written 15 years apart, would serve two purposes: the first of course being simply which book was better. The second, but ultimately primary purpose, was to discover a more revealing documentation about one of the more universally accepted “Iconic images” to be ingrained with the definitive characteristics that image has securely preserved for generations after his death.
A man so uniquely debonair, self-assured, witty and admired as Cary Grant is beyond demythologizing; his legacy and identity cannot be tarnished; rumors of homosexual relationships and revelations of LSD usage and cruel mental spousal abuse has not replaced the image and sparkling charisma Grant is remembered for; and these two purportedly ‘tell-all’ biographies will hardly diminish its resonance for the average admirer.
He is known as the second Greatest Male Star of All Time by the American Film Institute, with ‘Star’ being a particularly apt descriptor. Although nominated twice for the Academy Award for Best Actor (Penny Serenade and None But the Lonely Heart), it was only after retirement that he was presented an Honorary Oscar, at the 42nd Academy Awards in 1970. Grant remained one of Hollywood’s top box-office attractions for almost 30 years, but this was due as much to a sense of good taste and knowing intuition in selecting film roles that blended with his best abilities as much as not ever casting him in more dramatically challenging or uncomfortable roles. Despite the ‘shadiness’ of characters like the ones in To Catch A Thief and Suspicion, he was never the villain. And never the pursuer – Grant’s sharp sense of what he could or could not ‘get away’ with in terms of character acceptability was such that his younger leading ladies (Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn) were always clearly portrayed as the ones more desirous of amorous attention from him than the other way around.
Grant was a favorite of Hitchcock, who called him “the only actor I ever loved in my whole life.” Having had a gift for both physical humor and comic timing, he never strayed too far from being, simply, ‘Cary Grant’. But that was quite enough.
Grant’s troubled childhood affected his romantic relationships, most certainly an underlying factor throughout five marriages. His mother suffered from clinical depression since the death of a previous child, and her husband placed her in a mental institution, telling his then nine-year-old son only that she had gone away on a “long holiday”. Believing she was dead after his father re-married and left young Archibald Leach before he was 10 years old, Grant did not learn otherwise until he was 31 and discovered her alive in a care facility. He was reunited with his mother, and did as much as he was allowed to try and make her life more comfortable, but they never regained the close bond they had once shared, and A Biography details this complex relationship and speculates on how this colored his entire outlook on life.
Although both The Lonely Heart and A Biography claim to have the ‘real story’ behind Grant’s true sexuality, neither one really outdoes the other with an original item or claim that would reveal any more than what has been circulating forever; but for anyone who previously wasn’t aware of the rumors, innuendo, sensational tidbits and, well, just about everything that’s been printed about Cary Grant based solely on what somebody besides the man himself has shared, rest assured that no startlingly new ‘revelations’ have come about in the last quarter century. Sources as far back as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and as recently as the 2012 memoir Full Service by a Scott Bowers, who claimed he was a lover of both Grant and Randolph Scott, have said that Grant was bisexual. The Lonely Heart covers Grant’s alleged involvement with costume designer Orry-Kelly when he first moved to Manhattan, and there are no end to the speculative scenarios others have collected or created regarding Grant’s having lived with actor Randolph Scott off and on for 12 years. Richard Blackwell wrote that Grant and Scott were “deeply, madly in love,” though this could merely be wishful conjecture on his part. Grant’s widow Barbara Harris, a British hotel public-relations agent, who was 47 years his junior when she became the last Mrs. Grant, has disputed that there was a relationship with Scott. And An Autobiography relates that Grant’s one-time girlfriend Maureen Donaldson wrote in her 1989 memoir, An Affair to Remember: My Life with Cary Grant, that Grant had volunteered to her that his first two wives had accused him of being homosexual. But when Chevy Chase tactlessly joked about Grant’s being gay in a television interview in the late 70’s, Grant sued him for slander, more on principal and the fact that Chase’s jibe wasn’t very humorous to begin with; the suit was settled out of court. The Lonely Heart maintains that this incident can be as telling as one wants to interpret.
On December 25, 1949, Grant married Betsy Drake. He appeared with her in two films. This would prove to be his longest marriage, ending on August 14, 1962. Drake introduced Grant to LSD, and in the early 1960s he related how treatments (over 100) with the hallucinogenic drug—legal at the time—at a prestigious California clinic had finally brought him inner peace after yoga, hypnotism and mysticism had proved ineffective. Grant and Drake divorced in 1962.
While I personally find Eliot’s A Biography the most interesting to read, the only notable variable among virtually all the sources I’ve read, including in these books, is how the stories are presented, and such is Grant’s enduring legend that no one author will take a definitively harsh or mean-spirited approach when discussing these subjects.
Neither of these books are written with the intent to cast Cary Grant’s life in any shadow of deception or as a strenuous attempt to sensationalize or distort his persona; remarkably, neither source claims to have the complete story behind any of the gossip or insider knowledge of potentially scandalous revelations behind Grant’s deep, questionably intimate relationship with Randolph Scott, or his mental abuse and controlling nature towards his wives, though these subjects are not shied away from. There are actually only a few differences in each author’s book, due more to individual concentration on certain relationships or events than any glaring omissions or of one writer’s attempt to vary from the actual story. The Lonely Heart takes particular interest in describing alleged WWII spy activities Grant collaborated with in service of the British military allies, though this doesn’t add up to much significance as a whole. But A Biography highlights a relationship he shared with Sophia Loren, and this subject comes that much closer to help in understanding his relationships with the women in his life.
Grant fell madly in love with Sophia Loren while filming The Pride and the Passion (1957) when he was 53 and she was 22, despite the fact that he was married to actress Betsy Drake. However, Loren was seriously involved with producer Carlo Ponti, and her passion fizzled when the film wrapped. He was still in love with Loren when it came time for them to film Houseboat (1958). She went to the director in tears, complaining that Grant was chasing her again – she had told Grant she was in love with Carlo Ponti, but he didn’t believe her. Her sudden marriage to Ponti shortly afterwards went a bit further in convincing him, but he continued to speak of his relationship with Sophia Loren as one of the most passionate romances in his life.
Not that Grant ever had need of worrying about the totality of his effect on the fairer sex, or the ease in which he entranced women half his age even in his final years. Cary Grant retired from the screen at 62 when his daughter Jennifer was born, but he had fully intended retiring much earlier than that. He initially decided to end his 1953 retirement just to make To Catch a Thief (1955). Although fifty when To Catch a Thief was filmed, Grant was still playing a character of thirty-five! When the film proved to be a huge success he agreed to make further films. He was director Howard Hawks’s first choice to play the lead in Man’s Favorite Sport? (1964), but he turned it down because he was 59 and leading lady Paula Prentiss was but 25 years old. He also maintained a year-round tan and a full head of hair that he didn’t bother coloring once it turned white.
For the academic seeking a more concentrated analysis of Grant’s film career and the philosophy of his craft yet critical of the consummate actor/performer with a carefully selected resume’ of projects not designed to expand his finite range in any remarkably dramatic way, as could be interpreted in later cinema actors Robert Redford’s or Warren Beatty’s body of work, neither The Lonely Heart or A Biography would offer much more in that department.
But to separate the man from his craft would only give a less insightful interpretation of either. I thought Eliot’s A Biography would be more readable simply by virtue of its later publication, but this wasn’t the case – both are nearly equal in overall presentation and easy-to-follow structure.
For some reason, the unavoidable realization that Cary Grant’s life, and legend, can only be appreciated for the unwavering resiliency and lasting significance that has already been ascribed to it, makes this actor’s body of work one of the more precious and unassailable accomplishments of consistent quality that only the most revered artist achieves in a lifetime, and beyond.