By Benjamin Schwarz
Cary Grant inspires more pure delight than any other actor in the history of the pictures. His effortless winningness, though, was born of his strenuous self-seeking and self-creation. Grant pursued what had eluded Gatsby–a heroic act of self-invention that integrated who he was with who he would become. After much struggle, he attained that self-invention on screen, giving the world the persona that is “Cary Grant.” But fully unifying within himself an affectionate avowal of the person and background from which he had emerged with the glamorous aspiration he had formed when not yet a man was an even longer, often painful, private effort. “Everybody wants to be Cary Grant,” so the saying goes–and part of Grant’s allure lies in the universality of the wish together with the plain impossibility of pulling it off. The key to Grant’s imperishable magic, however, is that somebody did, in fact, pull it off: Archie Leach, the son of Bristol pants presser.
Ensorcelled by the music halls of his childhood, Archie Leach–a lonely working-class latchkey kid whose mother abruptly disappeared from his life when he was nine (his two-timing, alcoholic father had secretly committed her, despite her apparent sanity, to the Country Home for Mental Defectives)–ran away with a vaudeville troupe when he was fourteen. For the next nine years he would perform as an acrobat, juggler, stilt walker, and mime, honing his phenomenal physical grace and exquisite comic timing, and developing a universally-praised professionalism and team-spiritedness that would serve him throughout his 50-year career. When his tour left America, he stayed. Eventually, he abandoned a well-paying if unremarkable Broadway career to try the movies and chose a screen name that conjured the image of the man he aspired to be.
The talisman didn’t take. An actor named Cary Grant spent the next six years as a cog in the studio machine, playing pomaded pretty boys. In nearly 30 movies—close to half of all the pictures he would ever make—his acting was stiff, his demeanor tentative, his smile weak, his manner ingratiating. His obvious discomfort in these creaky movies is the only evidence of his innate intelligence and taste as an actor. But in 1936, he shone in Sylvia Scarlett as a Cockney swindler, a character close to his roots. The film’s director, George Cukor, recalled that the nearly 32-year-old Grant “flowered; he felt the ground under his feet.”
In middle age, Grant would write that in his youth he had lacked “daring and abandon,” as well as “confidence and the courage to enjoy life.” But now he suddenly came into his own. With his contract soon to expire at Paramount, he broke from the crushing studio system, becoming the first freelance star in the modern era. While the other stars of Hollywood’s golden age remained cosseted salarymen in thrall to the studio bosses, Grant would henceforth manage his own career, adeptly choosing and developing his own roles and collaborating with directors (and, by forgoing a wage in favor of a percentage of the gross of his shrewdly-selected projects, becoming immensely rich, even by Hollywood standards). He soon made The Awful Truth—and from nowhere Cary Grant gloriously emerged, fully formed.
“I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be and I finally became that person. Or he became me. Or we met at some point,” Grant later wrote of the history of the relationship between Archie Leach and Cary Grant. The meeting was years in the making, but all at once he achieved the artistic self-mastery that would remain with him. There was the detached, distracted wit; the knowing charm; the bemused self-mockery; the good-natured ease combined with a genius for pitiless teasing; the exquisitely timed stylized comedic movements—the cocked head, the double takes; and, in a neat trick that allowed him to be simultaneously cool and warm, the arch mindfulness of the audience he was letting in on the joke.
When Cary Grant assimilated Archie Leach, he amalgamated qualities previously irreconcilable in movies and popular culture. Clearly the movies’ most handsome leading man, Grant nevertheless dropped the lover-boy act and shunned playing the neutered Englishman (Leslie Howard, Ronald Colman), the aw-shucks, vaguely smug rube (Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda), and the mischievous hunk (Clark Gable). Instead he developed a novel way to interact with a woman on screen: he treated his leading lady as both a sexually attractive female and an idiosyncratic personality. This approach often required little more than just listening to her—a tactic that had previously been ignored in the pictures. His knowing but inconspicuously generous style made his co-star simultaneously regal and hilarious. With his sui generis accent (itself a blend of low-born and refined, of West Country lilt and hard Cockney, overlaid with the clipped patter of baseball talk), his subtle phrasing, and the clean bite of his diction, he delivered lines with a precise sparkle. But he also joined this gift for quick, clever, complex dialogue with a brilliant comedic physicality. That physicality itself was at once delicate (watch him punctuate a joke by simply bending a knee or arching an eyebrow) and broad. James Agee wrote that the silent comedians “combined several of the more difficult accomplishments of the acrobat, the dancer, the clown, and the mime,” a skill set that was lost with the advent of the talkies. Grant, assimilating Archie Leach, more or less single-handedly recovered it. He could execute clumsy pratfalls without forfeiting his uncanny grace.
In his blending of the urbane and the rambunctious, Grant found a way to be true to his own background, aspects of which he plainly adored, while reconciling that background to the vision of a suave man-about-town that he had aspired to as a working-class young man. Although Grant’s early Hollywood image seemed a denial of his former self, after he came into his own, he kept Leach very much with him: he always spoke matter-of-factly and lovingly of his working-class origins, and he savored playing Cockney characters; his references to “Archie Leach” would be an affectionate running gag in his pictures. Grant’s unique appeal emerged from the blending of his two identities. As Pauline Kael noted, Grant’s “romantic elegance is wrapped around the resilient, tough core of a mutt, and Americans dream of thoroughbreds while identifying with mutts.”
This assimilation took longer to achieve in Grant’s private life. “I have spent the greater part of my life fluctuating between Archie Leach and Cary Grant,” Grant acknowledged in 1963, “only recently have I begun to unify them into one person.” Although the reserved Grant consistently conducted himself with uncommon grace, never indulging in the misconduct licensed to stars, his struggle to amalgamate who he had been and who he had become surely contributed to four failed marriages (for which the standup Grant unreservedly blamed himself; he remained on excellent terms with all his exes) and an earnest, decades’ long project of self-assessment (a project that included extended psychiatric treatment with then-legal LSD). As he suggested, Grant eventually achieved self-understanding and happiness, a state that coincided with his final marriage and the birth of his only child. The act of internal integration necessary to become Cary Grant on-screen and off demanded a seemingly rare combination of self-knowledge and toughness. “Introspection,” Grant said, “is the beginning of courage.”