‘Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise’
By Scott Eyman
c.2020, Simon & Schuster
$35 / 576 pages
Recently, during the pandemic and election season, I felt down. Until I watched “Bringing Up Baby,” the 1938 screwball comedy. Like millions of other fans, especially queer aficionados, I cracked up when David (Cary Grant) loses his clothes. He’s wearing Susan’s (Katharine Hepburn) bathrobe. A prim, proper dowager comes to the door. “Why are you wearing those clothes,” she asks.
“Because I just went gay all of a sudden!” David (Grant) exclaims.
“Gary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise” by film historian Scott Eyman is a fascinating, comprehensive biography of the screen legend. There have been other biographies of Grant, a queer icon, but Eyman’s is definitive.
Grant, who died in 1986, was born in 1904 as Archibald (Archie) Alexander Leach in Bristol, England. Grant’s childhood was as far removed from the glitz and glam of Tinsel Town as could be imagined. Charles Dickens (whose youth was no picnic) might have put the young Archie in one of his novels.
His father was an alcoholic. Grant was told his mother was dead. (Years later, he learned that she was alive and residing in a mental institution.) Money was scarce. He found solace by attending vaudeville shows in music halls.
His skills as an acrobat were his ticket out of his impoverished circumstances. He toured with vaudeville acts in England and America. Eventually, he landed in Hollywood. His first big break came when Mae West picked him to star with her in “She Done Him Wrong.” From there, Grant embarked on a decades long career. From the 1930s until “Walk, Don’t Run” in 1966, he made 57 films. An astute businessman, Grant sat on several corporate boards.
Grant married five times. He remained on friendly terms with Betsy Drake, one of his ex-wives and had a daughter Jennifer with Dyan Cannon, his fourth wife.
Long before it was fashionable to “tune in, drop out,” Grant used LSD to learn about himself.
And, of course, there was Randolph Scott, the actor, with whom Grant lived in Hollywood in the 1930s during his (and Scott’s) bachelor years. A fan magazine photographed the two of them at their home. Jennifer, Grant’s daughter, denied that her father was gay. “Dad somewhat enjoyed being called gay,” she wrote in her memoir. “He said it made women want to prove the assertion wrong.”
Yet, it’s hard not to believe that Grant wasn’t queer. It’s been claimed that before he became famous, Grant had a relationship with the gay costume designer Orry-Kelly. Though there’s no way that Grant or Scott could have been open about being a couple at the time, their relationship seems to have been an open secret. The actress Carole Lombard joked about Grant and Scott, “Randy pays the bills and Cary mails them.”
In “Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise,” Eyman, author of “Hank and Jim: the Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart,” deftly illuminates Grant’s sexuality and the other mysterious aspects of the legendary actor’s life.
We adore “Cary Grant,” the polished, charming, suave, witty presence who we see on screen. Yet, Cary Grant, the actor, wasn’t this character. Grant is “the most self-invented man in the movies,” Eyman writes.
“It’s a part I’ve been playing a long time, but no way am I really Cary Grant,” Eyman tells us Grant would say.
Grant wasn’t carefree as he so often appears in his movies. “Underneath Grant’s fascinating, nonpareil facade was a personality of nearly perpetual anxiety,” Eyman writes.
Both gays and straights have wanted to claim Grant as one of their own, writes Eyman, who lives with his wife in West Palm Beach. Grant likely wouldn’t have liked to have been labeled as gay or queer. Yet, Eyman reports that Grant in a conversation with his friend Bill Royce, implied that “he had been basically gay as a young man, later, bisexual, still later straight.”
“Cary Grant” gives us a dishy, informative look at not only Grant but Hollywood in all its delicious machinations. Katharine Hepburn, while a houseguest at Grant’s home, becomes absorbed in reading Sophocles while she’s taking a bath. Mae West, larger-than-life on screen, is tiny in person.
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