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Review-a-Day
Esquire
Wednesday, October 13th, 2004


 

Cary Grant: A Biography

by Marc Eliot

Left Coast Gatsby

A review by Anna Godbersen

Cary Grant was the perfect star for Hollywood's golden age: He was perfectly handsome, perfectly urbane, and perfectly constructed. Behind the glamorous image, he hid stinginess, bisexuality, and occasional madness. In a new biography of the screen legend, Marc Eliot relates the twisted story (suitably full of melodrama and improbable plot twists) of how Archie Leach became Cary Grant.

Archibald Leach was born in Bristol, England in 1904 to good-looking but unhappy parents who clashed over those two grand themes, sex and money. (They had little of either.) Effectively abandoned at thirteen, Archie joined a traveling troupe of acrobats that took him to New York, where he stayed through his twenties, living thriftily in Greenwich Village with two gay roommates. During these years he met with mixed success working in vaudeville and as a male escort. By the early thirties, he had moved to Hollywood, signed as a contract player for Paramount, and renamed himself. (He chose Cary because it rhymed with the first name of the star he planned to emulate, Gary Cooper, and Grant because shorter names fit best on a marquee.) At Paramount he met Randolph Scott, another contract player who was to become his long-term live-in lover. After four years of limited success playing handsome men to more memorable female stars, Grant broke with the studio to become one of Hollywood's first independent stars. Through subsequent comedic roles, Grant was finally able to capture the public's imagination and to make himself famous and rich. Eliot goes on to detail Grant's five heterosexual marriages, his wartime dealings with the FBI, and his involvement with early LSD experiments.

In Eliot's portrayal, Grant is a kind of Gatsby with gay undertones: He is the savvy businessman, the obsessive athlete, and the purveyor of a certain fantasy. Eliot describes the naively idealized, ultimately fraught relationships that Grant pursued with his female costars and with the women who would become his wives. While Eliot does a good job of cracking the screen fantasy, and at explaining movie politics, his book lacks an emotional tangibility. The narrative thread of Grant's life gets lost at times in the many synopses and financial details of Grant's movies. Still, Eliot's biography provides a fascinating and thorough portrait of the man who would transform himself into Cary Grant.


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