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Documentary Review: Cary Grant: A Class Apart

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I watched the 2004 documentary, Cary Grant: A Class Apart on TCM recently and I’ve been thinking about it off and on ever since. It’s not so much that it was a brilliant piece of filmmaking. It’s a pretty standard movie star biography. What made the deeper impression was Cary Grant, the man, as portrayed by his own words, the facts of his life, film clips, and affect he and his actions had on others.

He was a complex personality. He was a womaniser, or at least, a man who loved many, many women. But he was Cary Grant—how could he not be? Two of his former wives appear in the documentary, Betsy Drake, to whom he was married for thirteen years, and Barbara Harris, who was his wife from 1981 until his death five years later. They both dismiss the ever-present gossip that Grant may have been bisexual, Drake most entertainingly, “Why would I believe that Cary was homosexual when we were busy fucking?” She is definitely a woman scorned, or at least, severely bruised still by her marriage, which she describes all-too vividly as a dictatorship, where she lost her identity and Cary was the only star. She desperately wanted children, but Grant either ignored her desires or refused to participate. Th viewer must take all her hurt feelings into account when she adds, “Maybe he was bisexual. He lived 43 years before he met me. I don’t know what he did.”

Harris completely dismisses the rumors which have perpetuated all these years based primarily on hearsay and publicity photo shoots he did with longtime friend and roommate Randolph Scott. Certainly no homosexual couple, in the 1930s, in a town like Hollywood, which was notorious for cooking up false romances to cover up its gay stars’ sex lives (Monty Clift, Rock Hudson), would promote and publish such photos. It’s a case of wishful thinking and different times meaning different things. It doesn’t matter to me one way or the other if Cary had a boyfriend, but it seems strange how fervent the desire is to attach gay rumors to celebrities like Grant. Why is it so important to some people to know which star is sleeping with which star? 

Noticeably absent from the documentary is Dyan Cannon, who parted most acrimoniously from Grant two years after their marriage, but also gave him his only child, daughter Jennifer Grant, whom he absolutely doted on, “If I had known then what I know now, if I had not been so utterly stupid, I would have had a hundred children and I would have built a ranch to keep them on.” Grant finally becoming a father and crowing about it must have been hard for Betsy Drake to take.

The documentary tries to make the case that Archie Leach, as he was named at birth, created the persona of Cary Grant and was ultimately trapped by it. I think that’s overly dramatic and not entirely true. Grant did create Grant. With the help of influential women he was involved with, and producers and directers that he worked with, but Grant was always also Archie Leach. He never forgot where he came from—a difficult childhood that he escaped as soon as he could by joining an acting troupe at 16.

He never lost his edge, even while looking more urbane, more handsome, more sleek than anyone has ever looked in a tux. Grant has said, “I have spent the greater part of my life fluctuating between Archie Leach and Cary Grant, unsure of each, suspecting each.” And, “Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.” I think what Grant is really saying is that as an artist he created the Cary Grant persona, but it was actually just a bigger version of himself. We all do that, in some way. Our work persona versus how we act with our friends and family. What makes Cary Grant’s persona that much bigger, makes him “Cary Grant,” is that it had to be big enough to withstand audiences seeing him blown up 100 times larger-than-life on the big screen. It must be hard to see yourself that exaggerated, filmed sometimes harshly, sometimes lovingly, but still objectified. Like an old snapshot blown up to billboard size.

Grant was so good at being Cary Grant that it was almost forgotten by all that he was acting. Audiences just wanted to see him, as he realized, “I’ve often been accused by critics of being myself on-screen. But being oneself is more difficult than you’d suppose.”

The film also confirms that Grant took LSD, when it was still legal, in the early ’60s, “My intention in taking LSD was to make myself happy … I took it with a group of men, one of whom was Aldous Huxley. We deceived ourselves by calling it therapy, but we were truly interested in how this chemical could help humanity.” Grant was trying to exorcise his demons, and he did seem to lead a happy, more peaceful life after he left Hollywood.

What the documentary does have in abundance is clips from his films, both classic and forgotten. It is amazing to be reminded how many wonderful movies he made. As handsome as he was, when I think of Grant I first think of screwball comedy. No one had his acrobatic approach or could do it better, keeping pace, word-for-word, with female costars such as Katherine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell.

Grant made four wonderful films with Alfred Hitchcock, who knew how to exploit his flawless profile as well as his dark side.  Luckily these films and more are still on frequent rotation on TCM. I’m looking forward to seeing him again in such films as Topper, The Philadelphia Story, Suspicion, North By Northwest, Bringing Up Baby, and Arsenic And Old Lace.

Grant wonderfully sums up his experience of Hollywood, his career, “When you’re a young man, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. is driving. Wally Beery is the conductor, and Chaplin’s got a front row seat. You take your seat, and back behind you is Gary Cooper … Suddenly a young man named Ty Power gets on. He asks you to move over. You make a picture with Joan Fontaine. You think you do a good job, but she wins the Oscar, and you get nothing. And pretty soon more and more people get on, it’s getting very crowded, and then you decide to get off. When you get off the trolley, you notice that it’s been doing nothing but going around in circles.” He may have felt at times he was going in circles, making the same movies, never getting recognized, although he was finally awarded an honorary Oscar in 1970. But he had an acting career that was truly unique. As much as other actors like Tyrone Power or Louis Jourdan may have made him feel that his time had passed, there has never been another leading man like Cary Grant.

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