Book Review: Does “Cary Grant: The Making of a Hollywood Legend” give us the “real” Cary Grant?

You read enough sloppy Cary Grant biographies, you tend to give up on him as a subject and spend your Golden Age of Hollywood reading time on less controversial icons of the era.

But when Oxford University Press puts an academic on the case, and he takes the time to go through Grant’s letters, diaries, many scrapbooks and even home movies, something author Mark Glancy insists those before him never did, or at best perused, you flip open “The Making of a Hollywood Legend.”

Here’s the test of any “new” Cary Grant biography. Turn to the index and see if “Scotty Bowers” is listed. He’s the bisexual Hollywood hooker whose alleged exploits with everybody-who-was-anybody during that “Golden Age” included declaring he’d been with Grant and Grant’s most oft-named Hollywood same sex lover, cowboy B-lister Randolph Scott.

As Bowers had at least one claim buttressed by famed gossip maven Liz Smith before her death — that Katherine Hepburn was bisexual — you had to take him at least a little seriously. Maybe not a lot. Hollywood “hangers on” have always sought to give meaning to their on-the-periphery existence out there with claims of various sorts.

And Bowers isn’t in Glancy’s book. So you know going in that he’s either a British classist looking askance at a common, opportunistic prostitute, and trapped in “binary” thought about sexuality, or he’s got enough evidence that he can address those long-standing rumors (Grant even sued Chevy Chase for “outing” him in the ’70s) without ever giving the now-dead Bowers, his book or documentary more publicity.

Reading “The Making of a Hollywood Legend,” I detected a bit of both — British jingoism defending his fellow countryman, so much of it that things that should raise an eyebrow are papered-over by Glancy, and the testimony of ex-wives, girlfriends and others that Grant liked them lithe and blonde and female.

So despite his “forensic” digging into Grant’s life story, I can’t say Glancy settles that debate in the first big Grant bio to come out in the age of “Sexuality doesn’t really matter.” As it shouldn’t.

Grant was a deft comedian — his “staccato” speaking style and accent lending itself to screwball comedies, his vaudeville tumbler/acrobat background giving him the gift of physical shtick as well. He was a marvelously mysterious heavy on occasion, and handled characters that covered a lot of ground in between those extremes.

Glancy dissects the movies and the former Archibald Alec Leach’s performances in them, and building on the work of many who came before him, psychoanalyzes the oft-married/always-dating slow-to-commit adult whose mother was taken from him, thrown into an asylum by her tom-catting working class husband, with young Archie told that his mother was “dead.” He didn’t learn she wasn’t until he was rich and famous.

That’s a scar that doesn’t heal. It was only when he got into psychotherapy in his 50s (LSD was a part of his treatment) that the workaholic Grant found some peace.

More interesting to me is all the material about Grant’s insistence on doing what few other actors would put themselves through, watching his “dailies” during filming. He was analyzing his performances, figuring out what he did well, what roles suited him.

He met silent screen star Douglas Fairbanks as a teen tumbler and decided that was what a movie star looked like — tanned, toothy, perfectly-put-together, athletic, light on his feet.

His stage name was taken from a character he played on Broadway in a show with Fay Wray, carrying a crush on his co-star (who later became King Kong’s leading lady) all the way to Hollywood. She’s the one who said “Cary” he should be.

Paramount put him under contract and he made a lot of forgettable movies there. But he developed a notion of what he’d be good at and changed the rules when that contract ran out, a free-lancer who had director, script and story approval, a star who would provide his own clothes for roles, protecting his dapper, polished image…and getting a tax write-off for his wardrobe.

Co-star after co-star would note how he’d learned blocking and lighting, insisting on one profile, knowing where his key light should be, always to the most flattering effect.

He got so good so fast — “The Awful Truth” to “Bringing Up Baby” to “The Front Page” — that Hollywood overlooked him at the Oscars, taking his effortless performances at “effortless” face value.

And he became his fellow working class Brit Hitchcock’s alter ego, which ensured his longevity long past most leading men’s expiration date. Glancy takes a deep dive into Grant and Hitchcock’s masterpiece, the movie most people think of when they think “Cary Grant” — “North by Northwest.”

Yes, he was close friends — at the very least — with longtime roommate and onetime co-star Randolph Scott. Yes, there was that one day a gay studio photographer came out to stage “bachelors at home” shots for widely published magazine articles on two rising Paramount stars. And yes, Grant was quick to improv or merely throw himself into a “gay” quip on screen, and cross-dressed more than once in his comedies.

But nobody’s ever published a “smoking gun” that proves Grant was anything less than working class Bristol heterosexual. Well, aside from Glancy himself — who unearthed some unpublished thoughts by Grant’s early New York career gay roommate, who went on to become a famous costume designer (“No,” said Jack “Orry-Kelly.”). Glancy also notes the gay secretary living with Grant and Scott in Santa Monica and the real reason teen Archie Leach was kicked out of school at 14.

But since acceptance is far more the rule of the day, and nobody today begrudges a star being both a heterosexual heartthrob and a gay icon, perhaps Glancy has weighted that discussion where it should have been all along — not all that relevant.

In getting at Grant’s personal papers, decades of good, bad and indifferent reviews clipped and saved, Glancy gives us a take on Grant outside of the ex-wives, cut-and-paste researchers and professional “pathographers,” those who make a living writing scandalous things about the famous and dead. It’s a good, thorough read and may hint at a change in the winds of how we look at this famously private, famously gorgeous and underrated movie star.

“Cary Grant: The Making of a Hollywood Legend,” by Mark Glancy. Oxford University Press, 539 pages, $34.95.

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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