by Mike Roknick
Actor of the century
In his definitive book A Biographical Dictionary of Film, critic David Thomson wrote: “There is a major and very difficult realization that needs to be made about Grant — …he is the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema.” Men wanted to be him; women just wanted him. In 72 films made over 34 years, he captured the heart and imagination of the world. And in an effort to have increased control over the roles he played, he revolutionized the way Hollywood dealt with actors. American by choice (he legalized his name and became a U.S. citizen on June 26, 1942) he was a staunch patriot during an era when Hollywood’s golden image was tarnished by the cloud of the McCarthy hearings.
Leaving his lower class British roots behind, Cary Grant reinvented himself, becoming the ultimate man of the world. Grant played rich men, poor men, angels and rogues, each one more appealing than the last.
Whether portraying a gambler (Mr. Lucky, 1943) soldier (I Was A Male War Bride, 1949), a submarine commander (Operation Petticoat, 1959), a nineteenth century British naval officer (The Pride and the Passion, 1957), a newspaper editor (His Girl Friday, 1940), an archeologist (Bringing Up Baby, 1938), a business man (Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, 1948; Indiscreet, 1958; North By Northwest, 1959; That Touch of Mink, 1962), a US Treasury agent (Charade, 1963), a crusty recluse (Father Goose, 1964) a physician (Every Girl Should Be Married, 1948; Crisis, 1950; People Will Talk, 1951) or a jewel thief (To Catch a Thief, 1955) Cary Grant was the epitomy of elegance, a charismatic and self-confident, self-mocking man.
He loved and admired women as much for their intelligence, strength and ideosyncracies as for their beauty and softness. Unthreatened either by powerful women or the competition of other men, the characters played by Grant were friends as well as lovers. Rising from the poverty of Bristol, England where he was born on January 18, 1904, Grant was the son of Elias Leach, a suit pressor at a local clothing factory. His mother, Elsie Leach, the daughter of laborers, was a woman haunted by the 1900 death of her first child due to tubercular menigitis. Little John had died just prior to his first birthday and his mother’s ongoing depression influenced every aspect of her overprotective relationship with her second child, Archie.
Archibald Alec Leach entered show business at the tender age of six (according to biographers Charles Higham and Roy Moseley) when his father signed his custody over to vaudvillian Robert Lomas. He returned to Bristol and his parents a year later, having been bitten permanently by the show biz bug. When he was eight, he returned from a walk to find his mother missing and was told by his father that she had suffered a heart attack and died. At age fourteen, after being expelled from school under circumstances that are less than clear (over the years he gave numerous contradictory explanations) Leach rejoined Lomas’s Pender Troupe. He toured with them until 1922 when, after two years of performing in the United States, Lomas and his family returned to London. Grant stayed in New York, taking odd jobs performing acrobatics, then rejoined the Lomas troupe upon its return to the US a year later. He worked with them intermittently over the next few years, while becoming better known and better regarded in the New York theatrical community.
In 1932, after ten years of performing in vaudeville and on Broadway, he and composer Phil Charig decided to make the crosscountry drive and try their luck in Hollywood. Within days of arriving in town, Leach had changed his name to Cary Grant, signed a studio contract with Paramount, been installed in a studio-owned apartment and started simultaneous work on his first two feature films, This is the Night and Sinners in the Sun. In his first two years in Hollywood, Cary Grant made thirteen films, including Blonde Venus with Marlene Dietrich, She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel with Mae West, and Gambling Ship, the first film in which he received top billing.
Grant also set the studio contract system on its ear, becoming the first actor to work independently and leading the way for the tens of thousands of actors who followed in his footsteps. His original contract with Paramount came up for renewal in 1937. With twenty-two films under his belt, Grant wanted to join the ranks of performers like Gary Cooper, Mae West and Claudette Colbert, all of whom had script approval written into their contracts. Paramount refused, attempting instead to lure him with the promise of better roles. Grant turned down the offer, eschewing the safety of a studio contract and embarking on a career as Hollywood’s first independent leading man.
Perhaps the real secret of Cary Grant’s great professional success lies in his incredible talent as an actor. Always recognizable, he never played two roles the same way. No one who has ever seen the loving gentle amusement of C.K. Dexter Haven (The Philadelphia Story, 1940), the easy arrogant cockiness of Walter Burns (His Girl Friday, 1940), the desperate fear and insecurity of Johnnie Aysgarth (Suspicion, 1941), or the pain and hopelessness of Ernie Mott (None But The Lonely Heart, 1944) would ever mistake one character for another, despite his having played those roles all within a relatively short period of time. Cary Grant never won an Academy Award for acting, despite having been nominated twice, once for Penny Serenade in 1942 and again for None But the Lonely Heart in 1945, but he was honored by the Academy with a lifetime achievement award in 1970. In introducing him that night, Frank Sinatra summed up his friends career stating, “No one has brought more pleasure to more people for so many years. . . nobody has done so many things as well. Cary has so much skill that he makes it all look easy.”
Grant’s personal life never quite managed to match the success of his career. A deep-seated insecurity and fear of becoming impoverished shadowed his personal and professional life, dooming many of his relationships and tremendously influencing his often conservative career decisions. (The night before filming was to begin on The Philadelphia Story he called director George Cukor and begged him to alter the casting to allow Grant to play Mike, the role which won Jimmy Stewart the best supporting actor Oscar because he felt that Stewart would be more convincing as the leading man who steals back Katherine Hepburn’s heart.)
It wasn’t until 1935 when his father died, making Grant her next of kin, that he discovered that his mother was still alive, having been confined to an insane asylum for more than twenty years. His father had taken advantage of her depression to have her committed in order to marry his pregnant mistress. Grant traveled to England, had Elsie released from the asylum, arranged for her to stay with relatives when doctors recommended that she remain in England rather than move to California to live with him (in order to ease her transition), then set her up in her own household in Bristol. He continued to support her and visit frequently until her death in 1973 at age 95.
Grant married five times: actress Virginia Cherrell in 1934; heiress Barbara Hutton in 1942; actress Betsy Drake in 1949; actress Dyan Cannon in 1965; and finally long time companion Barbara Harris in 1981. His first marriage lasted just over a year, his second three years, his fourth two. His marriage to Betsy Drake was more successful, lasting almost thirteen years, and they remained close friends, as did Grant and Hutton. He was married to Barbara Harris at the time of his death.
Not until 1966, when he was 62 years old and married to Dyan Cannon, did he achieve his long-standing dream of becoming a father. (His much adored stepson, Lance Reventlow, Barbara Hutton’s child from an earlier marriage, had remained a major fixture in Grant’s life, even living with Grant and Drake for a time. Lance died at age 36 in a 1972 plane crash.) From the moment she entered the world, Jennifer Grant became the center of her father’s universe. Following her birth, he ended his film career, citing the need to spend more time with his daughter. Fatherhood remained the major focus of his life from then on.
After years of heeding her father’s desire that she avoid show business, Jennifer has ended up following in her parents’ footsteps, beginning with a recurring role on “Beverly Hills, 90210”; guest appearances on such series as “Ellen,” “Walker, Texas Ranger,” and “Friends”; and a leading role in the film The Evening Star, the sequel to Terms of Endearment.
During the afternoon of November 28, 1986 in Davenport, Iowa, Cary Grant suffered a stroke while helping to set up for a stage presentation titled “A Conversation With Cary Grant.” He passed away in the intensive care unit of St. Luke’s Hospital at 11:22 that night.
The following editorial ran in The New York Times three days after his death: “Cary Grant was not supposed to die. Sure, we all knew he was getting on — he had the silver hair to prove it — and that his last movie was 20 years behind him. But die? Never. Cary Grant was supposed to stick around, our perpetual touchstone of charm and elegance and romance and youth.”
He will always stick around, in a sense. We can still see him con Rosalind Russell out of a husband and Katherine Hepburn out of her considerable wits. We can see him kiss Ingrid Bergman, and we can see Grace Kelly kiss him, and we can see the look on his face when he finds out what his aunts have hidden in the window seat. But we can never see him again without feeling a little pang, for now the substance behind the extraordinary shadow is gone.
Ah, the images he leaves behind. He is suave in white tie and tails and ludicrous in a negligee and the very image of an absent-minded professor when he climbs a ladder to tend his dinosaur. His double-takes are straight out of the silents, his antics straight out of the music halls and his looks straight out of the story books. Like Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney, his great contemporaries, he is easy to imitate and impossible to replace.
He also was — is — easy to love. Yes, the haircut is perfect, and so is the suit and that cleft in the chin is heaven’s thumbmark. But they don’t explain why three generations of women have had crushes on him. Apart from being gorgeous, the adjective of many women’s choice, he is also a friend. Cary Grant’s promise is of more than one glorious night; it’s of a lifetime of laughter.
Contributed by Whitney Carr Edwards, M.D.