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The Glamour, Glory and Guardedness of Grant

Nancy Sundstrom - October 14th, 2004
Just in time for harvest season comes a bumper crop of books by and about celebrities of all sorts, from Hollywood royalty to those a little further down the feeding chain, such as Paris Hilton, Sean Astin and Tom Green.
Arguably, one can expect more from a biography spanning the four-decade career of Cary Grant than one can from Jenna Jameson’s “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star,” but one can assume caveat empteur here. It’s all a matter of taste, isn’t it? And let’s face it, don’t some of these tomes, such as the latter-mentioned above, at least intrigue a reader to pick it up in the bookstore and scan the back cover and the photos, even while hiding inside an open copy of Philip Roth’s latest?
For this week, at any rate, let’s take a look at “Cary Grant” by the accomplished biographer Marc Eliot, who has written about pop culture for more than 25 years and whose works have been translated into 27 languages, including the New York Times bestselling Erin Brockovich autobiography, “Take It from Me,” and the critically acclaimed, award-winning biography “Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince.”
On the book’s inside flap is the quote, “Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.” What makes that remark so provocative is that it was made by Grant himself, and actor whose four-decade career was filled with outstanding performances in movies such as “Bringing Up Baby,” “The Philadelphia Story;” “Notorious,” and “North by Northwest,” to name just a few. But the premise Eliot builds this book upon is that Grant’s greatest creation was the illusion that the suave Cary Grant really existed offscreen.
Consider this excerpt from the opening:

“On the night of April 7, 1970, four years after starring in his last feature film, sixty-six-year-old Cary Grant, who had never won an Oscar, was awarded a special noncompetitive Academy Award for his lifetime of achievement in motion pictures. Although to his great legion of fans it was an honor scandalously overdue, for a number of reasons, some less obvious than others, it very nearly did not happen.
The original concept of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had been the brainstorm of Louis B. Mayer, who in 1926 came up with the idea of an interstudio house union open to all studio employees, including actors, run by moguls, to offset the growing problem of independent trade organization in Hollywood. The notion of annual awards was meant to placate those employees who sought the more practical benefits of better salaries, job security, health insurance, and retirement plans. At the time virtually everyone connected to the motion picture industry, from set painters, costume makers, and prop men to screenwriters, actors, and directors, was subject to the whims and fancies of the sweatshop mentality of the pioneering generation of Hollywood moguls.
The first actor to successfully break the hitherto ironclad contract system for performers was Cary Grant, who became a freelance actor-for-hire on a per film basis in 1936, after his original five-year exclusive deal with Paramount expired (as had the studio itself, in its first incarnation as Paramount Publix). During his half-decade studio tenure he had appeared in twenty-four features (including three made on loan-out to other studios) at a salaried basis that had begun at $450 a week in 1931 and ended at $3,500 in 1935, far below the $6,500 per week that Gary Cooper, his main competition at Paramount, earned that same year. Money, however, was not the only reason Grant chose not to remain a contract studio player. In 1934 MGM, the studio “with more stars than there are in heaven!” and the one he felt was more suited to his style and image, wanted to borrow him from Paramount to costar as Captain Bligh’s first mate in Frank Lloyd’s Mutiny on the Bounty. It was a film Grant desperately wanted to be in, believing it would be the one to finally make him a major star. When Adolph Zukor, the head of Paramount, refused to allow the loan-out, MGM gave the role instead to its own relatively unknown contract player, Franchot Tone. Bounty went on to win the Best Picture Oscar for 1935, and its three stars-Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, and Tone-were all nominated for Best Actor. (None won; the award that year went to Victor McLaglen for his performance in John Ford’s The Informer.)
Grant never forgave Zukor, and a year later, when his contract was up, he refused to re-sign with a reorganized Paramount, then surprised everyone when, after fielding offers from all the majors, he announced he was not going to sign an exclusive studio contract with any and instead would sell his services on a nonexclusive per-film basis. To underscore the finality of his decision to go independent, he canceled his membership in the Academy, an action everyone in Hollywood considered professional suicide. At the time no one except Charlie Chaplin had been able to survive without the security of a weekly paycheck in Academy-dominated Hollywood, and to do it he had to start his own studio, United Artists (with Douglas Fairbanks, D. W. Griffith, and Mary Pickford).”

A fascinating and timeless star who came to personify the essence of being suave, sophisticated and debonaire, Grant was one complicated fellow off-screen. He was born Archibald Leach in 1904, in the seaport village of Bristol, England, and a troubled childhood, ambiguous sexuality and a raft of insecurities followed him almost from the beginning, and certainly to the end of his life. Beneath an idealized movie image was a conflicted man who never quite found a way to juggle fame and notoriety with an intensely private life separate from the “Cary Grant” persona.
Eliot has done meticulous research here, and delivers scores of fascinating anecdotes about Grant’s work on an astonishing 72 films. The camera loved him, but whether he loved the camera as much is what Eliot seeks to uncover, along with some of the more controversial aspects of his life, such as his repeatedly being denied the Oscar he coveted, his 11-year relationship with Randolph Scott, five marriages and numerous affairs, psychiatric sessions and weekly LSD treatments and much, much more.

Beautifully written, and with a great deal of compassion for and insight to his subject, this is a revealing and nuanced portrait of one of the biggest and best stars in cinematic history, and an absolute must for Hollywood-philes.
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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