Film historian Scott Eyman takes a fresh look at a movie legend in the sparkling biography Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise. Drawing upon extensive interviews and archival materials, including the star’s personal papers, Eyman shows that Grant (1904–1986), king of the romantic comedy and the very definition of dashing, was a man of contrasts forever troubled by his working-class past.
Born into a poor household in Bristol, England, Grant, whose real name was Archibald Leach, did not have a happy childhood. His father was an alcoholic. His depressed mother spent decades in an institution, while Grant was told that she was dead. At 14, he engineered his own expulsion from school in order to chase a career in show business. From stilt walking, acrobatics and pantomime in English music halls to American vaudeville revues and the Broadway stage, he didn’t stop until he’d landed in Hollywood.
In 1932, Grant made his first big film, Blonde Venus, with Marlene Dietrich. By 1939, he was a full-blown star. Absent-minded scientist (Bringing Up Baby), wisecracking socialite (The Philadelphia Story), ice-cold government agent (Notorious)—there was no bill he didn’t fit. During the late 1940s, Eyman writes, “Grant had first crack at nearly every script that didn’t involve a cattle drive or space aliens.”
But Grant’s past seems to have left him permanently scarred. Although he maintained a suave public persona and was widely cherished by friends and fellow actors, the truth about him was, of course, more complicated. As the author reveals, Grant had a reputation for stinginess and self-absorption and could be a mean drunk. On set, he was often anxious and tense.
Eyman’s consideration of the inner conflicts that drove Grant results in a wonderfully nuanced study of his life. Along with the star’s many marriages and bitter divorces, Eyman explores the rumors surrounding his sexuality and his LSD use, recounting it all in clean, unaffected prose. He mixes Grant’s personal story with several decades’ worth of Hollywood history, and his film analyses are eye-opening. Grant was “a man for all movie seasons.” They don’t make ’em like that anymore.