Cary Grant: A Class Apart

Cary Grant: A Class Apart

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by Graham McCann
     
 

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More than a biography, this is a savvy portrait of how Archie Leach, born to a poor working-class family in Bristol, England became Cary Grant, one of Hollywood's most irresistible and admired celebrities of all time.

Overview

More than a biography, this is a savvy portrait of how Archie Leach, born to a poor working-class family in Bristol, England became Cary Grant, one of Hollywood's most irresistible and admired celebrities of all time.

Editorial Reviews

Desert Sun (Knight Ridder Newspapers)

British-American film critic David Thomson, who considers Grant 'the most important actor in the ceinma,' calls this the best book about him so far.

Desert Sun
British-American film critic David Thomson, who considers Grant 'the most important actor in the ceinma,' calls this the best book about him so far.

Jennifer Howard

Nobody did it like Cary Grant. Nobody wore a suit like that; nobody moved like that; nobody talked like that. Men admired him; women loved him. "Everybody wants to be Cary Grant," he once said. "Even I want to be Cary Grant."

How did a working-class kid from Bristol named Archie Leach remake himself into Hollywood's epitome of style? That's the question that film scholar Graham McCann takes up in this admiring, ungossipy biography. "Cary Grant was an excellent idea," McCann writes. "He was that most unexpected but attractive of contradictions: a democratic symbol of gentlemanly grace. No other man seemed so classless and self-assured, as happy with the world of music-hall as with the haute monde, as adept at polite restraint as at acrobatic pratfalls."

No wonder Grant felt happy in music-halls: Vaudeville was his ticket out of Bristol. He was 14 when he signed up with a troupe called Bob Pender's Knockabout Comedians. After the company played New York, Leach stayed on, working in the theater, making a name for himself (not yet the name). In 1931 he struck out for Hollywood, and got lucky -- he landed a contract at Paramount. (Mae West did not, as she often asserted to Grant's chagrin, pluck him out of a crowd of extras, saying "If this one can talk, I'll take him.") The studio made him change his name. He didn't mind; he wanted to remake himself anyway. McCann's chapter "Inventing Cary Grant" explores Archie Leach's impressive metamorphosis: the role models (Douglas Fairbanks, Noel Coward, Fred Astaire, Coel Porter); the accent (Bristol, overlaid with British music-hall patois, mingled with the Americanizing influences of New York and Hollywood). The new package worked. Audiences loved it. As McCann says, Cary Grant was a very good idea.

Paramount meant their new man to be a knockoff of Gary Cooper, but he had other plans. He learned what to do in front of a camera; he got himself noticed. By the mid-1930s, he was confident enough, big enough, to go freelance, taking whatever roles he wanted -- almost unheard of under the old studio system.

Everything that followed -- Grant's refinement of his image and art; his unflagging courtesy and good-natured public reticence; his ability to stay popular as the times changed; his fruitful association with directors like Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock -- McCann describes in tasteful detail. Unlike many biographers, he's not one to record every sneeze, every grocery list. He's almost shy bout Grant's personal life; Grant's five wives (who included Barbara Hutton and Dyan Cannon) get the briefest nod. McCann spends more time dismissing the rumors of Grant's bisexuality. And he has some fascinating stuff on Grant's childhood (his mother was committed to an asylum when he was 9; he thought she had died, and didn't learn the truth until he was in his 30s).

The only sad thing about this biography is that it makes today's Hollywood, never long on style, look especially tasteless and crass. Archie Leach may have been born working-class, but as Cary Grant he was a class act, down to the last button of his custom-made suits. The "brash and boorish self-absorption" of today's stars, McCann laments, "stands in stark and sour contrast to his charming civility." Where's Cary Grant when we need him? -- Salon

Booknews
A biography narrating how the English working-class boy Archie Leach transformed himself into the actor Cary Grant and a role model of elegance and class for the socially ambitious around the world. Also points out vestiges of his past, and reveals secrets such as his spy work and his rumored homosexuality. Originally published in 1996 by Fourth Estate, London. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Kirkus Reviews
A delightful appreciation of the archetypal movie star who defined screen sophistication.

In a pleasing mix of life story and film analysis, a seasoned biographer and teacher (Cambridge Univ.) meditates on the idea of Cary Grant and the actual person. With compassion, he recalls Grant's (né Archie Leach) hard life in working-class Bristol and troubled relationships with his parents. Music halls and American theater helped Leach hone his craft, but not until he had been in Hollywood for years and made The Awful Truth (1937) did he gain the confidence to become a star. Director Leo McCarey's interest in improvisation and his ability to help Grant "think more carefully about what . . . he was trying to do in front of a camera" were key. A string of Grant hits followed, all capitalizing on his ability to embody urbane egalitarianism. Hitchcock caught his dark side and elusiveness in Suspicion (1941) and later in Notorious, To Catch a Thief, and North by Northwest. After his 1966 retirement, he excelled in business, became a first-time father, and was bitterly divorced from his fourth wife, actress Dyan Cannon. A quiet life and a happy fifth marriage lasted until his death in 1986. Throughout, McCann refers comfortably to the arsenal of Grant literature, notably reprising Stanley Cavell's use of Emerson to capture Grant—"fit to stand the gaze of millions." One source of disagreement is the bisexuality claim in Charles Higham and Roy Moseley's bio: McCann debunks it in point-by-point blows. Finally, despite any unbecoming marital conduct and early embrace of LSD, McCann believes Grant remains an exemplary movie star because he behaved in public and toward his audience with decorum.

Neat, well researched, and witty, the book earns respect for the author and a familiar wry smile at its reincarnation of Cary Grant.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780231108850
Publisher:
Columbia University Press
Publication date:
05/26/1998
Pages:
352
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

Graham McCann teaches at King's College, Cambridge University.

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