Is there anything new to say about Cary Grant? Not much, to judge by Marc Eliot’s agreeable book, which cites no less than seven previous biographies and quotes copiously from almost everyone who’s ever tried to nail down the distinctive yet elusive qualities that made Grant a star for more than three decades. Yet the fascination endures.
Breathtakingly handsome, the epitome of insouciant sophistication deepened by the suggestion of darker impulses that made him all the more intriguing, Grant was so attractive in films ranging from “The Awful Truth” to “An Affair to Remember” that, as he famously remarked, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.”
The implication that he was not precisely what he seemed onscreen prompted persistent rumors — he was gay, he was stingy, he was an FBI agent — and the primary distinguishing feature of Eliot’s book is that he matter-of-factly accepts these rumors, which once seemed so scandalous, and moves on.
There’s no question, in this biography, that Grant and housemate Randolph Scott were lovers and that he had at least one male partner before that. Yes, Eliot concludes, Grant probably did spy on second wife Barbara Hutton for the FBI, which may explain why the staunchly liberal actor could publicly defend Charlie Chaplin in 1953 without prompting a HUAC subpoena.
Stingy? Well, he certainly was careful with money, and the author reminds readers that Grant’s gutsy decision to go freelance beginning in 1936 meant he reaped far greater financial rewards from his work than actors under studio contracts did.
It’s disappointing that Eliot makes no attempt to figure out why Grant apparently moved on to heterosexual relationships after Scott. Heavily implying that Grant’s first two marriages were asexual doesn’t answer the underlying question, especially since third wife Betsy Drake is on record that they had plenty of marital intercourse and fourth spouse Dyan Cannon had his baby.
The author is sharper about Grant’s business affairs. Agent Frank Vincent gets his due for negotiating simultaneous, non-exclusive, four-picture deals for his client with both RKO and Columbia at a time when such deals were unheard of.
Grant’s independence made him something of an outcast in corporate Hollywood, and he was repeatedly snubbed by Oscar until he won a special Academy Award in 1970. Yet he remained a top box office draw for 34 years, thanks to the magic of his best performances in “Holiday,” “The Philadelphia Story,” “His Girl Friday,” “Notorious” and so many more.
Eliot writes nothing particularly astute about those perfs, but if his capable resume of Cary Grant’s life and career sends readers back to once again take pleasure in their warmth and wit, it’s more than worth its cover price.