Educating Archie

Did Cary Grant know John Major's dad? Christopher Bray investigates; Cary Grant by Graham McCann, Fourth Estate, pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
W ell, well, well. Earlier biographies of Cary Grant have cast aspersions on his sexuality and his less than gallant treatment of women. But Graham McCann has come up with the foulest defamation yet. "It is, in fact, not entirely unlikely that at some point during [his residence in Brixton] Archie Leach may have come into contact with Tom Major-Ball." That's right: Cary Grant may have been matey with John Major's dad.

For those of us who have long thought of Grant as a platonic essence far removed from our everyday dust and drudge, such worldly theorising may be hard to swallow. But there is no gainsaying the fact that, like the Prime Minister's father, Cary Grant once earned his living as a circus act. At a wild guess, Cary was probably the more graceful performer under the big top.

Cary Grant was probably the silver screen's most graceful man. There is a moment, early in To Catch A Thief, when Grant stands immobile for a half-minute, one leg casually locked straight, the other placed gently forward, bending ever so slightly at the knee - for all the world like Michelangelo's David. And the point is that Grant isn't posing. The embodiment of democratic class, Cary slipped easily into stances like that.

He slipped into clothes too. Nobody ever wore a suit quite like Cary Grant. Who would not kill for the dove-grey two-piece he wears throughout North By Northwest, Hitchcock's two-and-a-half-hour dressing-down of Grant's smugly superior Madison Avenue man. Attacked by a crop duster, force-fed a bottle of bourbon, sent hurtling down a mountainous coastal road, falling off Mount Rushmore: Grant went through hell in that movie. He deserved it.

What Hitchcock had spotted in Grant is something critics have only latterly caught up on: the maliciousness lurking beneath his veneer of charm. Look closely at a Grant love scene and notice that deadness in his gaze, that distancing rigidity, that immobility of visage: Grant looks more like a vampire about to sate his lusts than he does a lover about to caress.

Suspicion, Grant's first movie with Hitchcock, is built upon this schizophrenic persona. Is Grant a ne'er-do- well on the make? Has he married Joan Fontaine merely for her fortune? Is he planning to do her in? In the original screenplay the answer was an emphatic yes, and Grant was only too happy to go along with it. But the studio dictated that Cary Grant could never be a bad guy and the movie ended up pulling its punches. Hitchcock and his star, however, were artists enough to stick with the original premise right up to the picture's absurd denouement. Grant's charmer is as vacuous and vain as any the movies have given us. It takes guts to play such a thoroughly bad lot - or was Grant aware that audiences were too busy swooning to criticise him? Probably he did. Unlike most actors, Grant was no dunderhead. He was the first star in Hollywood to go freelance. From his early thirties on, he never made a movie he didn't want to. He knew the image he wanted to present, and he was damned if he'd appear in movies that would undermine it.

That image - urbane, relaxed, effortlessly charming - bore little resemblance to his background. Archibald Leach was born in Bristol in 1904 to a poor working-class household. When he was nine, his father had his mother committed to an asylum. A couple of years later, young Archie was thrown out of school (nobody seems to remember why) and apprenticed to a tumbling act. Next came the Brixton years, and then a tour of the US. Archie Leach was taken with the place and decided to hang around. Soon he was headed for Hollywood.

Like most fantasies, Cary Grant was born out of a desire to be rid of the past. His accent, clipped yet casual, was socially and geographically unplaceable. "Nobody talks like that!" Jack Lemmon says to a Grant-mimicking Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot. Maybe so, but who can say they have not tried to? "Everybody wants to be Cary Grant," Grant once said. "Even I want to be Cary Grant." Perhaps that explains the personal archive he kept all his life - as if he couldn't believe what he'd become.

His rootlessness carried over into his work. Few and far between are the Grant movies where his character is given much in the way of background or family. When he is, in Howard Hawks's Monkey Business for example, the whole point of the movie is to question and undermine those ties. Only once, in None But The Lonely Heart, did Grant play a character with similar social origins to his own. It was a rare flop.

Graham McCann tells Grant's story well in this fine book. He has marshalled his sources well and produced a marvellous work of synthesis. As Hollywood biographies go, it is a very good read. If you want one book on Cary Grant, then this is the one.