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"I've often been accused of being myself on screen, but being oneself is more difficult than you'd suppose," Cary Grant once said, musing on the nature of identity. The star is back in the cinema this week in the re-released 1940 classic His Girl Friday, a screwball comedy that shows him at the height of his powers. Suave, teasing and fiendishly sexy, Grant is the model romantic lead. A glance at his life reveals that Grant is also a model of celebrity, of self subsumed by a perfectly-shaped persona.

Hard though it is to believe, Cary Grant did not drop, double-breasted, from bachelor heaven. He was born Archibald Alexander Leach and quit school when he was 13 to join a troupe of acrobats. They toured England and then the States, where Grant stayed, eking out a living on stilts with other circus acts. It wasn't until 1932 that Leach went to Hollywood, signed a contract and refashioned himself as Cary Grant.

Pitched straight into the heyday of Hollywood romantic comedies, Grant immediately found his metier. Trading wit with feisty female stars such as Mae West and Katharine Hepburn, he politely allowed himself to be chastised, before deftly pinning down his prey. Critic Pauline Kael has called him "the greatest sexual stooge the screen has ever known", but as David Thomson argues, Grant's allure was more complex. "There is a light and dark side to him, but, whichever is dominant, the other creeps into view."

Grant combined a disingenuous charm with malice, flirtation with misogyny. In His Girl Friday, the star is sunny side up, but Hitchcock brilliantly exploited Grant's magnetic menace in thrillers such as Suspicion.

Off screen, the "great dame hunter" of An Affair To Remember confessed to being afraid of women and prone to depression. Although married four times, there were rumours that he was gay. Such contradictions could have been destructive. But unlike studio victims such as Garland, Grant took control of his invented self.

After an initial signing with Paramount, Grant eschewed studios and cut his own deals. Archie Leach was fed into Cary Grant, enriching the star with a fascinating ambiguity. But what of the the man himself? "I pretended to be a certain kind of man on screen and I became that man in life," said Grant, "and what's wrong with that?" What's wrong with being Cary Grant? Watching His Girl Friday, you have to think, not much.