Becoming Cary Grant

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Becoming Cary Grant
"An accomplished portrait that presents something much more human than we're used to in this context."

He was one of Hollywood's greatest stars, at first a handsome young lead, later an actor much admired for his skill - but who was Cary Grant? Many documentaries about celebrity ask this kind of question and don't come up with very convincing answers. This film is very different, in part because it makes use of two unusual sources: Grant's own writing from his unpublished autobiography, and the film he recorded on his own camera. The latter isn't the equivalent of a modern day vlog - there's no to-camera pondering, not even any footage of gatherings of friends - but the sights and sounds that captured his attention in the course of travels seem to offer glimpses into his soul.

It seems appropriate to refer to him as Grant since, though it was adopted as a stage name, he legally registered it and went on to use it in every part of his life. It was part of the process of separating from his earlier life as Archie Leach, a Bristol boy from a broken home who ran away to become an acrobat when he was just 14. The pain of Grant's childhood experiences seems to have stayed with him throughout his life, exacerbated by a shocking discovery made when he was 31, and contributed to a general sense of malaise which no amount of success could assuage. This isn't another story of a man ruined by fame; it's the story of a man who was always struggling and whose overall very positive experience in Hollywood could not save.

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LSD could. In his fifties, Grant began experimenting with the then-legal drug in a therapeutic setting, using it to open up his mind so that he could attempt to unravel troubled childhood memories and come to terms with his own responsibility for mistakes made in later life. The focus of much of this therapy on his monther is a cliché today and was even more so at the time, but in his case it was probably appropriate. He certainly felt that it had coloured his relationships with women, creating a terror of abandonment that led to self-sabotage. The film touches only briefly on his interest in men, another challenging thing to have to deal with in the period, and additonally notes that he frequently broke with gender conventions, illustrating this with frequent clips of his crossdressing in films. Of course, one of the more challenging ways he broke with expectations of masculine behaviour was in the very act of acknowledging his mental health problems and seeking help.

This documentary covers the full span of Grant's life but is very much focused on the mental health angle. In his heyday, men often said that they would love to be Cary Grant. "So would I," said he. There's a sense that he never quite managed to live up to the idol he created, but this film reveals plenty that was fascinating about him without the need for that, and hints at a quiet courage and fortitude more impressive than that of any of his characters. It also makes room for the darkness he made use of in his work with Alfred Hitchcock. The ambiguity seen in films like Suspicion and North By Northwest seems to reflect his own personality much more than the simple heroics of Only Angels Have Wings or the madcap joy of Bringing Up Baby.

An accomplished portrait that presents something much more human than we're used to in this context, Becoming Cary Grant is an affecting tribute to the legend and a film with a lot to say about how easy it is to fall through the cracks in life, even with the world watching.

Reviewed on: 10 Oct 2017
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The star's own words are used to tell his life story.

Director: Mark Kidel

Writer: Mark Kidel, Nick Ware

Starring: Jonathan Pryce, Judy Balaban, David Thomson, Barbara Jaynes, Mark Glancy

Year: 2016

Runtime: 80 minutes

Country: US, UK, France


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