From the late 1930s until well into the 1950s, Cary Grant was arguably the most popular man in the country: an elegant heartthrob with a wry comic touch who was equally adept at melodramas (Penny Serenade), crowd-pleasing thrillers (North by Northwest), romantic dramas (An Affair to Remember) and screwball comedies (His Girl Friday). But underneath that Teflon gracefulness was a secret, ongoing personal struggle. The new Showtime documentary Becoming Cary Grant latches onto that tension, early on mentioning Grant’s most famous quote about his uneasy relationship with his onscreen persona: “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.” As iconic as Grant became, that quote has long been held up as a confession and core truth about his inability to live up to the Hollywood image he created for the rest of the world to admire.
The documentary crafts a narrative framework around the fact that the actor, in the early 1950s, began experimenting with LSD in therapy sessions to grapple with issues that had long plagued him. Staging re-creations of those sessions, and drawing from Grant’s home movies and unpublished autobiography (narrated by Jonathan Pryce), director Mark Kidel seeks to unveil a tragedy: how a dashing, silky-smooth movie star privately struggled to cauterize the wounds of a troubled childhood by becoming a icon.
This narrative isn’t new for Grant. In fact, it’s the prevailing storyline of his career. In the summer of 1975, New Yorker reviewer Pauline Kael wrote an extensive critical assessment of Grant entitled “The Man From Dream City,” in which she connected the immaculate on-screen star with the broken young man born Archibald Alexander Leach in the early 20th century in Bristol, England, to a drunken, absentee father and a depressed mother, who was shipped off to an institution by his dad. Leach reinvented himself by turning to acting, eventually finding his way to America and taking the name Cary Grant, creating a persona of redoubtable classiness as an escape from the financial hardships and emotional trauma of his upbringing. “Cary Grant’s romantic elegance is wrapped around the resilient, tough core of a mutt,” Kael wrote, “and Americans dream of thoroughbreds while identifying with mutts. So do moviegoers the world over. The greatest movie stars have not been highborn; they have been strong-willed (often deprived) kids who came to embody their own dreams, and the public’s.”
To prove Kael’s point, Kidel plays psychologist with his talking-head film scholars, analyzing the hidden motivations behind the star’s career choices. For example, critic David Thomson says, “This is not a straightforward American, but Grant is never American. He’s not English. He’s something else in between.” From there, Kidel cuts to a scene in the classic comedy Bringing Up Baby where Grant’s character is dressed in a woman’s nightgown, the filmmaker alluding not just to the actor’s universal appeal but also the rumors that swirled throughout his life that he was bisexual. (Becoming Cary Grant lightly brushes over these rumors, but they help add to the portrait of a troubled, talented man trying to discover the real him.)
Kidel has made the film with clear care, and there’s poignancy to hearing how in his later years Grant (who died in 1986) finally found the contentment that never seemed possible at the height of his stardom. (The LSD worked: In his memoir, Grant says, “When I broke through, I felt an immeasurably beneficial cleansing of so many needless fears and guilts. I lost all the tension that I’d been crippling myself with.”) But there’s also something slightly patronizing and simplistic in Kidel’s strategy to reduce a great actor’s motivations to a dark backstory he spends his whole life fighting to overcome.
As compassionate as Becoming Cary Grant is — heartbroken for the pained Archibald Leach, who was, in essence, a real-life Don Draper, dreaming up a new person and then chaining himself to the role, cycling through five marriages along the way — biographical portraits like this tend to dismiss their subject’s creative brilliance as merely a symptom of their private torture. It’s the same philosophy that’s given us more than a decade’s worth of dark reboots and origin stories. In this context, Batman is such a great crime-fighter because he watched his parents get murdered; James Bond is such an awesome secret agent because his parents died tragically; and Jason Bourne is such a superb assassin because he was cruelly brainwashed by the American government. No doubt we’re all driven by insecurities and unspoken traumas, but to be told that it’s the only reason any of us has been successful would be insulting — so why assume it holds true for Cary Grant, either?
Plus, documentaries like this can’t help but feel a little like an opportunity to reassure the rest of us that we’re not so bad: Sure, you and I aren’t rich, famous and powerful, but look at what it takes to be that. When Becoming Cary Grant makes insightful observations regarding, for instance, why Grant chose to do a despairing, noncommercial drama like 1944’s None But the Lonely Heart at the peak of his powers — in essence, he was acknowledging the dingy life in Bristol that he’d fled — it’s like being given a smart guided tour through a legend’s filmography. But the movie’s mournful tone and air of revelation start to seem a little tidy.
It isn’t that Becoming Cary Grant takes egregious creative liberties in its presentation of Grant’s life. But the commodification of a talent — the desire to explain the magic trick of being a movie star — can often come across as trying to dismantle that person’s aura. It’s just another way of telling ourselves that stars are just like us: screwed-up, deeply wounded by deficient parents, unable to find true love, living a lie in the hopes that no one finds out.
So while Becoming Cary Grant ransacks the dark crevices of its subject’s soul, finding plenty of explanations for his genius, those aren’t answers. They’re just ways of interpreting the gift he gave viewers for years on screen. That’s the thing about magic tricks: Deep down, we know we could solve them if we wanted to. But that doesn’t make the illusion any less enchanting.