J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Becoming Cary Grant (While Partly Still Staying Archie Leach)

Alfred Hitchcock had a special affinity for his favorite leading man, because they were both working class Brits who completely reinvented themselves in Hollywood. However, there was more than mere poverty and want in the background of the man born Archibald Leach in hardscrabble Bristol. Mark Kidel delves into the iconic actor’s psyche in the psycho-documentary, Becoming Cary Grant (trailer here), which premieres this Friday on Showtime.

Grant did care for giving interviews, but he did leave behind fragment of an unfinished memoir, offering a rich vein of material for Kidel to mine (and read with pitch perfect diction by Jonathan Pryce). One aspect of his life Grant was uncharacteristically forthright about (at least on unpublished paper) is the extensive LSD treatment he underwent. Yes, that is correct. Cary Grant dropped acid—100 times—under the supervision of a licensed psychiatrist.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Grant believed it worked. As it turns out, he had deeply rooted issues with women and abandonment, stemming from the disappearance of his mother at a tender age. His father led the young lad to believe his mother had absconded, but he had really committed her to a mental institution, with shockingly flimsy justification. Grant would not learn the truth until he had firmly established himself in Hollywood.

It is easy to see how such developments could lead to long-term baggage. Frankly, the LSD references are just the sizzle of Becoming. The psycho-sexual issues caused by the presumed betrayal of Grant’s mother and the Sophoclean angst resulting from the revelation of the truth are the real drivers of the film.

Aside from some analysis of Grant’s special relationship with Hitchcock, Kidel spends disappointingly little time on Grant’s actual films. Anyone hoping for deconstructive reading of Operation Petticoat will have to look elsewhere. Kidel also only raises more questions (and eyebrows) when the film makes a passing off-hand reference about the fluidity of Grant’s sexuality, especially when Gillian Armstrong’s Orry-Kelly doc Women He’s Undressed explicitly claims Grant carried on a long-term romantic relationship with Randolph Scott.

Still, Kidel manages to get inside Grant’s head without ruining his one of a kind mystique. Grant’s final film was released in 1966, but he still feels like a much more vital cultural presence than many of his contemporaries who continued working through the 1980s and 1990s. Of course, it helps when you make undisputed classics like North by Northwest, Charade, To Catch a Thief, Notorious, The Bishop’s Wife, and His Girl Friday. Kidel and company also convincingly argue Grant really could act, despite the sense of effortlessness he projected.

Fans can rest assured the movie star’s movie star emerges from Becoming unscathed. In fact, Kidel manages to humanize the giant without cutting him down to human size. Recommended for classic cinema fans and armchair head-shrinkers, Becoming Cary Grant airs this Friday (6/9) on Showtime.

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