Often called a perfect gentleman, Cary Grant was one of the greatest actors that the world ever saw. Suave and sophisticated, Grant was at remarkable ease playing in screwball comedies as he was in classics of the kind Alfred Hitchcock created for eternity.
Remember, Cary achieved all this despite a traumatic childhood -- when his mother disappeared for many years, resurfacing when he was 31. His father was callous and irresponsible, and the boy grew up in the homes of relatives, experiencing the cold of England in houses where there was no heating and no food either.
For Grant, it was indeed a marvellous journey when he travelled to Hollywood later. But a much more eventful voyage happened in the late 1950s when he began searching for his true inner self. He tried yoga and hypnosis, eventually settling down for LSD sessions, 100 odd in fact. “During my LSD sessions, I would learn a great deal,” he would remark. “And the result was a rebirth. I finally got where I wanted to go.” A restless Grant found peace, and could come to grips with his childhood dilemma of having to grow up without his mother.
All this and more has been narrated in a gripping documentary called Becoming Cary Grant by Mark Kidel that was screened on Tuesday at the ongoing Cannes Film Festival.
Kidel portrays Grant as an actor who was forever in flight. He was a Bristol (that is where he was born) street urchin, who set off to conquer Hollywood. He did become an American prince, an embodiment of grace and glamour.
Born Archie Leach, Cary Grant once admitted that he had always been overwhelmed by an identity crisis. Was he Archie or Cary? It was only after his LSD therapy - a legitimate form of psychiatric treatment in those days for agitated minds - that he learnt to be at peace with himself and the world. “I have spent the greater part of my life fluctuating between Archie Leach and Cary Grant,” he once confessed. “Unsure of each, suspecting each.”
The documentary in addition to presenting a wonderful window to Grant’s life and times and career, tells us all about LSD - an experimental form of medication that flourished before the hippies came on the scene. Some 40,000 patients were given lysergic acid between 1950 and 1965 to cure various forms of mental illness like alcoholism, schizophrenia and so on. LSD was later banned, as we all know.
The movie gives us such rare insights into Grant’s life. Culled from the star’s unpublished autobiography, Becoming Cary Grant also draws from the cinematic material that he shot. Much of these have never been seen before. And Kidel’s biopic gives us a rich tapestry of people, places and impressionistic images that evocatively reflect the ups and downs of Grant’s inner journey.
The film features contributions from friends who have never spoken before, from critic David Thomson, who regards Cary as the greatest actor of all time, and Professor Mark Glancy, whose new findings and comments feature throughout the movie. It includes a treasure trove of extracts from Grant’s films, some of the well-known ones - comedies and Hitchcock classics - as well as the less familiar ones that throw a revealing light on the man’s identity - None But the Lonely Heart, Mr. Lucky and Father Goose. We also get to see the famous scene in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, where Grant is attacked by a small plane in an open field, and where he has to run to save his life.
And this was a run he started when he was 14. He became an acrobat with the Bob Pender Stage Troupe, and two years later, he set sail for America. He changed his name and his accent, walked in and out of marriages - forever grappling with a fear of intimacy. His lonely childhood was one of the causes for this, and it was during his 30s that he chanced upon the truth about his mother, whom Grant had assumed to be dead. She had been pushed into a lunatic asylum by Grant’s philandering father! The meeting between the mother and son was poignant. When Grant went to get her out of the institution, she looked at him disbelievingly. She asked: “Archie, Is that really you?”
The reunion - apart from the LSD - certainly helped Grant to find solace. His films like His Girl Friday, North by Northwest and Notorious pushed him to the skies.
Grant decided to quit stardom when he was really at the peak, up there. Kidel says that Grant’s decision to exit was also prompted by the fact that he had made enough movies and money. “On top of that, his life had changed. I think he stopped because he became a father,” Kidel adds.
Becoming Cary Grant wraps up with his autumn years. It shows father and daughter lounging in front of the TV or dancing together on the terrace of his home.
Indeed, the documentary was one of the best works at the festival, running till May 28.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the 70th edition of the Cannes Film Festival.)
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