“Mr. Lucky” Didn’t Know Who He Was

How Cary Grant’s magical film career paralleled a lifelong identity crisis

Cary Grant on location in Paris, France, for <em>Charade</em>, 1963 (Everett Collection)
Cary Grant on location in Paris, France, for Charade, 1963 (Everett Collection)

Arguably Hollywood’s handsomest leading man, Cary Grant was a big box-office draw: tall, sophisticated, devilishly debonair in dramas, suitably wacky in screwball comedies. For more than three decades, directors paired him with the most glamorous actresses of the day. But Cary Grant didn’t know who he was. “Everybody wants to be Cary Grant,” he said. “Even I want to be Cary Grant. I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person. Or he became me. Or we met at some point.”

By all accounts, Grant made the most of his lifelong identity crisis. Lacking a certain persona—being “Nobody,” which is what Odysseus calls himself when confronting the Cyclops in The Odyssey—meant that Grant could convincingly play anybody, serious or comic: a spy in South America, a jewel thief on the Riviera, Hollywood’s idea of what Cole Porter should have looked like. He even plays a ghost, the male half of a duo of friendly spirits who set out to liberate a nowhere man from the shackles of boredom (Topper, 1937, with Constance Bennett as the ghostly spouse). He is also the aptly named title figure in 1943’s Mr. Lucky (directed by H. C. Potter), a fast-talking gambler wooing an heiress played by Laraine Day.

Born Archie Leach on January 18, 1904, in a working-class district of Bristol, England, where the winters are cold and our little-loved lad faced his share of adolescent humiliation, Grant spoke in an accent that sounded British and yet not out of place in the States. It proved highly imitable: one of the POWs in Billy Wilder’s 1953 film Stalag 17 entertains his mates with his Cary Grant imitation, and Tony Curtis (another actor who changed his birth name: in his case, Bernie Schwartz) mimics Grant’s accent brilliantly in the same director’s Some Like It Hot.

Grant became a U.S. citizen in 1942. He never won an Academy Award, although he finally received an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement in 1970. But who was Cary Grant? Not even he knew. It was rumored that he had a gay partner in fellow actor Randolph Scott, with whom he shared digs in the early 1930s. The writer Arthur Laurents said Grant “was at best bisexual,” whatever that means. In an effort to understand himself, Grant took LSD more than a hundred times under medical supervision, having been introduced to the narcotic by Betsy Drake, one of his five wives. It helped him more than hypnosis, yoga, or other traditional means of soul-searching. “I took LSD with the hope it would make me feel better about myself,” he said. “Either something was wrong with me, or obviously, with the whole sociological and moralistic concepts of our civilization.” (The adverb “obviously” is not the only curious thing about this either/or construction.)

Grant was the perfect Hitchcock hero: the wrong man, innocent though he looks guilty, in To Catch a Thief (opposite Grace Kelly); clueless in North by Northwest (opposite Eva Marie Saint); or ambiguous in Suspicion (opposite Joan Fontaine). Ever suave, he is the romantic lead entangled in intrigue in the master’s Notorious (opposite Ingrid Bergman) and Stanley Donen’s Charade (opposite Audrey Hepburn).

The actor could play a rich idler as well as he could a big-city newspaper editor (“Duffy! Get me rewrite!”), and in his roles, repeatedly demonstrated an ability to outwit any rival and recover the affections of any alienated partner: Irene Dunne in Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937), Rosalind Russell in Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday (1940). George Cukor paired Grant with Katharine Hepburn in a comedy of remarriage, The Philadelphia Story (1940), and in one of adult hijinks on route to the aisle: Holiday, 1938. In Hawks’s zany Bringing Up Baby (1938), the actor plays an overstimulated zoologist pursued by Kate Hepburn and her pet leopard. In Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) Frank Capra casts him as an increasingly flustered drama critic whose kindly old aunts dispatch aged gentlemen and bury them in the cellar of their Brooklyn house.

He was glad to bury Archie Leach of Bristol, England. When, in His Girl Friday, he is told, “You’re through,” he says defiantly, “The last man to say that to me was Archie Leach, just before he cut his throat!” If you watch Arsenic and Old Lace, you’ll see a tombstone in a cemetery bearing the name Archie Leach. The inside joke makes its point. Cary Grant has emerged—the best-dressed man in the room, a legendary tightwad as befits his humble background, and not so easy to work with despite his suave persona.

Then there’s Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), in which our hero, a Madison Avenue executive, is mistaken for a CIA agent who doesn’t exist. The plot seems curiously like an allegory—not only of the character’s transformation but perhaps of the actor’s life as well.

At the start of the movie, after Hitchcock’s cameo (with a bus door slammed in his face), Grant and his secretary leave their office building. As glib ad man Roger Thornhill, he proves himself adept at stealing a taxicab and fobbing off girlfriends with gifts of chocolate and sweet words. But from the moment he is abducted mid-martini from the bar of the Plaza Hotel, he undergoes identity changes in keeping with the new role he has been assigned: George Kaplan, the purely notional spy with the perfectly pressed suit in a nutty CIA scenario.

It is a case of mistaken identity in which the character grows with the crises he faces. Thornhill, or Kaplan, has a talent for eluding his pursuers, whether by antic means or feats of courage. Even after he is made to drink a bottle of bourbon, put into the driver’s seat of a stolen car, and arrested for driving under the influence, he keeps his sense of humor. Allowed one phone call he calls his mother. “No, they didn’t give me a chaser,” he says. Later, at a posh auction house, he attracts so much attention with his crazy bidding that he is arrested again by NYPD – because that’s much preferable to leaving with the thugs who have tailed him there. Remember, he is Mr. Lucky, leading a charmed life. And after surviving multiple attempts on his life, he gets to rescue Eva Marie Saint hanging from a cliff at Mount Rushmore.

There is, however, a blank where an identity should be. In Charade, we don’t know whether he’s in the employ of the State Department or one of a quartet of aggrieved World War II veterans in search of buried treasure, their stolen booty. Does it matter? As Regina Lampert, the picture’s heroine (played by Audrey Hepburn), tells him: “You know what’s wrong with you? Nothing.”

Grant shrewdly insists that the romance begins on the lady’s side—he is acutely conscious of the age difference between him and Audrey Hepburn in Charade. But then you think about it, and you realize that he is ever the pursued one—that his charm and looks trump all else. He doesn’t even have to make a pass to score. He lets the lady make the first move. If life were a romantic comedy with a Nora Ephron accent, you could not do better than cast Cary Grant in the lead role.

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David Lehman, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is a poet, critic, and the general editor of The Best American Poetry annual anthology and author of the book One Hundred Autobiographies. He currently writes our Talking Pictures column.


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