“If we take Grant seriously, we must contend with an extreme difficulty: what appears to be fake, an actor portraying a character, might be real; what we normally think of as real, a person gesturing in the everyday world, might well be artificial.”
In 1946, only weeks after Cary Grant, formerly known as Archie Leach, had finished filming the light romantic comedy The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), he was approached by Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock had a film project to propose, a serious one that would once more pull Grant away from the comic fare that had largely made him famous. Hitchcock had already directed Grant in two psychologically complex films, Suspicion (1941) and Notorious (1946). In both, Hitchcock did what no other director was able to do — not even Hawks or Cukor. He coaxed Grant’s darker side from behind the tuxedoed sheen. In teasing out Grant’s glooms, Hitchcock revealed the fractures in the star’s identity: between private weirdness and public conformity, self-loathing and strained cheer. Split and afflicted, Grant in Hitchcock’s pictures before ’46 embodied perhaps the most disquieting metaphysical conundrum of all: when we say “I,” who’s really there, a substantial, knowable being or a mere appearance obscuring vexed fragments or something else besides? Hitchcock knew what he had uncovered, and this is why, soon after Grant had completed another trifling comedy, he asked the entertainer to play Hamlet.
Grant turned the project down. He feared that his cockney upbringing would keep him from perfecting the proper British accent. And he believed that he was, at the age of forty-two, too old to play the somber Dane, especially at a time when Hollywood was being overrun by youthful stars like Clift and Brando.
We might lament Grant’s rejection as one of the great lost opportunities in cinema history. Surely, we might think, Grant would have made a thoroughly intriguing Hamlet, a scintillating mixture of clever banter and cloyed intention. However, we need not feel this loss for long, for Grant did, in essence, end up performing Hamlet.
Some twelve years after Grant passed on Hitchcock’s request to play the traditional Hamlet, he went for the director’s more hidden Hamlet, a character who appears to be a simple modern-day urban ad-man but who is actually terribly troubled by the question of identity. Indeed, he is sometimes, as when the vane points “north by northwest,” insane, and reasonable only when the wind is “southerly.” Then he knows “a hawk from a handsaw.” This character exists in North by Northwest (1959), and his name is Roger Thornhill, or perhaps George Kaplan.1
* * *
Late in his life, Grant during a discussion on his acting style made the following statement: “To play yourself, your true self, is the hardest thing in the world.”2 Here Grant challenges the traditional idea that acting requires mimicry of an identity not one’s own. He claims that acting, at least in his case, is not escape from self but revelation of self. If we take Grant seriously, we must contend with an extreme difficulty: what appears to be fake, an actor portraying a character, might be real; what we normally think of as real, a person gesturing in the everyday world, might well be artificial.
Grant argues, perhaps unwittingly, that the blurring of appearance and truth is precisely what reveals our true identity: a perpetual interplay between authenticity and artifice. The mask reveals the face; the face interprets the mask. But how can we tell the difference between when we are faking it and when we’re on the up and up? Don’t the concepts of “reality” and “deception” disappear if we can’t distinguish between the two? If these two notions fade away, how can we ever know where we are or what we are doing?
Where can we find any clarity in this dimness? Possibly we can from an exploration of Grant’s own blurring of autobiography and fiction, Archie Leach and Cary Grant, the life that turned into a movie and the films that created a life.
* * *
Archie Leach was born in 1904 into a working-class family living in Bristol, England. The young Archie was coveted by his mother Elsie, whose favors were likely made even more intense by the long absences of his father, Elias. Bored with domestic life, Elias took to drink and womanizing, eventually living with another woman in Southampton. This marital strife between Elsie and Elias led to the most traumatic event of Archie’s life. One day, when he was nine, Archie returned from school to discover that his mother was gone. Frantically he searched for her, but to no avail. Eventually, his father returned home and told his son that his mother had retired to a seaside town for a holiday. Archie waited each day for her to come home. She never did. With Elias always in Southampton, the young boy was now basically an orphan.
What Archie didn’t know — and what he would not find out for more than twenty years — was that Elias had committed Elsie to a mental institution. Men could do that in those days, with few questions asked. While Elsie did engage in some strange behaviors, she certainly didn’t merit commitment to the Country Home for Mental Defectives in Fishpond, an asylum noted for its filth and negligence. But for Elias, Elsie’s psychological profile was beside the point. He had arranged for her to be abducted by the hospital’s staff for one reason: he could remove his wife without having to pay for a divorce and then without hindrance live with his mistress. For the rest of his life, he paid a pound a year to keep Elsie away.
Archie was traumatized by the loss of his mother. Years later, after Archie had become Cary, he confessed that after his mother disappeared, there was a “void” in his life, “a sadness of spirit.”3 We could indeed see the absence of his mother as the defining event of Archie Leach’s life. Grant suggested this himself when he claimed that his four failed marriages were the results of “thinking that each of [his] wives was [his] mother.”4
Who can fathom what other occurrences in Grant’s life resulted from his most profound loss? Though we can never answer this question, we can reasonably surmise that one other way that Archie tried to deal with his loss was to create his new persona. In creating the character “Cary Grant,” Archie could escape the troubles of Archie Leach. He could cut away his past and insinuate himself into the concocted families of his Hollywood community and of his films.
But escape perhaps tells only one side of the story. Is it possible that “Cary Grant” was not a flight from, but a revelation of, Archie Leach, an artifice that allowed Archie to fulfill the potentials that could only be realized through the persona of Cary Grant? Is it conceivable that “Cary Grant” allowed Archie Leach to realize grace and wit and elegance that would have otherwise lain dormant?
* * *
In Hitchcock’s Suspicion, Grant plays Johnnie Aysgarth, a charming but penniless man who apparently marries Lina McLaidlow (Joan Fontaine) for her money. Soon after the marriage, Lina suspects that Johnnie is secretly squandering her money. She also notices that he exhibits an overzealous interest in murder. Finally, she wonders if Johnnie might be involved in the death of one of his close friends. She doesn’t know who her husband is.
Johnnie doesn’t help matters, vacillating constantly between dark glances and engaging grins. By the film’s end — a thrillingly ambiguous scene in which we can’t tell if Johnnie is trying to kill Lina or save her — we still don’t know who Johnnie is.
What we do know is this: if Johnnie is going to find out who he is, it will be in relation to Lina, a nurturing woman who is as much Johnnie’s mother as his wife. In her pursuit of him, she offers unquestioning love and commitment, even to the point that she is willing to let Johnnie murder her rather than turn her back on him.
In Notorious, Grant again plays an ambiguous character. This time he is T. R. Devlin, a secret U.S. agent. The agency enlists Devlin to convince the daughter of a deceased Nazi to spy on a group of Brazilian Nazis. The daughter, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), is “notorious” for her promiscuous behavior.
Soon after Devlin convinces Alicia to do the spying, he falls in love with her, even though he despises her sordid history. When he learns that Alicia’s assignment is to become the lover of a leading Nazi, these conflicted feelings come to the fore. On one level, Devlin is appalled at the assignment because he can’t stand the thought of his beloved being with another man. But on another level, he suspects that Alicia, given her past, will relish the assignment. On still another level, Devlin, somewhat perversely, wants this suspicion substantiated, hoping indeed that Alicia will enjoy her mission. On a final level, Devlin revels in Alicia’s professed dislike of the assignment, as though he wishes to punish her for her past and for what he sees as her betrayal of their love.
Devlin eventually realizes that Alicia loves him and only him and in the end rescues her and returns her love. However, for most of the film, Devlin is jealous lover, edgy paranoiac, closet pimp, and punishing misogynist. This protean identity is, again, inextricably linked to his relationship to a complex woman. He craves her presence because he loves her; he wants her absence because he feels she has abandoned him. How can he understand his identity while harboring such vexed feelings about the woman in his life?
In yet another Hitchcock film, To Catch a Thief (1955), Grant once more plays a man confused over his identity. He depicts John Robie, a former cat burglar. When a thief begins stealing jewels along the Riviera, Robie is suspected. To prove his innocence, he decides to catch the criminal. While carrying out his plot, which involves him pretending to be a timber magnate, he falls in love with Frances (Grace Kelly), the beautiful daughter of a wealthy American woman. The clever Frances eventually discovers that Robie is actually the “Cat” himself, the famous burglar. As much in love with him as he with her, she helps him nab the thief during an exciting sequence in which Robie must become the Cat once more.
Though Robie successfully clears his name, the film is not that simple. Robie in the end appears not to be the Cat, but he had to become the Cat once more in order to catch the thief. He is the Cat and not the Cat. This ambiguity is what attracts Frances, and Robie is aware of this; he repeatedly uses his mysterious aura to seduce her. Even though Robie’s performance takes place in a rather light film, his duplicity suggests a complex need to deceive.
Why is Robie bent on wearing masks? Does he value creating traps, mousetraps, more than catching his prey? Does he, like Hamlet, valorize verbal play more than real life? Is it possible that this artifice might lead to authenticity?
* * *
After his terrible loss, Archie Leach required masks. He needed to escape the painful parts of his life and look to the future. This liberation appeared to Archie in the strangest of ways.
In 1915, two years after his mother disappeared, Archie came into contact with a jovial electrician assisting in his school’s laboratory. This technician worked at the new Hippodrome Theatre, one of the earliest showplaces in England to run on electricity. The man took an interest in Archie and invited him to the Hippodrome. There Archie underwent an epiphany. He suddenly found himself, as Grant would later report, in a “dazzling land of smiling, jostling people wearing and not wearing all sorts of costumes and doing all sorts of clever things. And that’s when I knew! What other life could there be but that of an actor? They happily traveled and toured. They were classless, cheerful, and carefree.”5 This world of wild illusion appeared to the young Archie as a call to his deepest identity.
Archie spent as much time as he could around the Hippodrome. He was consumed by performance, obsessed with artifice: the staged pratfalls and the sinister sleights of hand, the jolly legerdemains and practical jokes. Imagine, then, his pleasure when he met Bob Pender, the manager of Bob Pender’s Knockabout Comedians, a group of dancers, acrobats, and stilt-walkers. Bob wanted Archie to come to Norwich, the troupe’s home base, and become an apprentice to the Knockabouts. Soon after getting his father’s permission to make the move, Archie quickly became a skilled bodily illusionist, able to fall without really falling.
Two years later, when he was sixteen, Archie had become accomplished enough to accompany Pender’s troupe on an American tour. On July 21, 1920, he shipped on the RMS Olympic. Serendipitously, two great Hollywood film stars were also on the ship, Douglas Fairbanks and his new bride, Mary Pickford. The two were completing their European honeymoon. Eventually, the star-struck Archie arranged to have his photograph taken with the two celebrities. Fairbanks was taken with the young acrobat and asked Archie if he’d like to join him the next day for his morning exercises. The young man eagerly said yes, and there, the next day, he was: performing push-ups with Hollywood’s most famous actor, no doubt envisioning, as many had before, a whole new life for himself on the vast American strand.
* * *
The opening shot of North by Northwest, a New York City street scene reflected in the glass surface of a large corporate building, establishes the primary theme of the film: doubling. Just as the rushing taxis are doubled in the glass, so Grant’s character, Roger Thornhill, is doubled by George Kaplan. In both cases, the reflection is more exciting than the original — luminous, shimmering, almost magical. The film suggests that projections of images are more real than the images themselves. This is of course the main assumption of Thornhill’s vocation: advertising.
The film, like Hamlet, essentially opens with the question: “Who’s there?” The answer is not forthcoming. As Thornhill shares pre-dinner cocktails with acquaintances at an elegant bar, two thugs assigned to capture a man named George Kaplan come up with a plan. They don’t know how Kaplan looks, only that he’s in the bar, so they page him, hoping that he’ll make his way to the foyer. Just as they summon Kaplan, Thornhill gets up to telegraph his mother. The criminals believe that they have their man. They escort Thornhill by gunpoint to their car and drive him to a beautiful house out on Long Island, apparently the abode of one Lester Townsend.
There Thornhill is interrogated by the alleged Townsend as though he were a spy. When Thornhill is unable to give the information his inquisitor desires, he is forced to drink a bottle of whisky and then put in a car headed toward a cliff. He awakens from his stupor just in time to save himself from dying.
Soon it is revealed that Lester Townsend is not Townsend at all but a spy for an enemy country. His real name is Philip Vandamm (James Mason), and he believes that an American agent named George Kaplan is planning to unmask him. Kaplan, though, doesn’t really exist at all. He’s a decoy created by an American intelligence agency to keep Vandamm’s attention away from the real American agent, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint).
Vandamm is obsessed with getting Kaplan out of the way. After trying unsuccessfully to kill Kaplan — who’s really Thornhill — Vandamm then attempts to frame him for the murder of the real Townsend, a United Nations delegate. In this case, Vandamm is successful, and so Thornhill becomes a criminal on the run. He eventually sneaks his way to a train en route to Chicago and there meets Kendall. Since she knows that he’s really innocent, she protects him from the authorities. Meanwhile, she and Thornhill fall in love.
When Thornhill finally learns the real situation from the American intelligence agency — Kaplan is a decoy and Kendall the real agent — he’s asked by the agency’s chief to pretend to be Kaplan in earnest. If he does so, then he will give Kendall a better chance to escape the notice of Vandamm and thus to do her job. Thornhill reluctantly agrees and becomes, for all practical purposes, an American agent.
His reluctance is rather inauthentic, though; Thornhill actually relishes Kaplan’s exciting life. Late in the film, Kendall asks Thornhill, now fully Kaplan, why his two earlier marriages broke up. He claims that his wives left him because he was too dull. Indeed, the Thornhill that we witness early in the picture is trapped in banal affairs. We first see him rushing from his office to the bar. While in the cab with his secretary, he’s discussing what sort of conciliatory gift he should get for his current female companion. He tells his secretary to get the usual, flowers and candy. He then wonders out loud if he’s getting fat. He asks his secretary to put on his desk a memo to “think thin.” He next requests that his secretary call his mother to inform her that he will dine with her at the 21 Club before the two of them go to a play. He adds that his secretary should tell his mother that he will have had two martinis before they meet.
This is a portrait of a constrained life. Thornhill feels beholden to a woman he doesn’t love, to a body image dictated by society, and to a mother whom he only tolerates. His identity isn’t his at all. Determined by powers not his own and thus alienated from his inmost possibilities, he possesses no real self. How can Thornhill be freed into a persona that releases his potentials? It appears that this freedom can only occur when Thornhill chooses an artificial identity. Then he can realize expansive horizons for being: a long romantic train ride, westward bound, with a strange, beautiful woman; a breathtaking encounter with a low-flying crop duster in a desolate mid-western cornfield; a precipitous chase on the carved stones of Mount Rushmore.
The woman is integral to this process. As was the case with Grant’s earlier Hitchcock films, his protagonist has deep need of feminine support. Early in the film, the character is fixated on his mother; even though he’s probably in his late forties, he still talks to her regularly and periodically goes out on the town with her.
All that can wrest him away from mama is an alternative mother figure, one that will allow him to fulfill his oedipal fantasies by offering him nurture and sex at the same time. Kendall saves Thornhill from his pursuers, even, at one point, enclosing him in a womb-like sleeping berth. But she also quickly seduces Thornhill; within minutes of their first meeting, they’re kissing in her compartment. Through her fostering, Thornhill becomes reborn as another man, an action hero and romantic lead at once.
Thornhill’s metamorphosis from entrapped, mother-ridden ad man to a resourceful, handsome international spy is based, however, on an illusion. There is really no such person as Kaplan. He’s pure artifice. Initially, this facade doesn’t fit Thornhill. He tries to put on Kaplan’s clothes in the Ritz Hotel, but nothing fits. As the film unfolds, though, Thornhill proves himself worthy of his fake identity as an exciting spy. As a mark of his growth, he near the end of the film fits perfectly into new clothes that the head of the agency buys him. Thornhill has become his true self by being false.
What does this tell us about identity? It suggests that a self is not born but made. The so-called essential self, the unique biological or psychological or even spiritual stamp, is really insubstantial, unreal; the allegedly inessential self, the one made of masks and subterfuges, is actually a lasting, robust form of being.
* * *
The “real” Archie Leach himself constructed an identity in precisely the “fictional” Thornhill. Pender’s Knockabouts enjoyed a successful run in America. All the while, Archie was honing his craft, learning how to play reality and be real while playing. He was desperate to leave his tragic Bristol past behind and to become famous as someone else. When Pender booked the Knockabouts’ return to England, Archie stayed behind in New York. He was almost penniless but hovered in pure possibility: whatever he wanted to be, he could create.
Archie took several odd jobs, all having to do with performance. He advertised a local race-track by dressing gaudily and walking around on stilts. He hawked neckties on the streets. He put together an acting troupe and toured the country. He did physical comedy for various vaudeville acts. He served as a male escort. Eventually, he insinuated himself into the right New York acting circles and landed, at the age of twenty-three, his first Broadway role, in a play called Golden Dawn.
Archie was soon regularly starring in Broadway plays, but grew weary of the stage after three years. He decided to cross the country to the land of silver dreams, California. Using his charm and good looks, Archie in no time got himself a screen test with Paramount and then a long-term contract.
As he prepared to sign on the dotted line, he realized that “Archie Leach,” both the name and the identity, would never make it in Hollywood. Leach decided that he needed a more euphonious and memorable name to be splashed across movie marquees. At the suggestion of friends, he considered taking the name of a character he played in New York, Cary Lockwood. He liked the name “Cary,” but soon found that someone else had already claimed Lockwood. He required a last name, and soon settled on “Grant,” a name with strong consonants, like “Bogart” and “Gable,” that simply, as he later claimed, “jumped out” at him.
On December 7, 1931, Cary Grant was born. From then on, whether he was on screen or off, every action Leach undertook and every line that he spoke was a performance. But his life was far from mere deception. As Grant, Leach discovered a real talent that made him unique in the Hollywood of the time: he could look smashingly good but also talk brilliantly, combining the matinee idol with the witty trickster.
This ability fully bloomed by the time the thirties came to a close and the forties began. By then Grant was making the movies that made the first phase of his career shine and sparkle. These are the unforgettable comedies for which we love him: The Awful Truth (1937), Bringing up Baby (1938), Holiday (1938), His Girl Friday (1939), and The Philadelphia Story (1940).
In each of these quick bright things, there is nothing of the sad young man from Bristol, and not only in the movies. Whenever he appeared in public, Grant came off as urbane and ironic, a well-appointed man in gorgeous clothes, always saying the right thing, what we all wished we had said. No one could play Cary Grant like Cary Grant.
* * *
Still, in the midst of this glorious spectacle lurked Archie Leach. In Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Grant played a cockney on the make, and, later, in None but the Lonely (1944), he portrayed another down-and-outer trying for a break. It was perhaps upon watching the first of these films that a British director recently come to America decided to make a picture that allowed this brooding presence to compete with Cary Grant.
As we know, Hitchcock used Grant in his 1941 Suspicion and in doing so explored this possibility: no matter how hard a person works to escape his given identity through a constructed self, his old habits will persist, and the new self will be bedeviled by the old. This skeptical take suggests that all people are irreducibly duplicitous, that reality and illusion are forever melded. The mask is forever in conflict with the unwanted older self.
Cary Grant can never escape Archie Leach. In the same way, Suspicion‘s Johnny Aysgarth, regardless of his gentlemanly airs, can’t get rid of his interest in murder. Likewise, the T. R. Devlin of Notorious, despite his attempt to be lawful, remains a frustrated misogynist. Similarly, John Robie in To Catch a Thief never gets beyond his obsession for stealing. These failures to transcend the past make each of these characters hopelessly conflicted, vacillating between the sinister and the stylish, and at times combining the two poles in a confusing mish-mash.
Upon closer examination, we find that the same is true of North by Northwest. Though Kaplan’s transcendence of Thornhill appears to be successful, the film in the end implies that Kaplan is still vexed by Thornhill. This failure to transcend is suggested twice at the picture’s end.
First, in the famous edit in which Thornhill pulls a dangling Eve from a cliff on Rushmore into a sleeping berth on a train, he calls Eve “Mrs. Roger Thornhill.” This is apt, for he and Eve find themselves exactly where they first met — on a train. During this first meeting, Thornhill was still squarely Thornhill. Now, at the film’s end, he returns to this earlier identity, as if he never changed at all.
This stasis is confirmed by the movie’s last take — the train rushing into a tunnel. This shot is obviously a witty euphemism for the sex between the newlyweds, but it also intimates that Thornhill is really a machine inexorably following unmoving rails. Hitchcock seems to say that Thornhill — along with Cary Grant — is not free to create a new self at all but always controlled by an unalterable identity.
* * *
Just before the filming of North by Northwest, Grant was taking LSD, government licensed for purposes of experimentation, in hopes of discovering his enduring self. As he later confessed, he needed to come to terms with the “Archie Leach” that “Cary Grant” had largely repressed. After scores of doctor-supervised experiences with the drug, he “suddenly realised” that he had “spent the greater part of [his] life fluctuating between Archie Leach and Cary Grant, unsure of either, suspecting each.” Then, with the help of the drug, he “began to unify them into one person. With unity,” he believed, “came peace and relaxation.”6
We can easily believe that Grant spent the decade of the fifties struggling between Leach and Grant. But did he really marry the two, and, if he did, who would he be? Certainly not Leach, but Leach inflected through Grant; and certainly not Grant, but Grant added to Leach. In either case, he certainly would no longer be the “Cary Grant” whose artistic identity was precisely the vexed relationship between Leach and Grant.
Grant was, and is, interesting as an actor because he remains ambiguous, trapped between competing selves, trying to shed one for another but always once more suffering eruptions of the self he wishes to discard. He’s never simply charming, never merely sinister. He’s both at once. He might have dreamed of bringing his disparate parts into accord but if he had done so, he would’ve ceased to be anyone at all. His substantial self was necessarily insubstantial, a vexed amalgamation of fragments, part real and part dream.
The figure of Cary Grant teaches us that the only clear identity is to have no clear identity. We concoct a mask by which to hide parts of us we don’t want and to enhance those parts we do. For a time, disguise reveals only the desired parts. But after only a short while, the repressed energies return, and in monstrous shapes. It is then that we realize that our traumas go with us wherever we go, that we are a site of relentless struggle between hard reality and blithe illusion, fear and desire.
* * *
This is the everlasting appeal of Grant, and of Hamlet. Each figures our essential confusions over the question, Who’s there? That Grant ended his days as a board member for Fabergé is not surprising. He had spent his whole life is in cosmetics, and so the move from the silver screen to exotic scents was seamless. But at the same time, there may have been another reason Grant chose in his final years to work for a company specializing in women’s perfumes. Perhaps as his life ended, he most wanted to remember not the make-up but the flesh, his mother’s body, sweetly odiferous and forever lost, a figure to inspire in him love and nostalgia, feelings that Gertrude encouraged in her own son, Hamlet, in a play whose unreality actually frees it to be truth.
- In invoking complex episodes from Grant’s life, I draw largely from Marc Eliot’s excellent study of the actor’s life, Cary Grant: A Biography (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004), a book often focused on the conflict between suave Hollywood icon and confused Cockney dreamer. I develop Eliot’s comments on this basic polarity philosophically, demonstrating how Grant’s struggles with identity reflect the struggle for self in general. I do this by treating Grant as a modern-day Hamlet, the icon of identity crisis. Two other books on Grant have also informed my thoughts on his fractured identity. The first is Graham McCann’s sophisticated academic study of Grant’s construction of identity: Cary Grant: A Class Apart (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998). The second is Richard Schickel’s Cary Grant: A Celebration (New York: Applause Books, 2000), another intelligent analysis of the intersections between Grant’s actual past and his constructed characters. [↩]
- Nancy Nelson, Evenings with Cary Grant (New York: Warner, 1993), 55; quoted in McCann, 166. [↩]
- Cary Grant, “Archie Leach (Part 1),” Ladies Home Journal, Jan./Feb. 1963, part 1, 136; quoted in McCann, 21. [↩]
- Warren G. Harris, Cary Grant: A Touch of Elegance (New York: Doubleday, 1987), 14; quoted in Eliot, 365. [↩]
- Grant, 136; quoted in McCann, 31. [↩]
- James Bacon, Made in Hollywood (New York: Warner Books, 1977), 34; quoted in McCann, 177. [↩]