Back in the Golden Age of Hollywood, a leading actor needed at least one specific quality to fit in this privileged group of stars. He could be either funny, dashingly handsome, witty, elegant or tough, so any of these aspects could make one reach stardom. But only one man from Bristol managed to comprise all these qualities into one person: Archibald Alexander Leach, better known to the world as Cary Grant.
This particularity is what makes Grant different from other fellow actors of his generation, and it is what makes him the biggest star ever. He was admired for his acting, for his charm and for his smartness. Women, men, directors and fellow actors, everyone wanted to be close to him, and still nowadays, many people try to emulate his style. But there was much more behind his sun-kissed face.
Howard Hawks, who directed him on five occasions, once said that “Cary Grant was so far the best that there isn’t anybody to be compared to him.” But how did that happen? How did a poor kid from England become one of the most influential movie stars in the history of cinema?
It all comes back to the beginning of the 20th century, when there was no Cary Grant, but a kid called Archie Leach. His parents, Elsie and Elias, a suit presser, were far from the ideal of happy family. Archie endured growing up next to a depressive mother and an alcoholic father who sent her to a mental institution when Archie was 9 years old, then told the kid that his mother had died. There wouldn’t be many happy memories for Archie of these years with his father, but the one thing he learnt from him was a deep appreciation for quality clothing which he would carry for the rest of his life.
So it was only a matter of time before Archie left home (where his father had formed another family with his new wife) and that time was 1918. At the age of 14, he joined the Bob Pender Stage Troupe, where he performed vaudeville acts. But there was still one more step to take: United States.
In 1920, the troupe travelled to New York to do a series of performances. When they left, Archie stayed and kept on performing as an acrobat, mime, stilt walker and whatever they asked him to do. Eventually, he would make his way to Broadway and star in some successful plays and musicals. Finally, his big opportunity came in 1931, when he moved to Hollywood.
As soon as he got there, he signed a contract with Paramount Pictures and changed his name to Cary Grant. He starred opposite Marlene Dietrich in the classic Blonde Venus, but it would be in 1933 where he would reach stardom thanks to the two movies he did with Mae West, who ever since boasted about how she had made Grant what he was.
Everything started working to perfection. People in the industry adored him, the fans worshipped him, he had an enviable social life and married Virginia Cherrill, even though it only lasted one year (he would eventually marry four times more). After his divorce, Grant signed with Columbia Pictures and moved to a bachelor’s pad with fellow actor Randolph Scott. Their friendship was one of the strongest Grant ever had, and although there were always rumours about the nature of their relationship which they always denied, Grant and Scott are the only ones who will ever know the truth.
By the time the 1930s ended, Cary had become the indisputable leading man in the genre that would be known as screwball comedy, starring in celebrated films like The Awful Truth (where he displayed his characteristic comedy acting for the first time), Bringing Up Baby or The Philadelphia Story. After this, he began one of the most productive relationships in his life: Alfred Hitchcock. They first worked together in the 1941 suspense thriller Suspicion, where Grant played the villain, a character very far from what moviegoers thought of him. This collaboration would be followed by Notorious that same decade and the 1950s masterpieces To Catch a Thief (for which Hitchcock managed to get him out of his early retirement) and North by Northwest. All of them were powerful performances, but none of them earned him an Oscar win. Like Hitchcock himself, Grant was one of the greatest things Hollywood had, but they were never rewarded for it – that is if you don’t count the honorary Oscar, the Academy’s personal way of saying “we made a mistake, we should have given this to you decades ago.”
He continued to make unforgettable films until the age of 62, when he retired for good to spend more time with his only child, Jennifer, from his marriage to Dyan Cannon, his fourth wife. For the next two decades, he kept having an active social life: he became part of the board of directors at Fabergé, Hollywood Park, the Academy of Magic Arts, Western Airlines and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Everyone sought Cary’s advice and wanted to know his opinion.
Later on, in the 1980s, Grant saw the opportunity of paying the fans back for all their support throughout the years, so he spent the last years of his life doing the show A Conversation with Cary Grant. In it, he would answer any question the audience members had and revisited old movies. Many fans were born after he retired, but they too had become invested in Grant’s work.
It was during one of these nights that Cary decided to say goodbye to the world. He died in Iowa in 1986, five years after marrying his last wife, Barbara. And even though he had not acted in years, the world of cinema felt his loss, because Grant left a huge mark as one of the most influential figures in Hollywood. A lesson in acting and a reference in style, one that we can still feel nowadays.