Given the effervescent personality of its subject, an oddly somber tone suffuses the would-be revelatory documentary Becoming Cary Grant. Perfectly decent as an appreciative account of the great star’s life and career, Mark Kidel’s film aspires to something more, that being an exploration of the actor’s successful use of LSD as a psychiatric tool in the 1950s. But as the realities of Grant’s trailblazing were beneficial — his drug experiences made him a happier person — they hardly provide a whole new way to view the actor’s spectacular achievements.
Available on Showtime beginning Friday, the French-made production world premiered in the Cannes Classics section of this year’s film festival on the Riviera, just a hop, skip and jump down the street from where Grant romanced Grace Kelly in 1955’s To Catch a Thief.
A decade before ‘Easy Rider,’ Cary Grant was getting high.
Any documentary loaded with clips of Grant’s work has half the battle won right there — few stars have ever appeared in nearly as many first-rate films as this actor did over the course of his 34-year career. And to offer keen insights into Grant’s work and how his persona was shaped and used by different top directors, Kidel had the wisdom to solicit the nuanced commentary of top film scholar David Thomson, who has flatly stated that Grant “was the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema.”
Also attentively covered here is the emotional and psychic damage done to Bristol-born Archie Leach by his errant, dandyish father (who may have had another family on the side and took off when his son was 11) and his unstable mother, who may have been responsible for the death of an older son, dressed her boy in girls’ clothes and suffered from a “mania” that led to her commitment to a “lunatic asylum”; her son had no idea what happened to her. The result: major “trust issues” for Archie where women were concerned.
Under the circumstances, Archie turned out pretty well. At 14, he hit the road with a team of traveling acrobats, which included a visit to New York. After little more than a decade, he had changed his name, cultivated a unique accent, landed in California and signed a lucrative contract at Paramount; within four years he was a star.
But his personal life was another matter; marriage after marriage flamed out and he was considered “impossible” by all the women with whom he formed attachments. After 20 years of not seeing her, he located his mother and cared for her financially. Then there were the persistent gay rumors, which the film skirts with unusual coyness for this day and age, saying only that the actor may have been “uncertain” sexually, or appealing equally to men and women. He was “alone on the edge,” “somewhere else” sexually, whatever that means.
In the case study being prepared, all of this is lead-up to the “existential crisis” the actor felt was overtaking him by the late-1950s. Employing phrases used by the actor in his never-finished autobiography, and with Jonathan Pryce speaking the star’s written words without trying to emulate his unique voice or reproduce his appealing vocal bounce, Kidel cites the “facade” Grant felt he had become. “You go around getting to be a big Hollywood actor and then what?,” wrote the star, adding that all his life, he’d been trying, without success, “to achieve a peace of mind.” Most wittily, and tellingly, the actor lamented that, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.”
Much less fulsomely than it might have, the documentary then sketches how Grant, at age 55 and at the behest of his then-wife Betsy Drake, became the first celebrity to use and endorse psychedelics for their therapeutic value. Over the course of an untold number of five-hour weekly sessions in 1958 overseen by Beverly Hills shrink Mortimer Hartman, Grant saw “horrifying and happy sights,” experienced the release of his subconscious and lost “all the tensions” that had so long crippled him emotionally. “At last,” he said, “I’m close to happiness.”
All this is well and good as far as it goes, but it falls far short of the fascination of the 2010 Vanity Fair article that revealed all this in the first place, “Cary in the Sky With Diamonds” by Judy Balaban (who is interviewed onscreen here) and Cari Beauchamp. Other than for readers of Aldous Huxley, consciousness-altering drugs were entirely unknown in the 1950s (Timothy Leary didn’t discover them until 1960), were entirely legal and not yet demonized. Dozens of eminently respectable high-profile figures, from Esther Williams and Andre Previn to Time magazine publisher Henry Luce and his wife Clare Booth Luce, tried the novel therapy and openly discussed it. Even Good Housekeeping magazine endorsed the drug therapy, which wasn’t criminalized until 1968.
Any new work that brings new attention to Cary Grant and might encourage younger audiences to turn on to him is welcome, and if it takes making the actor into an avatar of counterculture before its time, so be it.
Production company: Yuzu Productions
With: Judy Balaban, Mark Glancy, Barbara Jaynes, David Thomson
Voice of Cary Grant: Jonathan Pryce
Director: Mark Kidel
Writers: Mark Kidel, Nick Ware
Producers: Christian Popp, Nick Ware
Executive producers: Annie Roney, Sue Turley
Director of photography: Jean-Marie Delorme
Editor: Cyril Leuthy
Music: The Insects, Adrian Utley
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Classics)