As Archibald Leach entered his 50s he was world famous, wealthy beyond dreams, and women everywhere swooned when he walked in a room. He had it all.
And yet he was troubled and insecure, worried about his inability to make long-lasting connections with people, especially women.
So he dropped acid. Lots and lots of acid.
Except this was the late 1950s and nobody called the then little-known drug LSD “acid.” At the same time, few people called Archibald Leach by his given name either. He was far better known by his stage name: Cary Grant.
The new Showtime documentary “Becoming Cary Grant” explains why one of the most handsome and diverse talents in the history of Hollywood became something of a spiritual seeker in the late 1950s, consumed with probing his own mind and motivations. It’s an often fascinating (if sometime wandering) look at how the duplicitous nature of acting can collide with the facts of life itself.
Taken in total, it would have been miraculous if Cary Grant hadn’t been something of a spiritual seeker eventually. Either that or a basket case. The dude had a lot going on.
That lot starts out in Bristol, England, where Archibald Leach was born in 1904. He was his parents’ second son, although his older brother died as a young child. His mournful, depressed mother Elsie both babied and bullied Archie. And then, when he was nine, she disappeared.
His alcoholic father said she’d gone on a vacation of sorts. His alcoholic father was a liar; he’d had his wife committed to a mental institution. He then went off to another town and started another family, leaving Archie to be raised by a grandparent.
But Archie had been taken by a teacher’s assistant to a vaudeville show where he’d met a family of acrobats. Soon enough he joined this family, touring about the country and performing. When he was 16 the family set off to perform in America, Archie in tow. By the time he was 18 Archibald Leach was performing in various stage productions in New York City and on his own.
All this time he figured his mother was dead. He traveled to Hollywood – the documentary has his earliest screen test, in which he broadly overplays to the cheap seats – changed his name and his star began to rise. At first he was just cast as good-looking eye candy, but then directors started noticing he had talent.
Then, at the age of 31, he found out his mother was alive, still institutionalized. He saw to her release and supported her for the rest of her life.
So, yeah, that would mess with your head.
Of course, it all was integral in making Cary Grant into Cary Grant. The pluck and ambition was driven by absolute insecurity, the charm was a means of survival. Even Grant’s transatlantic accent – born and raised in Bristol but in America by 16 – was uniquely his. His comic timing, which is legendary, was born from acrobatics (the dude took a brilliant pratfall).
And his dramatic sense, the tension that ran through the films made with Alfred Hitchcock – well, he had plenty of dramatic tension to draw on.
What he didn’t have – and what drove him to serious introspection in the 1950s – was a capacity to stay with women. By the time he started LSD therapy Grant was on his third wife (he’d eventually marry five). In 1949 he married co-star Betsy Drake; it was his longest marriage, lasting until 1962. Drake, herself something of a seeker, introduced Grant to the idea of LSD therapy.
It doesn’t look like a whole lot of fun. Grant would take some acid, lay down on his therapist’s couch with a blanket and basically trip for five hours at a time. He had somewhere around 100 such sessions. Party on. But it helped Grant realize that he couldn’t stick with women because his own mother, however innocently, hadn’t stuck with him.
“Becoming Cary Grant” has two unique features. First, it has words written by Grant from an unpublished autobiography (read by Jonathan Pryce). These are beyond value. “You’re just a bunch of molecules until you know who you are,” he says at one point, explaining his need for therapy.
“Once you realize that you have all things inside you – love and hate alike – and you learn to accept them, then you can use your love to exhaust your hate,” he offers later. This is not the sort of stuff that was being talked about in the ’50s or even ’60s. Troubled Archibald Leach was definitely ahead of his time.
The other thing “Becoming Cary Grant” has is home movies shot by and of Grant. At times these shots are valuable, but more often they’re just incoherent and distracting. Same with the repeated shots of waves rolling onto a beach. What? Let’s move on, we’re talking Cary freaking Grant here, who needs waves?
Ultimately, though, this is about Cary freaking Grant, and “Becoming Cary Grant” has an inherently fascinating story to tell about how a person is formed and about an actor who hid behind characters until he decided to face himself.
Archibald Leach must have found at least a bit of himself. At the age of 62 he retired from making movies, leaving all his many roles behind to concentrate on raising his only child, Jennifer. All those emotional acrobatics had led him to one woman he could truly love.