Becoming Cary Grant is a beautiful title for an inside Hollywood documentary. It suggests that the person who ultimately became Cary Grant really did need to become him, for the same reason that anyone else would. Namely, that Cary Grant wasn’t quite of planet earth, he was larger than life. But in fact, he was born in 1904 as Archie Leach, a child from a modest background in Bristol, England.
David Thomson, a film critic who speaks throughout the film as an expert on Grant, suggests that the actor could never be placed as being from the UK nor the USA, but rather as a one off unique individual. Even his accent, so utterly distinctive, was unplaceable. The film quotes Grant as saying: ‘Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant’ – which tells you what a remarkable achievement his persona was. It shows him as the classical Hollywood leading man, with A list appeal. As an actor myself, I was excited by the opportunity to gain an insight from this film, as people’s perceptions of acting can be very different from the reality.
Becoming Cary Grant draws on the actor’s unpublished memoir, using his own words, thoughts and feelings, voiced by Jonathan Pryce. And it is using this technique that Kidel discusses Grant’s experiments with LSD in the 1950s. When you first hear that Grant took LSD, the fact stands in such dramatic contrast to his impeccable image – with not a hair out of place. It suggests he had a wild side, that his on-screen persona might have merely been a cover.
However, Grant’s LSD experiences were part of a rigorously supervised experiment in cutting edge psychotherapy in southern California. Grant would take a tab once a week in his therapist’s office, lie on the couch with a cover over him, and hallucinate his way to his subconscious self. He picked his favourite music and lay down for five hours. He found the experience to be frightening, liberating, but ultimately healing, showing how valuable therapy and talking and exploring thoughts and feelings is for mental health, wellbeing and psychotherapy.
The film also traces Grant’s development as an actor, from when he seemed to have no idea what he was doing, to his experiences on the set of The Awful Truth (1937) – where director Leo McCarey used his own persona as a ladies’ man to bring out the essence of the Cary Grant we know today – to his performance in Bringing Up Baby (1938), where Howard Hawks recognised the universal appeal of Grant’s personality. Although it doesn’t explore His Girl Friday (1940), the comedy that saw Grant reach his perfection as a leading man, it is spot-on in recognising that the films he made with Alfred Hitchcock – Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946), To Catch a Thief (1955), and North by Northwest (1959) – were the making of him as an actor. Hitchcock cast him as a murderer in Suspicion, showing his range as an actor, while, in, Notorious, Grant’s crisp ardour was shot through with haunted longing.
Becoming Cary Grant argues that the emotions he explores in these roles, to some degree, brought him closer to the “real” Cary Grant. But over and above that, it reveals that he was even more of an actor – both in life and in the movies – than we might otherwise have thought. Explorations into his difficult childhood and relationships with his mother and father show the extent to which adversity played a prominent role in helping him become one of Hollywood’s most successful and talented stars – and an actor that is still admired to this day.
Placing the emphasis on Grant’s therapy also shows how important it is for people to talk about their feelings, no matter what their situation. At one point, he says: ‘If I had paid more attention I might have found contentment in marriage’, an insight that is all the sadder when considered alongside his high-profile struggles with women and love. Living in an era when men sadly did not talk about emotional issues, Grant eventually found relief in his chosen form of therapy – whether we agree with it or not.
Becoming Cary Grant may inspire a new generation of young actors to seek fame and fortune, but it can be hoped that it will encourage men to seek mental health support when they have issues they need to talk about. Later in life, the film shows that Grant is healed through having a daughter of his own to love and care for, something that helped him grow and develop emotionally. Ultimately, it strikes the balance between showcasing his great success, and giving an honest account of who he truly was – or became – in his own words.
by Shirley Hellyar
Shirley is a writer, actor and model, currently writing her first screenplay, and acting as full-time carer for her disabled dad. She has dyslexia, anxiety and depression. She wants to show that with the right help and support anything is possible, and being honest about mental health difficulties is so important in reclaiming who you are.
Book now for Becoming Cary Grant, showing as part of Men's Mental Health Day at CCA, Glasgow on Sat 14 Oct at 7.30pm. Director Mark Kidel will be in attendance to take part in a Q&A discussion after the screening. Winner of Best Feature Documentary in our International Film Competition.