Timeless: Cary Grant

You're invited to join the staff of Bacchus and our friends at Ft. DeRussy Beach Park on Monday, July 4th (all day). We'll gather near the large tree by the volleyball courts. Bring food to share and join in on the fun and games.

This is the fifth installment in our Timeless series looking back at Hollywood heart throbs of the 20th Century, many who passed on too early. We imagine what their lives may have been and honor their talents and celebrate their legacies.

Cary Grant didn’t reinvent acting like Brando, he didn’t fatten himself up like Robert De Niro or starve himself like Christian Bale. He wasn’t burly like Gable, and he didn’t smolder like Mitchum. Instead, he played slight variations on the same character for the majority of his career, he wore a suit better than anyone in Hollywood, and he made acting seem like living. Over the course of his long career, Grant fixed standards of what it meant to be “debonair” and “a man about town” — everything he did, on screen and off, seemed inflected with panache and grace.

Grant wore well-tailored clothes, and he knew how to hold himself in them. But he came from nothing, and the way he wore clothes was just as much of a performance as his refined trans-Atlantic accent, his acrobatic slapstick routines, and his masterful flirtation skills. When a tailor returned a collar point even an eighth of an inch too short, he sent it back. He understood that only through attention to seemingly meaningless details could a quasi-orphaned vaudevillian become one of the most enduring and beloved stars of the 20th century.

Rumors of Grant’s bisexuality swirled around Hollywood for years: was he a man-about-town who liked to have sex with men-about-town? But as evidenced by the story of Rock Hudson, Hollywood was adept at covering queerness with a varnish of hyper-heterosexuality, and women fell at his feet both onscreen and off. As will become clear, it was and remains unclear whether Grant actually was bisexual or whether he simply reveled in messing with anxieties sparked by two men living together. It seems unlikely that Grant, a practiced comedian, would not have been amused by befuddling as many gossip columnists as possible.

But all that came later. Grant, born Archibald Alexander Leach, spent the early years of his life in an unhappy home in Bristol, England. At age nine, Leach’s father put his mother in a mental institution. He soon remarried, abandoning young Archie to the care of the state. Leach was expelled from school at 14 and joined a traveling stage troupe, quickly mastering the art of stilt-walking. In 1920, at all of 16, Leach and the troupe left Britain for a two-year American tour, from which he would never return. He joined the American vaudeville circuit, spending a significant chunk of time on the St. Louis stage and refining the acrobatic, juggling, and miming skills that would serve him for the rest of his entertainment career. You might laugh, but the sort of immaculate movement control required of a vaudevillian is the same sort of control necessary for intricate flirtation. This is why football players are such bad flirts and ballet dancers and unicyclists, however weird, are such good ones.

After a stint on Broadway, Archie Leach moved to Hollywood, signed a contract with Paramount, and changed his name to Cary Grant. From the beginning, he was cast as wealthy and sophisticated, playing very young, very rich, and very boring opposite Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus in 1932. Then Mae West selected Grant to play her love interest in back-to-back films — She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel. The latter was a monster hit, but West was the main attraction; Grant was just window-dressing.

Then Cary met Randolph Scott on the set of the 1932 movie, “Hot Saturday.”  The attraction was mutual and they quickly began spending all of their free time together. Their friends from that period said that the two handsome young actors lived together openly and began traveling in Hollywood’s gay social circles - the gay cliques Cary was familiar with because he had previously lived with openly with gay Hollywood designer, Orry-Kelly. 

They moved in together and shared two houses, a Santa Monica beach house and a mansion in Los Feliz at 2177 West Live Oak Drive.

A closeted gay journalist named Ben Maddox wrote a profile of the two bachelors for Modern Screen in 1933. The photos show Cary Grant and Randolph Scott sharing house and living a very cozy and domestic life at the beach. Maddox used various code words in his story that would identify them as a couple to gay readers. These photos of them wearing aprons were apparently too much for heterosexual columnists who ridiculed the two men and implied that there was “something” between them.

In 1934, the studio “encouraged” Grant to marry in order to kill the gay rumors that were swirling around the two young actors. In February of 1934, he married Virginia Cherril and 13 months later she divorced him, claiming that he had hit her. 

Virginia also said the Grant was constantly drunk and sullen and never showed any sexual interest. There is an unconfirmed rumor that Cary had been so depressed by his situation that he even attempted suicide. An attempted suicide was something that the studios would have done everything in their power to hush up; so that may be why there is no real evidence of it happening. 

Cary moved back in with Randolph as soon as the divorce was settled. The studio publicity department regularly planted stories about an endless stream of attractive young women going in and out of the beach house which they now referred to as “Bachelor Hall.”

Mr Blackwell, the notorious fashion critic, lived with Cary and Randolph for several months. In his memoir he said that he considered them, “deeply, madly in love, their devotion complete…Behind closed doors they were warm, kind, loving and caring, and unembarrassed about showing it.”

By 1940 they were no longer living together, due to pressure from the studio heads to marry and protect their image. They only made one movie together, ironically it was called, My Favorite Wife.

They must have still be lovers at the time since the script supervisor, Bert Granet, for My Favorite Wife recalled Cary and Randolph unusual behavior on set:
“We shot the pool sequence at the Huntington Hotel in Pasadena. Cary and Randy Scott arrived as a pair and, to the total astonishment of myself, the director, and the ultra-macho crew, instead of taking separate suites moved into the same room together. Everyone looked at everyone else. It seemed hardly believable.”

Cary and Randolph remained extremely close their entire lives. The maître d' at the Beverly Hillcrest Hotel saw both actors in the 1970s, sitting in the back of the restaurant, long after the place had emptied. Cary Grant and Randolph Scott were sitting alone, quietly holding hands.

As for his acting career:
He hummed along as the romantic lead in many movies and occasionally got to play the sinister role. Over the course of his career, Grant did a lot of firm embracing of his co-stars and fish kissing” — the mouth opens, the couple moves in, the lips touch, and then they just sit there, gills opening and closing for the allotted period of time. “Fish kissing” developed because the Hays Code forbade tongue kissing, but as a result, gilling around and smooshing faces with Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief was the closest Grant ever got to a veritable love scene. Which, if you think about it, is really saying something: the sexiest man of Classic Hollywood didn’t need to do full frontal. He didn’t even need to take off his shirt. He just crossed his legs and raised his eyebrows.

With Grant well into his ’40s, the films just kept coming: An Affair to Remember, and North by Northwest are career highlights. In fact, NxNW also gave us one of the most enduring images of cinema, with Grant, all suit and polish, stranded in the middle of a field and sprinting for his life as a bi-plane buzzes him from overhead.

As writer Todd McEwen declared, “North by Northwest isn’t a film about what happens to Cary Grant, it’s about what happens to his suit” — a suit GQ called the best in film history. Having seen so much classic Hollywood cinema, that is saying something, and that something is spectacular.

All over Hollywood in the ’50s, quality films were in decline. Ironically, actors, especially ones with high asking prices like Grant, were making fewer and fewer films, but the ones they did make were given such large budgets that they had to succeed, leading to all sorts of over-production. Too many spoons in the stew; too many chefs in the kitchen; too few profits to go around. Grant was good, but this was a different calculus, and my guess is he was probably pretty exhausted by playing himself. By the time we get to Charade (1962), it’s not that he’s too old for Audrey Hepburn as much as he lacked the stamina to match Hepburn’s incessant doe-eyeing. Grant’s brand of obstinate flirtation, always toe-to-toe with the likes of Hepburn the Elder, here seems more like crotchety grandparenting.

But unlike most Hollywood stars, Grant never underwent a true (or public) decline. He kept up appearances, married a really, really young Dyan Cannon (33 years his junior) and, in 1966, fathered his first child.

With the birth of his daughter, Grant retired from the screen to dedicate himself to fatherhood. In 1970, he at last received an Oscar for “his unique mastery of the art of screen acting with the respect and affection of his colleagues.” In other words: Grant received an Oscar for being so much more awesome than everyone else still alive in Hollywood. He spent the last years of his life reveling in his own silver foxness and doing ridiculous things like serving on the board of Fabergé. Grant divorced Canon relatively quickly, married again, and, after living a full and glorious life, passed away at the age of 82 in 1986, with more than 70 films to his name.

We'll always remember Cary Grant (solo and with Randolph Scott) as the debonair everyman who lived his life with style and grace.

If you were contemporaries, would you throwback a few shots of tequila with Cary Grant? Definitely. Today, all shots of tequila are $5 - each every Thursday. Drink with us. :-)

Combined, Cary Grant and Randolph Scott married 7 different women. And they never ever said they were gay. We just like to wonder and imagine....sigh... Hey, someone who did have multiple husbands was Elizabeth Taylor. You might want to study up on their names for our next trivia night. ;-)