| The concept of Cary
Chris Petit finds Wu Ming's fiction has more truth than Marc Eliot's fact when it comes to Cary Grant and Hollywood
Saturday May 21, 2005
Cary Grant by Marc Eliot (434pp, Aurum, £18.99)
54 by Wu Ming (549pp, Heinemann, £16.99)
Cary Grant was the invention of a sarcastic Englishman with the improbable name of Archie Leach. Leach was the finest physical specimen ever to come out of Bristol and as Grant he became one of the great inventions of the 20th century, to Hollywood what Ralph Lauren would be to the garment trade, selling a carefully tailored variety of ersatz Englishness. The novel 54 - in which Grant appears as himself - states his aim succinctly: "The New Man, if there was such a thing, would be reflected in Cary Grant, the perfect prototype of Homo Atlanticus: civil without being boring; moderate, but progressive; rich, certainly, even extremely rich, but not dry, and not flabby either."
Grant's career was a triumph of wit over lack of education. Perhaps only because he was so untutored he was free to invent himself so extravagantly. But Grant and Leach shared an uneasy existence. Grant's tricky private life lay in his inability to put Leach behind him and their relationship was subject to constant revision, depression, absences and benders. In his biography Marc Eliot maintains Leach was fundamentally homosexual and resurfaced in times of crisis and disorientation in Grant's life: his master's voice.
Gary Cooper, that straight-shooting womaniser, declared Grant ambiguous. Marlene Dietrich marked Grant an F for fag after Blonde Venus (1932) and in I'm No Angel (1933) he was treated to Mae West's rolling innuendo. "I like a sophisticated man to take me out." "I'm not really sophisticated." "You're not really out yet, either." Grant had a propensity for dragging-up at costume parties and a stated preference for women's underwear, worn for practical reasons (easier to rinse and dry, saving on hotel laundry bills). Eliot claims the actor Randolph Scott was Grant's housemate and lover, but this is old chestnut remains unproven despite Eliot's best efforts, and owes a lot to Grant's cultivated ambiguity. Where Hollywood was usually taken as an excuse for sexed-up people to indulge (a system of pampered slavery), this was not Grant's motive. He was fascinated by the studio machine and intent on beating it. Hours were spent discussing with Scott ways of increasing creative control and a gaining a financial stake. Grant's acumen made him into Hollywood's first successful freelance, the first to take 10% of the takings. Behind the urbane, expansive façade lurked a mean frugality, a notoriously poor tipper and a reluctant giver of autographs.
Few saw through Grant; Hitchcock the exception. The crafty cockney read the provincial boy for what he was, and found a soul mate in temperament and slyness. Grant became Hitchcock's surrogate in his fantasies regarding the unobtainable women he cast. In Suspicion (1941) Hitchcock removed Grant's veneer to show the nastiness. Further projects chosen by Grant were coded for Leach, such as None But the Lonely Heart (1944) in which he played a cockney reunited with his mother after years of separation. ("Love is not for the poor, son. No time for it.")
The miserable childhood Grant had struggled to leave behind resurfaced in 1932, when his drunken, bigamist father re-emerged bearing the news that the mother Grant believed was dead had been in an asylum; mum had trouble grasping the concept of Cary.
Grant learned the news as he was planning to marry for the first time. The unexpected marriage to Virginia Cherrill - a Chaplin reject and star of City Lights - is never adequately explained by Eliot and unlikely as the coup de foudre described: Grant, stepping out of the Brown Derby for a cigarette after the premiere of Blonde Venus, attended with Scott and a contract starlet for cover, saw Cherrill and was smitten.
Marriage turned into a messy variation of the screwball comedies that helped make Grant's name, with Scott moving in next door to the newlyweds. According to Eliot, the relationship with Scott continued after they had both married. Scott had an accommodating and very rich wife, who rarely showed her face in Hollywood.
Grant didn't do marriage well, his temperament being more suited to crushes. The later, liberated Cary Grant - as a result of his controversial LSD programme - remains at odds with court testimony declaring him a cruel and abusive husband. The marriage to Dyan Cannon, who bore him a daughter, was a farce and, however much Grant wanted family, he was clueless faced with its messy practicalities. And for all his vaunted good taste, he ended up in retirement as an executive for Fabergé, producers of Brut, one of the naffest smells invented.
54, named after the year in which it is set and written by the writers' collective that previously published as Luther Blissett, is a baggy story of post-war Italy at the height of the cold war. This diverting post-modernist entertainment - about narcotics, the cheap potency of Hollywood, the coming of television, the balance of political power, and how the effects knock on down the line - is skilled in teasing fact and fiction. Trieste sits uncomfortably between east and west while in Naples, the deported American gangster Lucky Luciano fixes horse races and attends to his global drug trade. Meanwhile, Cary Grant, idling in semi-retirement in Palm Springs, is approached by British intelligence to undertake a secret mission to Yugoslavia as part of an incentive to woo Tito, who is interested in a film about his war exploits (a project eventually made with Richard Burton).
Whichever part of the collective wrote the Grant chapters provides most of the amusement and enjoyment. There is great play here: a poor imitator covers for Grant in the States while the star is on his mission; Grant travels under the same name as the mysterious secret agent in North By Northwest; while embarked on his James Bondish escapade he reads the just-published Casino Royale. He doesn't get Fleming's "little book", with "paragraph after paragraph of pointless details, depicting a lifestyle that struck Cary as brash and fake".
54 exploits a sense of murky politics hinted at by Eliot and by Hitchcock's Notorious (1946). Grant had avoided wartime military service first in England then in America and had been married to Barbara Hutton, who moved in pro-Nazi circles. Eliot, like others, maintains Grant had the protection of J Edgar Hoover and was forced in return to serve as one of Hoover's domestic "volunteer" spies, or, as Marshal Tito puts it more charitably in 54: "You served your country and the anti-fascist cause in the sector of entertainment." After the Yugoslav debacle Grant turns up in the south of France to film To Catch a Thief with Grace Kelly for Hitchcock. Here several narrative strands come satisfactorily together, with characters turning up as extras while the decadent Emperor of Indochina gambles away a fortune every night and Vietnam goes on the slide. 54 nails Grant much better than Eliot, being free to indulge in creative speculation (no hint of homosexuality) with an elegance lacking in his flatter-footed biographer.
• Chris Petit's film Radio On is about to be released on DVD