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Interview: Scott Eyman Talks ‘Cary Grant – A Brilliant Disguise’

This interview originally aired on Ticklish Business. To listen to the full audio version click here.

What drew you to want to tell Archie Leach’s story, especially considering how many biographies there already are about him?

Scott Eyman: It’s a one-part question [but] I’ll give you a two-part answer. Number one, is that he’s worth the price of the ticket, that he transcends his period in a way that most movie stars frankly don’t. And he’s every bit as relevant, which is not a word I particularly like, but it’s the appropriate word. He’s as relevant today as he was in 1939 or 1949, probably more so. The second part of the answer is going to sound egocentric but so be it. I didn’t think any of the other books were very good. If I thought anybody had nailed it, and done a really bang-up job on him I wouldn’t do it.

I mean, I love Charlie Chaplin but I’ve never written a book about Charlie Chaplin because David Robinson’s book is, I think, definitive for the whole package of Charlie Chaplin so there’s no sense in doing that. But with showbusiness biographies there’s a certain lack of rigor that you often find in the books, especially books written 30 or 40 years ago. So I, sort of, just sail right on in unless I think somebody else has really done a bang-up job.

What was the element that you really wanted to capture that the other books had not?

How he did it. Where the persona came from. How he managed the persona, how he managed to earn it, basically, carte blanche, within the movie industry which very few actors or actresses achieve, and manage to do it for 35 years, also, which is a very long career. And he could have kept on going indefinitely; he chose to walk away when he was still very close to the top of his game and, as you know, most actors hang around so you have to drive a stake through their heart. As somebody once told me, “it’s not that I retired, it’s just that you don’t get hired,” which is exactly the way it goes. But Grant walked away while he still had his look, still had his gift, still had his timing. We didn’t have to watch him do special guest appearances on The Love Boat. You have to respect that level of self awareness.

Now I just wonder what a Cary Grant Love Boat appearance would look like.

He never went down market. He always treated himself as something you’d buy at Tiffany’s or Cartier and, as a result, we treat him as if he came out right out of Tiffany’s or Cartier. There was a certain element of of a performance in being Cary Grant.

Where do you start with research, especially on someone like Cary where there is what seems to be so much information available?

They’re still writing books about the Civil War, that was a long time ago. Stuff turns up that didn’t necessary turn up 50 years ago, or 40 years ago, or 30 years ago. Grant’s papers were finally made available at the Academy some years back, but hadn’t really been gone through in an exhaustive sense. Of course, there’s the problem of finding people to talk to. When I started doing this there were a lot of people above ground. Now, most of the people you want to talk to about this period are below ground and they’re not answering my messages. So it becomes more of a library element, and a performing arts library element, and oral history element.

It used to be a trip, traipsing all over Southern California to talk to people, that’s much less of an issue now. You find the people that you can find; you go as far as you can go, and then it becomes a matter of creativity and accessing material that nobody knew existed that was hiding in plain sight. I was lucky, in some respects, that his marriage to Barbara Hutton never really made much sense to me, or anybody else, I think. But I lucked upon Tarquin Olivier, Laurence Olivier’s oldest son, who knew Grant and Barbara Hutton during World War II when he was a boy. And he gave me very valuable insights into the marriage and the relationship, and also Hollywood at that period.

In other respects, you find things in other collections. I found a lot of stuff about Betsy Drake, for instance, Grant’s third wife in Katharine Hepburn’s papers at the Academy because Hepburn and Betsy Drake were friends. So there were a lot of letters back and forth. They’re also Drake’s letters and other collections over in England. So it’s largely a process of figuring out where stuff is, and I’ve been doing this a while so I’m fairly adept at figuring out where stuff is.

Cary Grant specialized in the no information interview. He rarely said anything to anybody that was actually worth quoting. Because there was a certain element of, as I said, a performance which equals concealment, in a sense. He could flip the Cary Grant switch and talk for half an hour or an hour to Hedda Hopper, whoever, and when you look at it on the page there’s absolutely nothing there; he’s not saying a thing. Tom Cruise does the same thing. Today, Tom Cruise is the master of the no information interview in modern Hollywood. But every once in a while, he’d [Grant] be in a confessional mode and he would blab, as it were. I think the most interesting interview he ever gave was about Barbara Hutton, it wasn’t about Cary Grant at all, and it was in the library — I think it’s Oregon — to a journalist named Dean Jennings and Dean Jennings left his papers to this out-of-the-way college. But the thing was just laying there and it’s like 40 or 50 pages. They talk for hours, and a lot of Grant’s — bitterness is too strong a word — dissatisfaction with motion pictures, dissatisfaction with the situation he found himself in as a product that needed to be merchandised, was very evident. It’s a very dyspeptic interview.

Is there an interview subject that you missed out on for this that you would have loved to have interviewed if they had been alive? Or is there is there somebody that you wish you could have included that is, unfortunately, no longer with us?

I would like to have talked to Virginia Cherrill, [Grant’s] first wife, Chaplin’s leading lady in City Lights, a very small career. City Lights is the only movie she ever made that amounted to anything; she only made four or five other pictures because she wasn’t an actress. She was a very pretty girl, but she really had no acting training and Chaplin drags the performance out of her by basically acting out every moment, every beat of her performance, and then having her mimic him in a way that works. It’s like working with a small child. She had no pretensions about being an actress or performer but she was extraordinarily beautiful and they fell in love and married, and it lasted about 10 months. She did a series of taped interviews later in her life in the ’80s that were very interesting. But there were all sorts of follow up questions. I would like to ask her.

Is there an interview that you would have loved to have gotten in your career, in general?

I would love to have met Charlie Chaplin. That would have been interesting. There’s a lot of people, but I can’t be churlish about it because, my God, when I think back on all the people I have met, from Lillian Gish and John Wayne on up. They really do encompass the whole history of American movies so it’d be foolish of me to complain about the 10 or 15 I never met.

In Mae West’s documentary that they did on PBS they have a section about Cary Grant being this great actor for women. Was that something that you found in any of the research you did?

Generally, actors and actresses liked working with him. He worked very hard on the set to make a scene work and he didn’t bring a lot of star behavior on the set. He could be very difficult in terms of contracts, in terms of scripts and rewrites, and dialogue lines and things like that. But once you got under the lights and it was time to do the scene he worked very hard. Martin Landau was making his first movie with North by Northwest, he had never made a movie before, and Grant treated him, basically, as if it was his 25th movie, not his first movie. There was no pecking order as far as Grant was concerned when he was working with an actor.

There were actors he didn’t get along with. He didn’t care for Joan Fontaine and Joan Fontaine didn’t particularly care for him. But, generally speaking, most actors who worked with him enjoyed the experience and found it fascinating because they could see the switch flick on when the directors said, “Roll ’em,” and they could see the switch flick off when the director said, “Cut.” The light came on inside him and the performer took over, up until the director said action. He was fretting over this line or that dialogue, or what about the lights and all this external stuff, but once it was time to do the scene the performer clicked in and he was a total professional.

You brought up Joan Fontaine and there’s that debate on whether Cary was the one who decided he couldn’t be the villain at the end of Suspicion, or whether Hitchcock decided that he couldn’t be the villain. Was that something that you could definitively pinpoint? Who made that decision?

I think it was the Breen Office that decided. It was the censorship problem of having him get away with killing her. The ending that Hitchcock wanted, and I believe they shot it, was he poisons her; she writes a letter incriminating him; she dies, and the last scene is of him mailing the letter, whistling as he thinks he got away with it and gets her money. That was the kind of ending Hitchcock was doing on the television show. He always had these little snapper endings where the criminal seems to have gotten away, except not really. But the Breen office wouldn’t buy it so they had to go back and do a lot of reshooting, which basically makes no sense because if all he is is a terribly misunderstood boy, then she’s a clinical paranoid, and why would anybody want to marry a clinical paranoid? It’s one or the other. She’s [Fontaine] essentially giving the same performance she gives in Rebecca.

In the case of Rebecca is because Rebecca is everywhere, except she’s not. And there’s this weird Mrs. Danvers who’s stalking her. In the case of Suspicion, it’s Johnny, her husband, who she thinks is stalking her. So she’s giving basically the identical performance for the identical director. It would have been a much more entertaining movie if they hadn’t lost their nerve and had to reshoot the ending to satisfy the censors. I don’t really think it was Grant’s say-so. I don’t think he had that kind of leverage at that point to tell Alfred Hitchcock, who’s coming off of a Best Picture winner of 1942, he wanted to change the script because he didn’t want to play a killer. If you look at the documentation i is pretty clear that they had censorship problems.

He’s become this LGBTQ icon even though his sexuality was never confirmed. How did you want to navigate that in the book?

I simply lay out the history of his relationships with Orry-Kelly in the 1920s, when he was an impoverished young vaudevillian actor, which was on and off for a number of years, four or five years. The relationship with Randolph Scott lasted eight years, roughly, from 1932 to 1940 when he married Barbara Hutton. As I say in the book, it depends on how you want to read the evidence, depending upon what team you’re rooting for. There’s evidence to say that he was gay, there’s evidence to say he was perfectly straight. The point to remember, the important point to remember, is that Cary Grant never played for any team but his own, but that’s not as sexy and glamorous as whether he is or not.

You’ve talked about some iconic men in Hollywood, whether that’s John Wayne or Louis B. Mayer, and yet you find that vulnerability. What draws you to a figure? What helps you create that deconstruction of persona?

I start with the premise that people aren’t one thing. They’re a combination of things and some of them are admirable, and some of them are far from admirable, and some of them are really disappointing but that’s what makes us human. So I don’t go around looking for vulnerabilities. They’re quite obvious, in most cases, what the issues might be. What I hope people take away from my books is once they finish it they feel that they could sit down with that person to have a conversation with them, that they know they can have a meaningful exchange with that person because they know what their values were as human beings, what they like to eat, what they dress like, what cologne they use, all the various incremental behaviors that make a human being. So I try to create a sense of wholeness, not emphasize positive aspects at the expense of the negative, or vice versa. I try to create a viable sense of the whole person and sometimes I feel I succeed and other times I feel maybe not but that’s the goal.

As a biographer who’s been doing this for so long, how do you look at the world of classic film, especially through the lens of biographies that are coming out now?

I read a lot of stuff because I’ve always got my eye out for factoids that I might be able to bring in, and there’s always somebody turning up knowledge that you don’t have. I’m interested in the field. I read a biography of Ann Dvorak, and I like Ann Dvorak. The author did a good job, but it’s a tiny career and I don’t know how many people are interested in reading a biography on Ann Dvorak. There’s a kind of hobby horse obsessiveness about some of the books you read. On the other hand you’ve got the 45th biography of Bette Davis, or the 52nd biography of Marilyn Monroe, and those are straight commercial transactions.

I get that. It’s like Hugh Jackman deciding to come back and do a Wolverine movie for the eighth time. I understand what’s at play here. I don’t really have a burning urge to write the 48th biography on Bette Davis. I like Bette Davis. I actually would be interested in writing about Joan Crawford because I think she’s been written about very badly. I don’t know if anybody would publish a book by me about Joan Crawford.

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Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

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