On the night of April 7, 1970, four years after starring in his last feature film, sixty-six-year-old Cary Grant, who had never won an Oscar, was awarded a special noncompetitive Academy Award for his lifetime of achievement in motion pictures. Although to his great legion of fans it was an honor scandalously overdue, for a number of reasons, some less obvious than others, it very nearly did not happen.
The original concept of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had been the brainstorm of Louis B. Mayer, who in 1926 came up with the idea of an interstudio house union open to all studio employees, including actors, run by moguls, to offset the growing problem of independent trade organization in Hollywood. The notion of annual awards was meant to placate those employees who sought the more practical benefits of better salaries, job security, health insurance, and retirement plans. At the time virtually everyone connected to the motion picture industry, from set painters, costume makers, and prop men to screenwriters, actors, and directors, was subject to the whims and fancies of the sweatshop mentality of the pioneering generation of Hollywood moguls.
The first actor to successfully break the hitherto ironclad contract system for performers was Cary Grant, who became a freelance actor-for-hire on a per film basis in 1936, after his original five-year exclusive deal with Paramount expired (as had the studio itself, in its first incarnation as Paramount Publix). During his half-decade studio tenure he had appeared in twenty-four features (including three made on loan-out to other studios) at a salaried basis that had begun at $450 a week in 1931 and ended at $3,500 in 1935, far below the $6,500 per week that Gary Cooper, his main competition at Paramount, earned that same year.
Money, however, was not the only reason Grant chose not to remain a contract studio player. In 1934 MGM, the studio "with more stars than there are in heaven!" and the one he felt was more suited to his style and image, wanted to borrow him from Paramount to costar as Captain Bligh's first mate in Frank Lloyd's Mutiny on the Bounty. It was a film Grant desperately wanted to be in, believing it would be the one to finally make him a major star. When Adolph Zukor, the head of Paramount, refused to allow the loan-out, MGM gave the role instead to its own relatively unknown contract player, Franchot Tone. Bounty went on to win the Best Picture Oscar for 1935, and its three stars-Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, and Tone-were all nominated for Best Actor. (None won; the award that year went to Victor McLaglen for his performance in John Ford's The Informer.)
Grant never forgave Zukor, and a year later, when his contract was up, he refused to re-sign with a reorganized Paramount, then surprised everyone when, after fielding offers from all the majors, he announced he was not going to sign an exclusive studio contract with any and instead would sell his services on a nonexclusive per-film basis. To underscore the finality of his decision to go independent, he canceled his membership in the Academy, an action everyone in Hollywood considered professional suicide. At the time no one except Charlie Chaplin had been able to survive without the security of a weekly paycheck in Academy-dominated Hollywood, and to do it he had to start his own studio, United Artists (with Douglas Fairbanks, D. W. Griffith, and Mary Pickford).
No one, that is, until Cary Grant. The same year his deal at the studio expired, Grant appeared in George Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett for RKO, a role that showcased his unique talents as his screen acting at Paramount had not. And, although Grant's performance in the film was arguably just as good as, in some cases notably better than, William Powell's in My Man Godfrey, Paul Muni's in The Story of Louis Pasteur, Gary Cooper's in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and Walter Huston's in Dodsworth, he was pointedly ignored at Oscar time by a still-resentful Academy. To the conservative moguls, he was now officially an outsider, an enemy of their system, as reviled as any independent trade union activist. Their anger was exacerbated, no doubt, by his early, often, and indiscreet flaunting of his eleven-year "marriage" to actor Randolph Scott.
It was a resentment that was to last for a very long time. Of the seventy-two movies he would make, only two of his performances-in Penny Serenade (1941) and None But the Lonely Heart (1944), both made during Hollywood's wartime male talent drain-earned him nominations for Best Actor, and both times he lost (first to rival Gary Cooper, who won for Sergeant York, and then to Bing Crosby, who won for Going My Way).
Nevertheless, his pioneering individualism had helped to redefine the notion of what creative freedom meant in Hollywood, and played a key role in the complex, multifaceted movement toward industrywide independence. Aided by a 1948 landmark antitrust lawsuit brought against the studios by the government to end the moguls' absolute control of the production, distribution, and exhibition of movies, Grant was among the handful of individuals whose actions eventually helped transform Hollywood from a factory that manufactured movies by mass production, much the way Ford made cars, to a place where outside, independently financed films could be produced by the actors themselves and sold for distribution to the highest bidder.
As much as the studios resented Grant, he resented them in turn for what he believed was their stubborn refusal to properly acknowledge via Oscar not only his individual success but all that the success of his movies meant to the industry. To him, their intentional slight was not only an offense to his ego but cost him (and them) potential millions in profits at the box office for the many pictures he not only starred in but owned a piece of; one of the truisms of Hollywood is that no matter how successful a film, the awarding of an Oscar significantly increases its profits.
In fact, many in the industry steadfastly believed that it was the money far more than the rejection-after all, how much more popular with the public could Grant be?-that kept the notoriously penny-pinching actor's finger on the legal hair-trigger of the pistol he continually pointed at the heads of the studios. From the early 1930s until he left the business entirely, Grant brought numerous if mostly frivolous lawsuits against the heads of the industry, and almost always with the same accusation: that they had somehow conspired to cheat him out of what was rightly his. As late as the summer of 1968 he was still going at it. That August he and his partner, director Stanley Donen, filed a multimillion-dollar suit against MCA (Universal Studios) for its "poor judgment" in failing to obtain television distribution of the four films they had coproduced. The lawsuit, eventually settled out of court and like all the others, did nothing to ameliorate the industry leaders' long-term hostility toward Grant. That same year the members of the Academy angrily vetoed newly elected Academy president Gregory Peck's decision to award Grant a rare Honorary Oscar for his lifetime of achievement as an actor. Only after Grant "voluntarily" rejoined the Academy in 1970 did Peck finally get the votes he needed and Grant his award.
After more than two hours into the Awards ceremony, held that year at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles, a nervous, tuxedoed Cary Grant was escorted by a hostess from the green room to the immediate backstage area, where he stood behind a fly curtain and listened through a small technician's cue speaker as Frank Sinatra finished his brief but spirited introduction.
A onetime rival of Grant's for the affection of Sophia Loren (in 1956, during the filming of Stanley Kramer's The Pride and the Passion), Sinatra had been Peck's last-minute choice to replace Princess Grace (Kelly) Rainier. At Grant's insistence, Kelly had bowed out of what would have been her first appearance at the Oscars in fifteen years (having last appeared in 1967, on film shot in Monaco), after Grant announced that he could not, for "personal reasons," show up to accept his Oscar.
Those "personal reasons" had to do with an about-to-erupt sex scandal involving just the kind of gossipy scrutiny into Grant's personal life he
had more or less succeeded in avoiding for most of his career. In March, less than a month after the Academy announced its intention to award Grant his Honorary Oscar and just two days after Grant assured Peck
he would end his personal twelve-year boycott of the ceremonies to accept it,* Cynthia Bouron, a former Hollywood call girl and self-proclaimed actress filed a paternity suit against Grant, claiming he was the father of her seven-week-old baby girl. Within hours word of the publicly filed lawsuit swept across the Hollywood trades and on to the front pages of newspapers across the country and around the world. Grant, who had been tipped off the day of the filing by a friend at the Los Angeles courthouse, immediately flew to Bristol, England, to visit his suddenly sick mother.
Many felt the timing of the lawsuit could not have been mere coincidence. After it became a matter of public record, more than one columnist claimed to have known it was coming for weeks and that he had been asked by unnamed parties to sit on the story until the Academy's decision to give Grant his Oscar had been publicly announced.
The day the story broke it became the subject of choice over morning coffee in Beverly Hills. How, everyone in the business wondered, could Grant possibly have allowed himself to become ensnared in one of the studios' oldest tactics, the moral smear? The widespread belief among Grant's supporters was that if the hardliners at the Academy had not been able to prevent Grant from getting his award by ballot, they would do it another way, by publicly humiliating him and forcing him to bow out of the ceremonies.
Once the lawsuit was filed, except for his conversations with Peck via long-distance telephone, Grant carefully avoided direct contact with anyone but his closest friends and his lawyer, spokesperson and personal manager Stanley Fox. Despite their well-known diligence, the British paparazzi had very little success tracking Grant down, the reason being that after making a brief, highly publicized appearance in Bristol, Grant secretly flew to the Bahamas in one of good friend Howard Hughes's private planes, where he remained in seclusion at the billionaire's private villa.
During his absence, Bouron held a press conference to announce that she intended to show up at the Academy Awards, hold a press conference in front of the red carpet, reveal her new baby's full name, and if Grant dared to show, hand him the subpoena that he had thus far been able to avoid.
Grant had reason to worry. The truth was that he had had a brief sexual affair with Bouron the year before. The nature of the mutual attraction between the sixty-six-year-old Grant and the thirty-three-year-old Bouron was most likely a clever sting of sorts, made possible by Grant's lifelong attraction to much younger women and his desire to have a second child. When the scandal broke, it was Fox who had advised Grant to get out of town and make no public comment about anything and, to prevent Bouron from making further potentially damaging comments, filed a countersuit, knowing her lawyers would then prevent her from saying anything more.
The potential for trouble, however, still loomed. Questions concerning Grant's long and bitter divorce from his fourth wife, actress Dyan Cannon, had recently flared up over the question of Grant's visitation rights to his four-year-old daughter, Jennifer. Bouron's paternity suit, he feared, might adversely upset the already delicate balance of the rights he had fought so long and hard to win.
And finally there was Princess Grace. The last thing Grant wanted was to have his dear friend associated in any way with scandal. That was the real reason why, the day after the Bouron story broke, Princess Grace sent at Grant's insistence, her reluctant but irrevocable regrets to the Academy.
The last week in March, Grant authorized Fox to accept service of Bouron's subpoena and then quietly slipped back in to Los Angeles. The next day, under an agreement reached by his and Bouron's attorneys, he gave blood samples to the authorities. Bouron was also required to do so, but did not show at the appointed time, or at two subsequent occasions. Fox seized upon this to petition Judge Laurence J. Rittenband to dismiss Bouron's lawsuit. At a hastily convened hearing, Fox's request was granted, and just like that, her paternity case against Grant was over.
The scandal, however, refused to die. A new gust of rumors quickly blew through Hollywood that Grant had secretly met with Bouron and paid her off not to show up and give blood. While this made for good gossip, the reality of that having taken place was highly unlikely. Had the baby proved to have been his, Grant, who had suffered a lifetime dealing with his own boy hood abandonment issues, and who desperately wanted a second child, would not likely have turned his back on it.
Nevertheless, the front-page persistence of the story convinced Grant that, despite Peck's continuing pleas, he should not show up at the Oscars. Then on the first of April, at the behest of Howard Hughes, Grant flew to Hughes's Desert Inn hotel in Las Vegas to talk over the situation. The reclusive billionaire told him that the only way he could put an end to the whole sorry situation was to act as if he had done nothing wrong and had nothing to hide, and the only way to do that was to show up at the ceremonies and accept his Oscar. (It was ironic advice from the increasingly reclusive Hughes, who having summoned Grant to Las Vegas, had conducted the meeting via telephone, suite to suite.)
On April 2, Grant called Peck and said he would show up after all but wanted his decision to be kept secret. Peck agreed. Nonetheless the story appeared the next day in an item by local columnist John Austin, who said he had been tipped to Grant's appearance by a "close friend." (The only other person besides Peck who knew of Grant's decision was Hughes. Austin's column hinted it was indeed Hughes who had convinced Grant to show. It remains a matter of conjecture as to why Hughes would have told Austin, but the most likely reason is that he felt that once the story appeared in print, Grant would not be able to change his mind again.)
Peck then called Sinatra and asked him to be the presenter, and he said yes. As the night of the Awards approached, Grant spent several days and at least one evening at Cannon's home, both to give support and seek comfort from his ex-wife. Cannon, as it happened, had been nominated that year as Best Supporting Actress for her performance in the wife-swapping comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.*
As the auditorium lights slowly dimmed, a six-minute montage of clips from Grant's best-loved movies played on a large screen behind the podium, punctuated by outbursts of spontaneous laughter from the audience and ripples of applause. When the film ended and the lights came back up, Sinatra finished his introduction by praising Cary Grant for the "sheer brilliance of his acting that makes it all look easy."
And then at last the moment was upon him. With tears rolling down his cheeks, Grant emerged from the wings and walked slowly to the microphone while the audience rose as one to stand and cheer for him. He nodded appreciatively several times, quickly wiped one eye with a finger, and waved gracefully to the crowd. As the crescendo of their applause began to wane, he slipped on his thick-rimmed black glasses, and in the familiar voice so beloved by his fans all around the world, humbly delivered his carefully prepared words of acceptance and appreciation.