'Becoming Cary Grant' Reveals The Self-Invention Of A Hollywood Icon Mark Kidel's new Showtime documentary tells the story of the man behind the debonair star. Off screen, Grant was "lonely, insecure and haunted by fears of being abandoned," says critic John Powers.
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'Becoming Cary Grant' Reveals The Self-Invention Of A Hollywood Icon

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'Becoming Cary Grant' Reveals The Self-Invention Of A Hollywood Icon

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'Becoming Cary Grant' Reveals The Self-Invention Of A Hollywood Icon

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The critic Pauline Kael once dubbed Cary Grant the man from dream city. Grant's surprising private life is the subject of Mark Kidel's new documentary "Becoming Cary Grant," which premieres on Showtime today. Our critic-at-large John Powers says the film offers a fascinating look at the contrast between Grant's personal unhappiness and his onscreen persona.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: There's a classic moment in the romantic thriller charade when Audrey Hepburn says to Cary Grant in exacerbation, do you know what's the matter with you? Nothing. For decades, the whole world felt the same. Grant's unrivaled blend of charm, good looks and silliness - he hadn't a shred of pomposity or elitism - made him a movie star everyone loved. Everyone that is, except Archie Leach, the actor's real-life self, who wrote that he'd spent years cautiously peering from behind the face of a man known as Cary Grant.

The journey from Archie to Cary is the subject of Mark Kidel's enjoyable documentary "Becoming Cary Grant." Weaving together the actor's private home movies, excerpts from his unpublished writings and terrific clips from his Hollywood work, this Showtime film tells the story of an arduous act of self-invention. Archie was born in working class Bristol, England, to a dapper, unreliable father and a hyperambitious mother, Elsie, ravaged by inner demons.

When Archie was 11, he came home one day to find his mother gone. He wouldn't learn why for 20 years. In short order, the poor kid was shuttered off to live with his grandparents - small wonder that seeing a performance by a group of acrobats, he was smitten by their free and confident lives. At 14, he joined their troupe, hence his famous physical grace even in pratfalls. Archie traveled with the company to New York. And when they went home, this dashing 18-year-old stayed behind to work in vaudeville and in musical theater. Despite a disastrously hammy first screen test, which Kidel shows us, he eventually found his way to Hollywood. There a second screen test proved successful enough that he was ordered to change his name.

He became Cary Grant. Even so, it took him several years and 28 movies until in a brilliant screwball comedy called "The Awful Truth" he discovered how to capture and radiate the ease that we think of as Cary Grantness (ph). Once he did, he starred in some of the greatest movies ever, including "Holiday," "Only Angels Have Wings," "Bringing Up Baby," "His Girl Friday," "Notorious," and "North By Northwest." I wouldn't swap those six for the whole careers of Marlon Brando and James Dean.

On screen, Grant always knew how to talk and listen to women. Off screen, he messed up several marriages. Beneath his debonair facade, he was lonely, insecure and haunted by fears of abandonment. Here, his friend Judy Balaban talks about the emotional cost it must have taken to be Archie-slash-Cary.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BECOMING CARY GRANT")

JUDY BALABAN: It's hard for me to imagine someone with his childhood. I mean, imagine your mother being sent away into a mental institution and being told she was dead and then finding out - what, was he 31 years old when he found out? - that she was alive. I mean, the sense of being lied to and betrayed and, I mean, just all of that. And that becoming Cary Grant with no moment in time to deal with Archie Leach, no space and no part of the universe he lived in that would give him the opportunity to look at that.

POWERS: It wasn't until his 50s that he began finding peace when a doctor began giving him LSD. Taking 100 trips, Grant confronted his past and learned how his mother's abandonment had tainted his relationships with all women. He also began glimpsing a road to inner happiness, all of which makes Grant a better advertisement for dropping acid than anything Timothy Leary ever did. Now, it's not surprising that Grant was torn by personal wounds and a yearning for love. That's common with stars. Even John Wayne spent his whole life trying and failing to win his mother's affection.

But Grant's story is striking for the breadth of the chasm between his wounded inner self and his seductive persona. It was attentive, buoyant and up for anything. The best moments of "Becoming Cary Grant" show how the Archie-Cary duality gave him an enthralling elusiveness on screen. He was a layered actor whose provenance was neither English nor American, whose light touch could veer into darkness, and whose work, as critic David Thomson shrewdly tells Kidel, played with the ambiguities of gender. No male star of his stature ever donned so many women's clothes.

In the end, Grant was and remains the supreme incarnation of what I always think of as the movies, a vanished form of collective dream in which people went to movie palaces to sink into a more glamorous and exciting world than their own. In this world, artificial surfaces gave rise to genuine feelings and stars taught you how to act with grace and style and high spirits. Grant's image was possibly the most glorious dream of them all. And as this documentary makes clear, he knew it. When an interviewer once told him everyone would like to be Cary Grant, he replied, I'd like to be Cary Grant, too.

DAVIES: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new film "My Cousin Rachel" starring Rachel Weisz. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GERLAD CLAYTON'S "SOUL STOMP")

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