Executive summary: “Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise,” the latest in Scott Eyman’s long series of Class-A Hollywood biographies, opens strong with the last day of the acclaimed actor’s life and quickly declines to a tedious slog in a book more like a catalog than a life story. Only for the most ardent Cary Grant fans, and even they will end up skipping sections and just thumbing through it to see what Eyman says about Grant being gay. Forthcoming from Simon and Schuster on Oct. 20, 2020; 576 pages, $35 for hardcover, $16.99 for Kindle.
Young Archie Leach, born in Bristol, England, in 1904, has a nightmarish childhood with terrible parents, finds refuge in the theater, comes to America, makes some lousy films that are mostly forgotten, and then goes on to fame and fortune in his carefully invented and nurtured persona of the always elegant and charming Cary Grant. He is tight with a dollar, painfully insecure, obsessed with his career and meticulous about his clothes. In later life, he becomes a father during his brief marriage to Dyan Cannon, takes LSD (lots of LSD) and in retirement watches TV game shows and gets his home remodeled.
What’s maddening about this book is that it begins so well and goes off a cliff so quickly. The majority of the manuscript doesn’t seem to have been written as much as it was assembled or compiled. “Brilliant Disguise” reads like a long catalog of details and trivial tidbits – an extended TCM intro and I can imagine the audio version being recorded by Ben Mankiewicz.
There are a few inevitable typos (Bernard Herrman and Bernard HerrmanN on the same page) and odd factual slips. Basil Rathbone, for example, is described as “a character actor” in the early 1930s, when he was still cast as a leading man. And Eyman can’t resist a cheap shot, sometimes picking an easy target like gossip columnist Louella Parsons or the unsophisticated hinterlands of America (“Nobody in Bakersfield had ever heard of a salad”). And a claim about Jean Harlow having an abortion is merely dropped in – a citation would have been appreciated.
Maybe you’re curious as to what Eyman says about whether Grant was gay. You’ll still be curious afterward, for there’s no strong conclusion one way or the other. Most people interviewed in the book say Grant wasn’t gay (and some are equally emphatic about long-rumored boyfriend Randolph Scott), but a few informants late in the book (Sue Lloyd and Bill Royce, two sources who may raise an eyebrow – at least they raised mine) say that Grant was gay or nonbinary, take your pick. These details are sprinkled throughout a fairly long text rather than being concentrated into a single chapter, so the book is unlikely to change anyone’s mind. As portrayed in the book, Grant was mostly in love with Cary Grant.
Grant was in some of the greatest films of the 20th century, but, to cite one example, Eyman treats “North by Northwest” mostly with gossipy little nuggets from the set rather than the making of a masterpiece of film. Do you care whether Grant was upset over Martin Landau getting his suit made by Grant’s tailor? I don’t. (Odd note: Eyman’s bibliography doesn’t include Francois Truffaut’s book on Hitchcock, one of the finest books on film ever written).
This could have been a far better book. The opening scenes of Grant’s final appearance during a personal tour in Davenport, Iowa, are finely done. It’s as if this was a sample chapter (though I doubt Eyman needs to do sample chapters anymore) that is nothing like the rest of the manuscript. I’m not sure there is a compelling biography to be made from the life of Cary Grant, but this is not it.