Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise
by Scott Eyman
Simon & Schuster
Published: October 2020
Published in October, “Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise” is the latest of Scott Eyman’s fifteen books and is one of the most comprehensive and thorough biographies of Grant. Eyman is a former literary critic at The Palm Beach Post and is probably best known for his biographies of John Wayne and Cecil B. DeMille as well as his recent joint biography of Henry Fonda and James Stewart.
If the key ingredients for a great biography include a fascinating subject, an engaging writing style, mastery of the topic and penetrating research, Eyman’s biography certainly has the wind at its back. This book’s subject was born Archibald Leach in Bristol, England to an alcoholic father and a mother who was institutionalized for a mental disorder. As a result, Archie sought refuge in the local theater and, soon enough, fell in with a group of traveling performers.
At sixteen he began performing in the US and soon parlayed that experience into a vaudeville act. He eventually moved to Hollywood where a name change – and a carefully calibrated appearance and style – aided his acting aspirations. The story of Leach’s slow but steady professional rise is nothing if not captivating…and quite well told.
This is arguably where the book is at its best. Almost anyone reading this biography will be entranced by the first 150 or so pages. The narrative is consistently easy, entertaining and insightful. This is also where the reader is introduced to three primary themes which pervade Grant’s life story: his unrelenting insecurity, his notorious frugality, and the question of his sexual orientation.
The middle one-third of the book, by contrast, will not appeal to all readers. The story of Cary Grant’s life during his heyday is surprisingly monotonous and robotic. Here, Eyman dutifully records the history of many of Grant’s movies including the back-stories, relevant color relating to his co-stars and some measure of how each film stacked up against expectations.
For ardent fans of Hollywood history these chapters will prove irresistibly tantalizing; Eyman possesses an undeniable talent for industry gossip. But for most readers these chapters are too “inside baseball“ – interesting at the margins (perhaps) but more often just fodder to be tolerated or quickly skimmed.
Like the book’s early chapters, the last one-third of the biography is almost universally irresistable. As Grant pulls back from the hectic schedule he endured for most of his career, is married for the fifth time, has a daughter and begins to evaluate his life and legacy, the book once again becomes broadly appealing.
But this biography could not succeed without the author’s willingness to identify and embrace Grant’s neuroses and examine his life…warts-and-all. So although Eyman generally seems fond of his subject he never excuses Grant for his worst traits and tendencies. And readers who appreciate uncommonly clever one-liners will find these scattered liberally throughout the narrative.
Overall, Scott Eyman’s “Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise” proves an extremely well-researched, objective and nicely written account of the life of Cary Grant. While the details of Grant’s career at full steam might only appeal to industry insiders (and the most passionate of fans), Eyman’s mastery of industry gossip and his account of Grant’s rise and retirement are sure to fascinate almost everyone.
Overall rating: 4 stars