(Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)
I reread no books this month, a rarity. I returned to Muriel Spark, whose The Comforters (1957) mixes the spiritual and the profane with astonishing confidence for a debut novel. And I took up Karl Ove Knausgaard after a four-year separation.
Apt, I thought. I want to discuss two biographies that examine like Knausgaard in My Struggle the cost of the construction of an identity. Hilary Holladay’s biography of Adrienne Rich, the first major one on the poet, re-freshened my own conclusions of a figure who pissed off white guys of all ages when I took college English courses two decades ago. Thanks to an early and now mortifying crush on Harold Bloom, I condescended to Rich too, preferring the tensions of the earlier volumes before, like many poets coming of aesthetic age in the 1960s, the putative maturation. I wish Holladay had explained what made Dream of a Common Language and Diving in the Wreck the metrical breakthroughs they remain: how did this formidable student of verse metrics break the vessels of her style? On Rich’s lesbianism, fraught relationship with her autocratic father, alcoholism, and impressive fecundity Holladay more than does her subject justice, if hamhandedly on occasion. About Anthony Burgess “and his brethren,” she speculates, they “wanted Rich to vanish into thin air and take everything ever uttered about female empowerment with her.” And she writes gaucheries such as: “Had she asked a judge or committee for the moon in those days, who knows but she wouldn’t have come home to find a cratered chunk of it glowing on the street in front of her apartment.” But her exegeses on seminal feminist criticism collected in On Lies, Secrets and Silence and the booklength Of Woman Born (which I’m reading now) demonstrate Rich’s historical consciousness: she was immune to the era’s solipsism. Rather, she understood how the construction of a self is a communal experience, requiring mentees, sympathetic and hostile colleagues, and lovers.
Ignoring the gushing, first-name ersatz intimacy, and the year-by-year grind more obsessed with accuracy than truth, Scott Eyman’s Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise is the best sustained analysis on this most elusive of Hollywood stars because, the author of John Wayne: The Life and Legend argues, to be a star is to sustain elusiveness; and The Cary Grant Project, which entered its final act when he retired in 1965, sustained its superficially superficial veneer until his death in 1986. A childhood resentment toward his mother became acute as the man from Bristol born Archie Leach realized he might assuage the pain of abandonment in the bifurcation of his selves. Many stars created new identities; the wonder of Leach was his self-awareness and the degree to which he believed in his persona, even at the risk of psychological ruin. Contemporaries marveled at his sangfroid, shook their heads when he succumbed to what they deemed faddism. George Sanders, as acerbic offscreen as the desiccated wits he played onscreen, once said about him: “witty, sophisticated and debonair on screen; in life prey to theosophical charlatans, socially insecure and inclined to isolation.”
Thus, the years of experimenting with LSD, here examined by Eyman with a meticulousness and an admirable lack of tut-tutting. Alert to the nuances in Grant’s performances, however, Eyman abjures what Orson Welles would’ve called dollar book Freud.
Grant’s genius was to be simultaneously amused and amusing. The world, he implied, is hopelessly variegated, not to mention bizarre, and imagination is every bit as vital as a flush bank account.
The triumph of his performances in The Philadelphia Story and late-career delights like North by Northwest and Charade rests on his original pivoting between subject and object; playing the center of attention and whirling like the intensest of dervishes gives him the chance to observe the action. When he looks at a character, particularly a woman, he gives him and her his full attention, yet a passing rain cloud of reluctance and even disdain briefly rumbles in those hooded dark eyes: it’s noticeable in Only Angels Have Wings (1940) when he and Jean Arthur horse around, in Notorious (1946) even as Ingrid Bergman ravishes him over chicken, the sea-kissed night air hovering like a perfume.
Subject as object. Speculation about Grant’s sexuality persists, of which I’m guilty and why not? What Eyman calls “his strange mixture of entirely sincere courtesy and oblivious narcissism” is often the provenance of queer folk. Eyman treats Grant and readers like adults: he takes him at his word. During his retirement, in a confession to a devoted secretary, Grant admits to being gay as a young man, bisexual in his early Hollywood years, and straight thereafter. Sexual politics in the twenty-first century often amounts to a sexual monoculture, scornful about ambiguity when not a way station to a fixed state; to Grant’s credit he didn’t hide in plain sight so much as let others, with his usual elegant passivity, categorize in hindsight. The persona Archie Leach had created in Cary Grant reveled in surface. Audiences, to quote Pauline Kael, did not want depth from him. They didn’t forgive him the four divorces; no forgiveness is possible when no blame is cast. Sharing a home with Randolph Scott in the 1930s and going public about it — there was no disguising what happened between them — might’ve been the supreme test for a star of his rank. Nothing stuck to him: the Teflon star.
The moviegoing audience, then and now, was not stupid. His public was as sophisticated as Grant taught them to be. A ferocious head for business (after his RKO years Grant was one of the first stars to function untethered from studios, and he parsed contracts like John Adams did Locke) and an instinct for self-preservation that he raised to a spiritual power led Grant to divorce four women after the inevitable emotional withdrawals, but he never lost interest in children of his own: indeed, interviews with surviving stepchildren and the young stars with whom he co-starred adduce Grant’s genuine affection and often decades-long curiosity about their lives. Perhaps too curious. The birth of Jennifer when Grant was in his sixth decade brought him new peace but gave him something else to fuss over; he adored her, but adoration can be smothering. Grant, who basked in adoration like plants did sunlight, understood.
Written in jargon-free prose and not above tart asides, A Brilliant Disguise shames most film biographies. Eyman’s own adoration isn’t slavish. His evaluations are fresh. He doesn’t think Only Angels Have Wings and I Was a Female War Bride (1949) are all that, dedicates a scant couple paragraphs to Grant’s early peak Holiday (1938), and pays a compliment too many to the inert Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream Home (1948), screened by yours truly last weekend at Eyman’s insistence. Based on eager testimony, he joins the swollen ranks of those who thought the multimillionaire a cheapskate. This may surprise readers, as well they should. To have been Cary Grant is to have incarnated the audience’s most generous estimations about poise, finesse, and dwelling comfortably in the world. Mythmaking was his specialty. He once remarked, “I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person. Or he became me.” Many of us could stand to make it a nightly prayer.
Muriel Spark – The Bachelors
Hilary Holladay – The Power of Adrienne Rich: A Biography
Ali Smith – Spring
Wallace Shawn – The Designated Mourner
Karl Ove Knausgaard – My Struggle: Book Four
Lewis L. Gould – The First Modern Clash over Federal Power: Wilson versus Hughes in the Presidential Election of 1916
Naguib Mahfouz – The Thief and the Dogs
Scott Eyman – Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise
Melissa Maerz – Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused
Elizabeth Bowen – Friends and Relations
Craig Fehrman – Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote