Cary Grant biopic boosts interest in star’s harsh early life in Bristol | Cary Grant

He is better known as a debonaire habitué of sun-splashed Californian beauty spots and glamorous New York nightclubs, but a flurry of screenings and special events this month will focus attention on a sometimes overlooked aspect of Cary Grant’s life – his very modest roots in Bristol, England.

A preview of a biopic of Grant called Archie – with Jason Isaacs taking on the tough task of playing one of the most famous of all film stars – is being screened in Bristol ahead of its showing on ITVX, and a new guided walk through Grant’s former haunts in the West Country city is being launched.

There will be a showing of his film An Affair to Remember at a beautiful old cinema near Bristol (complete with red carpet, pink champagne and jazz band) and a an audio play examining Grant’s experiments with LSD has been published.

“Every day should be Cary Grant day in Bristol,” said Charlotte Crofts, professor of cinema arts at UWE Bristol and regarded by many as the city’s Grant expert. “But even many of his fans think of him only as American.”

Grant, who became a naturalised American citizen, died 37 years ago and the 120th anniversary of his birth is not until next year, but he seems to be having a moment in Bristol. “There’s something about Cary Grant that’s still very relevant for today’s audience,” said Crofts.

Grant was born Archibald Leach in Horfield, a leafy Bristol suburb, but grew up in poverty in the St Pauls area of the city. Aged 14, he joined a troupe of acrobats and entertainers and headed with them to New York in search of fame and fortune.

Crofts said she was interested in what resonance Grant had for Bristolians today. “What does it mean that you can grow up in Bristol and become Cary Grant?” She said it was the city’s vibrant arts scene, its cinemas and theatres, that helped turn young Leach into Grant. “There’s that power to transform people’s horizons.”

Cary Grant with Dyan Cannon and their daughter, Jennifer, in 1966. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

Barnaby Eaton-Jones, the director of Cary On, the new play on the actor’s LSD years, said: “I think people are often surprised when they learn Cary Grant was born as Archibald Leach in Bristol. I suspect most people think he’s an American, or they have a vague notion he was British and moved to America, but he returned to Bristol many times after he became famous.”

Eaton-Jones said Grant’s profile in Bristol was on the up largely thanks to a biennial festival organised by Crofts since 2014 that will be held next in 2024, but a lingering sense of mystery was part of his appeal.

He said: “In the age of celebrity we’re in, where every little detail and foible are exposed to gain publicity, Cary Grant’s enigmatic way of staying as private as he could is always going to be of interest.”

Tickets for the walks around spots in Bristol connected to Grant, including theatres and cinemas, hotels, shops, restaurants, have already sold out and more are planned next year.

Sheila Hannon, who produced the walks, said: “Archie may have left Bristol when he was 14 but he loved the city and – despite his complex family relationships – returned regularly. This new walk tries to unpick some of the harsh early life experiences in Bristol that continued to haunt him. Perhaps people are aware he’s from Bristol but, because he left so young, don’t realise how much it meant to him and how it played a huge role in shaping the man we see in the films.”

There is a statue of Grant in the city’s Millennium Square, but it feels a little tucked away and can be missed. “Cary should be in front of the Hippodrome,” said Hannon. “The place he worked backstage before leaving to join Bob Pender’s troupe.”

Asked what his enduring appeal was, Hannon reeled off a list: “The world’s best dressed man, fabulously wealthy and fabulously handsome, the most famous movie star of all time, irresistible to women (and men?), complex and mysterious, rags to riches, self-invented, still so many questions about who he really was.”

Who was Cary Grant?

Born Archibald Leach in Bristol in 1904, Grant was variously told as a child that his mother had left home or died; he only found out years later that she was still alive and been confined to a psychiatric hospital. Perhaps in reaction to his difficult home life, he was bitten by the performing bug early, learning to stiltwalk and touring with a stage troupe from his early teens; he was expelled from school at 14 and joined the troupe full time.

Grant first reached the US in 1920 as the troupe embarked on a successful vaudeville tour; aged 17, he opted to stay behind after the tour finished to try his luck. Grant graduated from stiltwalking to stage musicals, playing juvenile roles to some acclaim. A romantic lead in the 1931 Broadway musical Nikki got him noticed in Hollywood, and after a screen test he signed a five-year contract with Paramount Pictures; it was at this point that he became Cary Grant.

Despite his misgivings over the roles he was offered, Grant made an immediate impact with his ability to project a non-threatening but attractive charm, and played a series of suave playboy types opposite some of the major female stars of the era: Blonde Venus (with Marlene Dietrich), Devil and the Deep (Tallulah Bankhead) and I’m No Angel (Mae West).

However, Grant was ditched from his studio contract and, in a pioneering move for the mid-1930s, opted to essentially work freelance via joint contracts with different studios. Grant began an immensely successful run of comedies in 1937 with Topper, and The Awful Truth, going on to make the classic screwball comedies Bringing Up Baby (in 1938), His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story (both in 1940).

A year later, Grant was cast in his first Alfred Hitchcock film, as a possible wife-killer in the creepy thriller Suspicion; despite its subsequent acclaim, Hitchcock felt that Grant’s romantic persona had forced him to change his character away from its original sinister nature. However, Grant returned to work with Hitchcock after the war in Notorious, a thriller that contained a celebrated kissing scene with Grant and his co-star, Ingrid Bergman, which lasted more than two minutes – but which was broken up into three-second segments to get past a Hollywood ban on extended kisses.

Grant would go on to cement his reputation with Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief in 1955 and North by Northwest in 1959; he also had a huge hit in 1959 with the war comedy Operation Petticoat. His final substantial film was the Hitchcock-esque spy thriller Charade opposite Audrey Hepburn, now notorious for the 25-year age-gap romance between their characters.

Grant had a complicated personal life, marrying five times, including to heiress Barbara Hutton and fellow actor Dyan Cannon (33 years his junior, with whom he had his only child, Jennifer). Rumours circulated for years (most infamously in Kenneth Anger’s book Hollywood Babylon) that Grant had a longterm gay relationship with the actor Randolph Scott but his daughter consistently denied it. In the 1950s, Grant also became interested in LSD and took it regularly for at least a decade.

Grant died in 1986, aged 82, after a stroke while rehearsing for a stage performance of A Conversation with Cary Grant in a theatre in Iowa.

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