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Documentary ‘Becoming Cary Grant’ on Showtime delves beneath the suave, sophisticated surface

From “Becoming Cary Grant,” Cary Grant in the 1940s, as seen in “Becoming Cary Grant,” from Cary Grant’s private film archives.
(Yuzu Productions / Showtime)
Television Critic

Cary Grant! Who was ever like him? George Clooney is perhaps the closest thing we have nowadays, in terms of extreme handsomeness, graceful aging and bemusement shading into amusement. On “Mad Men,” Jon Hamm played a kind of echo of the actor at mid-century. Still, such is their predecessor’s greatness that it is hardly an insult to say of either that he is no Cary Grant.

There are the talented and the famous, and then there are those people seemingly unaccountable by normal reckoning. It is difficult to look upon Grant, who seemed to represent a certain kind of mortal perfection, and not wonder how he happened, or to want to find the life-sized human crouched down within the legend. Mark Kidel’s new documentary, “Becoming Cary Grant,” which premieres Friday on Showtime, takes a most interesting stab at it.

This is not the first time this subject has been considered, of course. What sets Kidel’s film apart is that it includes footage shot by Grant himself and excerpts from his unpublished memoir (read, along with extracts from published interviews and with no attempt to sound like the actor, by Jonathan Pryce). Most sensationally, these include reflections on his experience with LSD, not yet the hippie sacrament it would become and not the only therapeutic method he tried to to “rid myself of all my hypocrisies” and get right with life.

“You’re just a bunch of molecules until you know who you are,” wrote Grant.

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The theory advanced here, and it seems a credible one, is that Grant — born Archibald Leach in Bristol, England, in 1904 — was indelibly marked by a difficult childhood. His mother disappeared without explanation and his father abandoned him to start another family in another town. (Twenty years later, Grant learned the truth: His father had placed his mother in an asylum. The son got her out.) Not surprisingly, he had trust issues.

Grant’s escape from all that took him from vaudeville — “a dazzling land of smiling, jostling people wearing and not wearing all sorts of costumes... they were classless, cheerful and carefree” — to Broadway and to Hollywood, where, after a long learning curve brought him to stardom, he ran his career with unusual independence from the studio system.

As an actor, Grant’s essence was one of doubleness. There was dark in his lightness, and lightness in his dark. He was an English American, an elegant everyman, a working-class sophisticate. And there was what film historian David Thomson describes as “the inescapable but still very much unproven and uncertain sense of his own sexuality. Because this is clearly a man who appealed to men and women equally onscreen.” (That is about as far into the question as Kidel cares to go.)

“You can’t pin him down,” Thomson says. For Grant, the goal was to “play yourself as much as you can in a role, if you can ever find yourself.”

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Grant describes his psychedelic experience as bringing up “scenes of horrifying and happy sights … a montage of intense love and hate, a mosaic of past impressions assembling and reassembling.” Kidel seems to have taken this as a guide for putting together his film, which puts image against image in a way slightly more poetic than prosaic. It’s a little arty and, I suppose, psychedelic — Adrian Utley, from the mood-pop band Portishead, contributed to the soundtrack — but not to the bad.

Its only failings — and that is perhaps too strong a word — are a few re-created scenes of the actor’s acid sessions and some questionable or obvious juxtapositions of images. But the film has an interesting meditative pace and a kind of self-sufficient weight. Apart from Pryce-as-Grant, there are only a few speakers, including writers Thomson and Mark Glancy; Grant’s friend Judy Balaban; his daughter, with fourth wife Dyan Cannon, Jennifer Grant; and his fifth and final wife, Barbara Jaynes.

Like all such films, it is a quick trip through a life whose complexities it can only suggest. Spoiler: He dies at the end, sadly — but not unhappy.

“I got where I wanted to,” Grant declared. “Not completely, because you cut back the barnacles and find more barnacles. … In life there is no end to getting well.”

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‘Becoming Cary Grant’

Where: Showtime

When: 9 p.m. Friday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd


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