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The Acrobatic Grace of Cary Grant

The Acrobatic Grace of Cary Grant

The body never lies.

Instead, it keeps score, with our very gestures and walk and physical eccentricities speaking to the traumas and desires we’d like to keep hidden. But there are some people so aware of this truth, and the power of self-mythology, that they can almost transcend it, using their bodies to reflect not the person they are but the person they want to be. Archibald Alexander Leach, born in 1904 in Bristol, England, was one such person. He was able to transform himself from the working-class son of Elias James Leach and Elsie Maria Kingdom Leach—from the latter of whom he reportedly inherited his beauty and moods—wrecked by the horrors of his childhood domestic terrain, into the silkenly confident, uproariously funny, physically assured Cary Grant, one of the greatest stars Hollywood has ever had.

It is axiomatic, perhaps, that Cary Grant was as much a creation as the films he starred in. His grace was learned in part while working the vaudeville circuit as a young man, beginning as an acrobat traveling Europe and the United States in the 1920s, exhibiting a hunger and precision he carried into his film career. His voice—with the cinematically rooted mid-Atlantic accent, clipped and fast as sparked dynamite—was born from nowhere. He scrubbed away from the surface the markers of his Bristol childhood to become an aristocratically inflected portrait of the masculine ideal of the Western world, the man who had it all.

But Grant’s manner and movements always carried echoes of his past—those working-class rhythms bleeding through—and the ideal he formed for the world, we now know acutely, did not reflect the private man. That confidence? It was largely a concoction. Grant was notoriously anxious and riddled with self-doubt. In his recently released, achingly thorough biographical tome Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise, historian Scott Eyman details the sharp divide between Archie Leach and Cary Grant—noting his issues with anxiety and depression, his ambivalence toward and distrust of women, and most importantly, where these issues were born in part from: his father forcefully committing his mother to a mental asylum she didn’t need to be in while lying to the young Archie by saying she died. It was only as an adult, somewhat new to the fame that would rewrite the course of his life, that he learned the truth.

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