At the height of his fame, Cary Grant turned to LSD therapy for help. He later claimed the drug saved him, but did it also spell the end of his career?
Xan Brooks writes: In the late 1950s, at the height of his fame, Cary Grant set off on a trip in search of his true self, unpicking the myth he had spent three decades perfecting. He tried hypnosis and yoga and felt that they both came up short. So he began dropping acid and claimed to have found inner peace. “During my LSD sessions, I would learn a great deal,” he would later remark. “And the result was a rebirth. I finally got where I wanted to go.”
Grant’s adventures in psychedelia – an estimated 100 sessions, spanning the years 1958-1961 – provide the basis for Becoming Cary Grant, a fascinating documentary that plays at next week’s Cannes film festival. It’s a film that takes its lead from Grant himself, undressing and probing the star of North by Northwest to the point where the very title risks feeling like a red herring. “Like all documentary makers, we started out looking at the construction of Cary Grant,” says producer Nick Ware. “But we ended up deconstructing him through the LSD sessions.”
If the film never quite manages to pin the actor like a butterfly, that’s probably for the best. Grant spent his life as a creature in flight. His mercurial nature was the making of him – a peculiarly Gatsby-esque urge that allowed a Bristol street urchin named Archie Leach to reimagine himself as an American prince, the embodiment of Hollywood grace and glamour. Even so, the documentary does a good job in showing what spurred him, what spooked him and how – wittingly or not – he dragged his former identity along for the ride. “I have spent the greater part of my life fluctuating between Archie Leach and Cary Grant,” he once confessed. “Unsure of each, suspecting each.” It was this tension, this friction that struck such sparks on the screen.
In addition to providing a cinematic case study, though, the film opens a window on to a lost utopia of LSD therapy. Indirectly, it spotlights a school of experimental medicine that flourished briefly before the arrival of Timothy Leary and the west coast hippie scene. Between 1950 and 1965, around 40,000 patients were prescribed lysergic acid to treat conditions as diverse as alcoholism, schizophrenia and PTSD. In the UK, Powick Hospital funded an “LSD clinic”. In the US, the CIA tested the drug as a truth serum. Turned on to the treatment by his third wife, Betsy Drake, Grant submitted himself to weekly sessions with Dr Mortimer Hartman at the Psychiatric Institute of Beverly Hills. The effects were startling. “In one LSD dream I imagined myself as a giant penis launching off from Earth like a spaceship.”
“He claimed he was saved by LSD,” explains Mark Kidel, the film’s director. “You have to remember that Cary was a private man. He rarely gave interviews. And yet, after taking acid, he personally contacted Good Housekeeping magazine and said: ‘I want to tell the world about this. It has changed my life. Everyone’s got to take it.’ I’ve also heard that Timothy Leary read this interview, or was told about it, and that his own interest in acid was essentially sparked by Cary Grant.”
In making his film, Kidel secured access to Grant’s 16mm home movies, together with snippets from his unpublished autobiography. But the LSD gave the tale its structure; justified all its flashbacks. “I’m part of the 60s generation. I’ve taken acid myself,” he says. “Not a lot, but enough to think, ‘Wow, someone who’s taken it 100 times would have had really felt the effects’. He would have had a lot going on.”
Grant moved at speed, his demons snapping perpetually at his heels. He was just 14 when he signed on as an acrobat with the Bob Pender Stage Troupe; only 16 when he boarded a boat for the US. He changed his name and his accent. He tried on marriages like tailored suits, discarding them when they began to pinch. His fear of intimacy, he would later realise, was the result of his troubled relationship with his mother, who had abruptly vanished when he was still a child. Grant assumed she had died. He was in his 30s, already a movie star, when he discovered that Elsie Leach had actually been committed to the Bristol Lunatic Asylum by his philandering father. When Grant went to rescue her, Elsie suspiciously looked him up and down. “Archie?” she said. “Is that really you?” Except that by this point, of course, even he wasn’t sure.
“People looked at Cary Grant as the epitome of accomplished, sophisticated survival,” says the film historian David Thomson … (read more)
via The Guardian