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Cary on tripping

A new documentary reveals Cary Grant resorted to LSD therapy to battle his demons. Shockingly, the matinee idol was running away from a painful childhood and the suave persona he had created, says Paul Whitington


Movie superstar: Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in Penny Serenade

Movie superstar: Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in Penny Serenade

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Devoted dad: with fourth wife Dyan and daughter Jennifer in 1966

Devoted dad: with fourth wife Dyan and daughter Jennifer in 1966

Movie superstar: Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in Penny Serenade

A new documentary reveals Cary Grant resorted to LSD therapy to battle his demons. Shockingly, the matinee idol was running away from a painful childhood and the suave persona he had created, says Paul Whitington.

In the late 1950s, Cary Grant contacted Good Housekeeping magazine to ask them for an interview. This was, to put it mildly, uncharacteristic behaviour. Grant was a shy and private man who hated talking about himself and rarely spoke to journalists. But he was very excited about a new drug he had taken as part of a psychiatric treatment and wanted to "tell the world" about it.

The drug was LSD, or lysergic acid, a powerful hallucinogen that would soon become indelibly linked with the wild excesses of the swinging 1960s, but at this point was largely unknown.

In the 1950s, psychiatrists had begun experimentally treating patients with acid to deal with everything from alcoholism and PTSD to schizophrenia. Between 1958 and 1961, Grant used LSD in as many as 100 analytic sessions, and would later swear that it helped him to finally get "where I wanted to go".

During these weekly sessions, conducted by a Dr Mortimer Hartman at the Beverly Hills Psychiatric Institute, Grant experienced many bizarre visions and described one LSD dream in which he "imagined myself as a giant penis launching off from Earth like a spaceship".

Although he later distanced himself from the drug when its potentially damaging side-effects became apparent, he always quietly maintained it helped him hugely. As he told Good Housekeeping: "It has changed my life - everybody's got to take it".

Grant's experiments with LSD are the subject of a fascinating new documentary that premiered at Cannes last week and will soon get a wider release.

Directed by Mark Kidel, Becoming Cary Grant blends extracts from Grant's diaries and autobiography with fascinating home-movie footage to create an intriguing portrait of this notoriously opaque man - a brilliant comic actor whose success stemmed partly from the fact that he was never entirely at ease with himself.

Of all the golden age Hollywood stars, Grant is the most glamorous, the most perfect, so much so that it's hard to imagine him needing therapy.

But for most of his life he was a man on the run - from his painful upbringing in England, from his fear of intimacy, from the suave character he'd created and that now threatened to smother him, and, most of all, from himself.

Though divorces were never exactly rare in Hollywood, five marriages suggest a man uncomfortable with himself and others, and Grant's reluctance to open up emotionally inspired many a sudden flight in his early and middle years.

Some biographers have criticised him for being aloof, unknowable, but the more you find out about his early life, the more you admire his emotional resilience and determination to make something of himself.

He was born Archibald Leach in a poor suburb of Bristol on January 18, 1904. His father, Elias, worked in a clothing factory and drank much of what he earned, while Archie's mother, Elsie, suffered from bouts of chronic depression. She had lost her first son to meningitis, and blamed herself for his death.

Her emotional remoteness perplexed young Archie, but she taught him to sing and dance. For all her faults, he loved her and was devastated when she disappeared abruptly from his life in 1913. She had gone on a long holiday, Elias explained to the nine-year-old Archie, who was later told she was dead.

When Grant was 31, and a rising star in Hollywood, he discovered that Elsie hadn't died at all, and had been languishing for decades in a Bristol asylum. When he went to see her, tanned and groomed, she peered at him and asked: "Archie, is that really you?"

The young Archie had become obsessed with Charlie Chaplin after his father took him to see the comic performing live. When Chaplin went to America and struck it big on stage and screen, a young Archie dreamed of doing the same.

In his early teens, he began training with an acrobatic dance group called The Penders, and learned how to walk on stilts and perform pratfalls. After being kicked out of school at the age of 14, he joined the Penders full-time and, in the summer of 1920, embarked on a concert tour of the US.

Archie felt right at home on the vaudeville circuit, and quickly decided to stay in America. But through the 1920s, times were tough: he worked in comedy acts, played juvenile leads in off-Broadway plays, and at one point walked up and down Coney Island's boardwalk on stilts wearing a billboard advertising a local racetrack. He juggled, rode unicycles and performed elaborate backflips, but his clownish tendencies and strange mid-Atlantic accent made him hard to cast in dramatic roles.

But when he went to Hollywood for a screen test in 1931, Archie found his medium. What worked indifferently on stage would become compelling on the movie screen, where his dark good looks, diffident charm and innate comic timing made him a unique and bankable talent.

Casting him proved tricky at first. After signing a contract with Paramount in 1932 and changing his name to the "more American-sounding" Cary Grant, he was a forgettable playboy in a string of formulaic dramas.

Only when he was cast opposite Katharine Hepburn and Irene Dunne in a celebrated run of late 1930s screwball comedies did his real potential become evident. Films such as The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, My Favorite Wife, The Philadelphia Story and His Girl Friday still rank among the greatest comedies ever made, and Grant was brilliant in them, somehow managing to be simultaneously hilarious, graceful, vulnerable and dashing.

Handsome as he was, the self-doubt that lurked beneath the Brylcreem and perma-tan gave him a sensitivity that other stars of his era lacked.

That strange voice, which had emerged from an attempt to repress his West Country accent and sound more neutrally American, added to his mystique, and though Tony Curtis famously tried to take him off in Some Like it Hot, he failed. There was only one Cary Grant.

And Grant wasn't just about comedy. As he got older, he formed a winning partnership with Alfred Hitchcock, who played on his self-doubt and darkness by casting him in more ambivalent roles.

He was at his most dubious in Suspicion (1941), playing a penniless, gambling playboy, but he and Hitchcock collaborated even more memorably in 1946 espionage drama Notorious, and classic 1959 thriller North by Northwest.

While most male stars of the 1940s and 1950s were intent on seeming tough and macho, Grant was remarkably unvain and never afraid to look ridiculous. Even at his most suave, something hesitant lurked behind his eyes, making him seem approachable, almost human.

When Grant began his LSD sessions, his career was entering a slow decline. He was in his mid-fifties, and beginning to feel a bit ridiculous playing Cupid to women half his age.

In Mark Kidel's documentary, it's speculated that the treatment may, by somehow resolving Grant's inner torment, have robbed his performances of their magic ingredient.

What's more likely is that, as he began to feel more comfortable in his own skin, Cary no longer felt the need to perform. Acting had been a psychological release, a way of escaping the shadows of his past.

In his prime he'd raced from marriage to marriage and spent more than a decade living with close friend Randolph Scott, prompting speculation about his sexuality that has never been substantiated.

But in 1966, Grant's fourth wife, Dyan Cannon gave birth to a daughter. Unsurprisingly, given his upbringing, Cary had spent most of his life avoiding the snares of family life, but at 62 he felt ready for parenthood, and though his marriage to Cannon did not last, he would prove to be a devoted and very present father.

Touchingly, he built a safe room in the basement of his Beverly Hills home to store all of Jennifer Grant's childhood photos and memorabilia. Every trace of his own early years had been obliterated by a Nazi bomb during the Blitz.

Though he retired from acting in 1966, there were constant, lucrative offers to return. He resisted them, and instead turned his attention to business. Grant had always been astute when it came to money, and in the 1930s had been coached in the dark arts of stocks and shares by his friend Howard Hughes.

In his later years, he invested cleverly in property, sat on the boards of MGM, Faberge and other companies, and would leave Jennifer and his fifth wife, Barbara Hutton, an estimated fortune of $80m in his will.

He died suddenly, on November 29, 1986, in Davenport, Iowa, where he'd been due to appear in a one-man show called Conversation with Cary Grant. He was 82. He was rehearsing when he felt ill, walked off stage and collapsed. Grant realised he was having a massive stroke, but refused to allow his handlers to take him to hospital. By the time he got there, he was in a coma from which he never emerged.

It was a neat, elegant way to die, and typical of a man who controlled every aspect of his life until the very end.

Belfast Telegraph