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Review

Cary Grant's LSD Trips, His Mother's Secret Mental Illness & More Revelations from New Documentary

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Cary Grant, one of Hollywood’s greatest leading men, was always discomfited by the disconnect he felt between his public image — debonair, to the same degree that Napoleon could be called powerful — and a nagging internal emptiness. He alluded to it in his most famous comment (“Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant”), but the private unhappiness went a lot deeper — as you’ll learn from the fascinating new Showtime documentary Becoming Cary Grant.

“For many years I have cautiously peered from behind the face of a man known as Cary Grant. The protection of that facade was both an advantage and a disadvantage,” Grant wrote in a never-published memoir.

“You’re just a bunch of molecules until you know who you are. You spend your time getting to be a big Hollywood actor — but then what?”

Becoming Cary Grant is an intimate exploration of how the man born Archibald Leach in Bristol, England, found enlightenment starting in the late 1950s through dozens of therapist-supervised acid trips.

Hulton Archive/Getty

A midlife crisis (and failed relationships) led him to experiment with LSD.

It was Grant’s third wife, actress Betsy Drake, who led Grant down this unusual avenue, inspiring him (as he put it) with “her cautious but steadily penetrative seeking in the labyrinths of the unconscious mind.” Drake was an eager student of  the movie colony’s self-awareness trends, including the use of LSD to open up psychological secrets and revelations through hallucination. (That was well before a younger generation started turning on, tuning in, dropping out and often getting seriously messed up in the psychedelic 1960s.)

Grant’s physician, Dr. Mortimer Hartman, administered the drug to him in weekly sessions that typically lasted five hours. The actor would experience what he described as “seas of horrifying and happy sights.” The film doesn’t go into detail about these visions, instead serving up surreal montages of Grant’s films and home movies, but  on one occasion he recalled finding himself  “in a world of healthy, chubby little babies’ legs and diapers, and smeared blood ….”

He added: “It did not repel me as such thoughts used to.”

Grant, who had previously resorted to yoga and hypnosis to lift him out of his existential sadness, was especially vexed as he entered his 50s by his repeated failure as a husband, first to actress Virginia Cherrill, then heiress Barbara Hutton. (The movie makes no mention of the never-ending speculation about whether Grant may have been bisexual, although the excellent film historian and critic David Thomson provides insight into the ambiguous sexual appeal of Grant’s screen persona.) With LSD, though, Grant said he was able to confront and overcome the unconscious motivation that undermined these relationships: sorrow and anger over his childhood — and, in particular, over his mother.

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A secret tragedy: His mother was institutionalized — and he was never told.

Grant credited his parents with instilling in him proper manners and an appreciation for fine tailoring (his father, Elias, pressed suits), but the Leaches’ marriage was a discordant one—until the day that his mother, Elsie, completely vanished from Archie’s life. Just 11, he was told by relatives that she had gone off to a seaside resort. But she never returned, even as his father started a new family, and this absence left him with “a sadness of spirit that affected everything I did. I always felt that my mother rejected me.” (Actor Jonathan Pryce, who narrates, does a wonderful job of shading Grant’s comments with a subdued, mournful reflectiveness that Grant himself probably couldn’t match.)

It was only several decades later that the rising star discovered the truth: His mother had been committed to the Bristol Lunatic Asylum with a diagnosis of “mania,” and had remained there ever since. He rescued her and provided for her care for the rest of her life, but it was Dr. Hartman’s treatment that made him understand how she had unintentionally triggered his self-sabotaging pattern of relationships. “At last,” Grant said, “I’m close to happiness.”

In the end, he found a happiness that had nothing to do with movie stardom.

The key, Grant concluded, was that “you can use love to kill off hate.” That didn’t guarantee a perfect marriage — Grant would have two more wives, actress Dyan Cannon and, at the end, the lone non-celebrity, Barbara — but perhaps it helped him achieve what appeared to be his greatest happiness: Being a doting father to his only child, actress Jennifer Grant, his daughter with Cannon.

Grant retired from acting in 1966, when Jennifer was born, and became the mellow, snow-haired exemplar of  a Hollywood star who ages not only age gracefully, but beautifully, even meaningfully.

He was 82 when he died in 1986. Sources other than Becoming Cary Grant mention that he left $10,000 to Dr. Hartman.

Becoming Cary Grant premieres Friday at 9 p.m ET on Showtime.