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Cary Grant's Marriage to Dyan Cannon Obscures Any Look at His Own Life in Archie

By centering his ex-wife Dyan Cannon, the Britbox series becomes a narrow work of biography and a frustrating drama.
  • Jason Isaacs as Cary Grant in Archie (Photo: ITV)
    Jason Isaacs as Cary Grant in Archie (Photo: ITV)

    There are two title cards of particular note in the opening credits of Archie, the four-part biographical drama about the life of Cary Grant premiering this week on BritBox. The first reads "What follows is based on extensive interviews and intensive research. Some scenes and characters have been created for the purpose of dramatisation," and it's immediately followed by one that simply reads "Executive Producer: Dyan Cannon."

    Archie follows Grant from his childhood in 1910s England up to his death in 1986, though the bulk of the running time is dedicated to his three-year marriage to Cannon, whose memoir Dear Cary: My Life With Cary Grant is part of the source material for the show. The struggle to tell Grant's remarkable life story through the limited window of that marriage is what makes Archie such a narrow work of biography and a frustrating work of drama. It illustrates the limitations of the secondhand-memoir approach to biography and further highlights what recent other projects have done right.

    The problems begin with the title: Archie refers to Grant's birth name, Archibald Alec Leach. It's the portal into Grant's near-Dickensian upbringing: a brother who died young, a depressed mother, an alcoholic and abusive father. His father had his mother committed to an asylum against her will, then told Archie she had died. He then sent Archie away to live with other family members who barely wanted him.

    As a young teen, Archie joined a group of circus performers and remained in America after a tour stop there. In the show's frame story, Grant — played in his adult years by Jason Isaacs, whose take on Grant's famously affected voice is more Jeremy Irons — tells an audience that "a lot of people say I can only play myself." He admits that "Cary Grant" as people know him is a character. "I made him up. I made up the perfect man in order to survive."

    It would be nice if the series, created by Philomena scribe Jeff Pope, told that story of the teenage Archie Leach who came to America and built not only a career for himself but an acting persona that would stand as one of the great exemplars of Hollywood's "leading man" quality for decades. There are dribs and drabs of Grant's career: scenes with Alfred Hitchcock, Grace Kelly, and Audrey Hepburn. But the series mostly hopscotches between two relationships in Grant's life: the one he had with his mother (played first by Kara Tointon, then Harriet Walter) and his marriage to Dyan Cannon (Laura Aikman), the pretty blond actress who catches Grant's eye in a teen beach picture and initially resists his courtship before succumbing, eventually becoming his fourth wife in 1965.

    Cannon's marriage to Grant only lasted three years, but her memoir ends up providing the backbone for the series. She bore his only child, daughter Jennifer, born in 1966, who is also credited as an executive producer on Archie. Despite Pope's extensive research into Grant's life, his drama feels like it goes out of its way to tell Cannon's story as much as Grant's.

    There's nothing inherently wrong with Cannon telling the story of her marriage from her perspective, of course, though it does tend to bog the series down. The narrative slows down to linger on the myriad ways in which Cannon was unhappy with Grant. We see Grant being insensitive about food after she gives birth; he gives her dog away without consulting her; his mother is constantly mean to her; Alma Hitchcock is mean to her; her husband pressures her to take LSD with him as part of his psychotherapy.

    This is the issue with delivering a celebrity memoir from secondhand sources: There's always going to be another person's perspective to sift through. The documentary film Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed, which premiered on Max earlier this year, tells the story the actor never could because of the homophobia of his time. Instead, director Stephen Kijak pieced together Hudson’s story using the perspectives of several people who knew him, worked with him, ran in the same social circles with him, or had sex with him. None of this comes from Hudson himself, who died of AIDS-related illness in 1985, because Rock Hudson, like Cary Grant, was a persona created to be a movie star. All That Heaven Allowed posits that despite being publicly closeted, Hudson was able to be authentically himself in certain contexts, in gay vacation enclaves, and in select relationships.

    Archie does not depict Cary Grant as a bisexual man, closeted or otherwise. The series deals with the decades of persistent rumors about Grant's sexuality by acknowledging them — yes, Grant says, he lived in a beach house with Randy Scott, as a pair of swinging bachelors — and then repeatedly shooting them down with a determined good nature. Grant denies them in voiceover, he denies them to Cannon, and towards the end of his life, he makes a point to say that he never took the rumors as an insult.

    Is the show protesting too much? Is Dyan Cannon? We're required to take the same grain of salt with her account of Grant's life as we are any individual account of someone's dalliance with Rock Hudson. But by including so many different secondhand perspectives, All That Heaven Allowed appears more credible. It's able to sketch out the dimensions of a life lived among a community of friends and lovers. By comparison, Archie is much more limited in its scope. Leaning so heavily on the memoir of Grant's fourth of five wives and the handful of years they were married to each other in the '60s only invites skepticism about how much of his life is actually covered by the series.

    The series might have worked better if it were called My Life With Cary Grant instead of Archie. As much as it tries to build a parallel structure between the two main women at this stage of Grant's life, it offers very little insight. Walter delivers a sad, snarling performance as Grant's mother, who'd been doing a number on Archie's head since long before she was institutionalized. There's nothing comparable in Grant's relationship with Cannon, who is accommodating and generous to him to a fault. As a result, the dynamic between Grant and his mother falls into the realm of deeply cliched mother-son strife (mother doesn't like the new wife and wishes you'd visit more). In the wide gulf between Elsie Leach and Dyan Cannon is Cary Grant and the Hollywood career he built for himself.

    Grant briefly mentions that he wasn't under contract to any one studio, which put him in the rare (at the time) position of being able to choose his own projects and collaborators. (The show has some fun with this, especially when Grant turns down the role of an untested character called "James Bond"). Building such a storied career outside the studio system but inside the studio era sounds interesting — as does an honest-to-god depiction of Archie Leach putting together the "Cary Grant" persona. Instead, Archie features Dyan Cannon having an unsatisfactory LSD trip, and being insulted by her husband at the pool. Some perspectives are just too narrow to encapsulate a whole life. A better show than Archie would have told Grant's story a lot differently.

    Archie premieres December 7 on Britbox. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Archie, Calam Lynch, Cary Grant, Dyan Cannon, Harriet Walter, Jason Isaacs, Laura Aikman