“It’s always a good idea to make films about celebs,” acknowledges Mark Kidel of his new documentary, Becoming Cary Grant. “I hadn’t made a film about a really famous person for quite a long time. They’re easy films to raise money for. You get attention. You’re as good as your last film in this business. And if your last film is about an obscure subject and not very many people see it, even though it might be the best film you’ve ever done, it doesn’t get noticed.”
Kidel, who turned 70 last month, has an impressively diverse CV. A music journalist who started the New Statesman‘s rock section and has written for publications ranging from The Observer to Time Out, he co-founded WOMAD with Peter Gabriel. But it’s as an award-winning filmmaker that he’s best known, having produced portraits of musicians (Elvis Costello, Rod Stewart, Robert Wyatt, Boy George, Ravi Shankar and Bristol’s own Tricky among them) as well as films about the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, architecture and symbolism, and even a personal essay on melancholia and depression.
A Bristol resident since 1989, Kidel currently works out of an office in the Jamaica Street Studios and has observed the changing face of Stokes Croft with interest. (“I don’t believe the area will ever be gentrified. It’s always been dodgy.”) He says he never looks for documentary subjects, but “things come my way because I’m a naturally curious person”.
In the case of Cary Grant, the project was suggested by producer Nick Ware. “I knew who Cary Grant was, but I was not a fan. I vaguely knew that he was born in Bristol but I had no idea that he’d lived a few hundred yards from where I was living at the time. I had a hunch there was an interesting story. I had no idea about the LSD.”
Ah yes, the acid. Nearly a decade before the Summer of Love and at the height of his fame, the intensely private international superstar born Archie Leach in Bristol back in 1904 took more than 100 trips. These weren’t for recreational purposes but as part of experimental LSD therapy in Beverly Hills. In one of them, he became a giant penis, launching from earth like a spaceship. Grant found the therapy enormously helpful in exorcising his many demons, which included the trauma of his mother being committed to the Glenside mental hospital (now part of UWE) by his father. The 11-year-old Archie was told merely that she had gone on a ‘long holiday’.
Kidel uses the LSD therapy as a novel prism through which to view his subject’s life, drawing on Grant’s own words from his unpublished autobiography (spoken by Jonathan Pryce) and making use of previously unseen home movie footage from the family archives. So what, if anything, surprised him about Cary Grant? “I think he was a man of incredible courage. You’ve got to have a lot of courage to take LSD 100 times. I’ve taken it and it’s not something I would dive back into easily. There was his courage in running away and joining the Pender Troupe [of acrobats] at 14 without his father’s permission. Then his courage to stay behind in New York at 19, when the rest of the troupe went back. And then to get in a car and go to Hollywood.”
He says he wasn’t concerned about the press picking up on and sensationalising the LSD angle, as has inevitably happened. “I think one of the producers was worried initially. But it just seems so interesting. It’s an obvious way of going into his inner world. That’s worth it even if People in the States and the Daily Mail here make a big thing out of it. Quite honestly, I don’t think it matters. It means we get more viewers. I was aware that it would be a way of drawing attention to the film. I don’t think it does Cary Grant any harm, because if you watch the film you realise that he wasn’t a druggie. He wasn’t mainlining heroin or taking lines of cocaine.”
Becoming Cary Grant makes playful use of clips from the star’s features, both well-known and obscure, to comment on and reflect his own life. That must have been fun. “It’s always fun! That’s one of the great things about doing a film about a film star. You don’t get cast in a role, or choose a role for yourself, unless there’s some kind of connection with your soul or character. I did a film about Mario Lanza for the BBC some years ago, and every single one of his films is really about him, quite extraordinarily. And I was able to construct a film in a similar way to the Cary Grant one.”
Access to Grant’s impressively cinematic home movies and interviews with family members were of vital importance in telling this deeply personal story. But one cannot help wondering whether this came with conditions attached. “We agreed that they could watch the film. They said, ‘We can only let you have this material if we feel the film is OK.’ You can’t escape that. It’s their right. But we established a relationship of trust with them. I’ve always shown films to people. Tricky saw the film before it went out, Boy George saw the film before it went out.”
Do you get many objections? “Very often. But I’ve always made films about creative people. Usually, if there’s a bit of a film that bugs them in some way, it’s because it doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s more trivial, like Boy George feeling that he needed his current boyfriend in the film. So we did an interview with him. There’s no harm in doing that. Better to have a happy artist that you’ve made a film about. He didn’t ask for any other changes. I don’t think I’ve ever had anybody ask for something that I wasn’t happy to do, or I wasn’t able to talk them out of. With Cary Grant’s family, there were some comments about the tone of the film. His fifth wife felt it was a bit melancholy. But then his daughter, Jennifer, didn’t agree with her stepmother. She said that’s a side of Cary that has been rarely shown.”
One criticism that has been made of Becoming Cary Grant is that it does not properly address its subject’s alleged homosexuality and affair with Randolph Scott. Kidel mounts a very stout defence of this decision. “He’s been somewhat appropriated by gay people as one of them,” he says, in a tone of mild exasperation. “Probably 80 per cent of the people I’ve spoken to, when I’ve said I’m making a film about Cary Grant, pause and ask: ‘Was he gay?’ The tone of voice is: ‘Was he less than perfect?’ It’s a homophobic question in most cases. I’m making a film about an actor. Are his sexual preferences that important? I’ve also spoken to a lot of younger people, and it’s not a question that’s considered of any great interest these days. There’s so much more gender fluidity now than there was in Cary Grant’s time.
“The other thing is that our main historical consultant on the film, Professor Mark Glancy, is himself gay. He’s done lots of research on the subject and he says basically the jury’s out. Nobody knows whether Cary Grant slept with Randolph Scott or not. The photographs that are bandied about on gay websites showing him and Scott wearing aprons in front of a hob were taken by Paramount studios in 1934/35. These were published in magazines that were mainly for women. They were being presented as bachelors who were desperately in need of wives. He probably did sleep with the odd man. But so did lots of people.”
It’s interesting that the two Bristolians Kidel has made films about have nothing in common except that they’re both expats. “Exactly, and I’ve mentioned that in some of the Q&As I’ve done for the film. These are two very different figures who both needed to get out of Bristol in order to survive. They found the place stifling. Tricky comes back from time to time, but he doesn’t want to live here. They each had quite difficult experiences in Bristol – not because of the city but because of the facts of their lives.”
There’s also something that chimes with bohemian modern Bristol about Cary Grant – a restless soul who wound up dropping acid to find himself. “The connection with Bristol is interesting. It’s a very complicated city. I see that bohemian side in Jamaica Street. But Bristol is also the Merchant Venturers and money. I know Clifton has produced Banksy. Did he not go to Clifton College? I think he did. [Hang on – did he just out Banksy?] Tricky learned a lot of his musical tricks in Cotham with his girlfriend, who was an old hippy who got him listening to the Incredible String Band.
“So there’s a lot of crossing the tracks. But at the same time it’s also a very mercantile, chauvinistic, uptight city. There’s still a lot of racism. I think they go together. I also think there is something about Cary Grant’s adventurousness that is very Bristol. Look at the harbour. The city has always been open to the rest of the world. Cary Grant picked that up, sitting on the harbour watching the boats go out. He was obsessed with boats.”
Becoming Cary Grant was produced by Paris-based YUZU and was selected for inclusion in the Cannes Film Festival. On TV, it’s been screened by Showtime in the US and by the European Arte network. But unless you catch the Cinema Rediscovered screening at the Watershed, your chances of seeing the film are currently remote. Was no one in the UK interested in this unique take on one of the biggest stars this country has ever produced? “No, they weren’t,” says Kidel, sounding justly aggrieved. “Sky did a half-hour film about Cary Grant quite recently. Despite the fact that it’s got drugs in it, Channel Four didn’t seem to want it.” There is, however, a possibility that it might be screened by the BBC. Watch this space.
Just one final thing: the paragon of veracity that is Wikipedia insists that Mark Kidel interviewed Jimi Hendrix on his very first tour of the UK way back in early 1967. Can this be true? Better ask him. “That’s true. I was an immense blues and rock fan in the sixties. Hey Joe was such a game-changer. We were all Stones and Beatles fans, but this was something different. It was before Led Zeppelin, because they didn’t come along until ’69. I was editing Isis, the weekly magazine in Oxford, at the time, and I saw that he was on tour and playing a tiny club in Cheltenham. [It was the Blue Moon Club in February 1967.] Emma Rothschild and I went along. We went backstage and there was Jimi. He was extremely nice. There were only about 80 people in the audience. He did an absolutely incredible set. I’d never seen anything like it. None of us had heard anything like it.”
Becoming Cary Grant receives its English premiere at the Watershed on Sunday, July 30, as part of Cinema Rediscovered.