Jean Updike once memorably described fame as “a face-eating mask.” Like Edward J. Delaney’s biographical novel”the acrobatopens, it’s 1959 and Cary Grant is beginning to believe his pretty face has been irreversibly chewed up.
“He was always convincingly wrong, as actors always are,” Delaney writes of his subject. But as Grant contemplates the end of his career, his identity crisis became acute. His character is too dignified and dapper to return to the kind of goofy roles that launched him, like “Bringing Up Baby” and “The Awful Truth.” But gravity also eludes him: he lost the role of Harry Lime in “The Third Man” and has little expectation for the Alfred Hitchcock thriller he has just finished, tentatively titled “In a Northwestern Direction.” Now doing “Operation Petticoat” he’s overshadowed by Tony Curtis. That leaves him with only one option, apparently: acid.
“The Acrobat” is presented as the story of Grant tunneling into his past via LSD, which he experimented with in the late 1950s with the encouragement of his third wife, Betsy Drake. The drug had not yet been banned in the United States, or even associated with the counterculture; acid trips were a bourgeois pursuit, much like the psychotherapy that guided Grant to drugs. (His trips to LSD have made irresistible cultural fodder lately: they play key roles in the 2017 documentary “Become Cary Grant“and the musical”fly at sunsetwhich ended a brief run on Broadway earlier this year.)
“You break free from the habitual self-imposed discipline,” Grant once said of LSD, and Delaney emphasizes a character eager to escape his gilded cage. As he stumbles, Grant reevaluates his past: chapters of ping-pong through time, from his vaudeville days to childhood, to walkie-talkies and middle-aged boredom, shuffling the narrative to evoke Grant’s search for a logical arc. It’s a clever way to structure a historical novel – and a more interesting way to write on LSD than to make the language all gooey and incessant. Delaney writes simply and beautifully about Grant.
Archibald Alec Leach had to put on masks early. He was the product of a broken home in Bristol, England – his alcoholic father told him his mother was dead, although decades later he learned she was institutionalized. Left to his own devices, he discovered theatre, working first as a stagehand and then as a vaudeville performer with a specialty in stilts and physical comedy. (Hence the title of the novel.) In 1920, he traveled to America, meeting on the bridge Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Fairbanks offers a bit of advice that hints at the fragility of the actor’s personality: “Never touch your face.” Hint, hint.
The ‘Philadelphia Story’ and ‘His Girl Friday’ star was chatty and smiley, but Delaney imagines Grant as cautious and serious as a foul. In 1959, he asked a makeup artist friend to make him unrecognizable, to see if he could blend in. A trip to a restaurant, where a woman casually discusses it, suggests the idea is a success, but there is only more confusion in the triumph. . “Is he a fake, or does she see him at his truest?”
That same feeling that he hasn’t resolved himself as a person clouds his on-screen work; Grant cleaned up the fireplace space “where his Oscars are supposed to go, until they never come.” It’s also true of his friendships, especially with reclusive guys like Howard Hughes and Greta Garbo. And it is true in his melancholic marriages, which he is accused of having contracted for money.
The dramatic plot of the novel, insofar as there is one, shows Grant becoming reckless and surly under the weight of it all: on a trip for “North by Northwest”, he reveals his acid trips to a journalist. Publicists sweat bullets; lawsuits and counter-lawsuits are threatened. But Delaney is more interested in Grant’s lack of fulfillment than its consequences. While doing vaudeville, he longs to “feel like there’s a place where I really belong”. In the 1930s, “greatness became him”, but he knows he is still on stilts. In the 1950s, he was wise enough to recognize the trap he found himself in: “He wants his own end in Hollywood, but the problem is that he actually lives in Hollywood.”
There is no shortage of novels dealing in exactly this kind of irony. The typical Hollywood novel approach is to poke fun at its veneers (the “grasshopper day“, by Michael Tolkin”The player”); lament the way he treats his stars (Joyce Carol Oates’ “Blond“West of Sunset” by Stewart O’Nan); or to reveal it as morally and criminally corrupt (James Ellroy’s “LA Confidential”).
Delaney, who has written five acclaimed works of fiction before, is looking for something more subtle. He doesn’t satirize Grant or Hollywood so much as create a character that is effectively characterless. If Delaney clings too much to his mask metaphors, he’s also sensitive to how those masks change, how difficult they are to remove.
Had he wanted to, Delaney could have given his novel a happier, more Hollywood ending by looking beyond 1959. “North by Northwest” is eternally bolted to lists of the best movies of all time. In 1963’s “Charade,” Grant got the line every actor dreams of: “Do you know what’s wrong with you? Nothing.” He received an honorary Oscar and spent his final years doing laps of honor; he died while preparing for a Q&A with adoring fans.
But who could relate to that? “The Acrobat”, cleverly, represents the dark side of “stars, they are like us!” spills into gossip rags. It’s built around the notion that we all navigate life with uncertainty, that maybe one way we all look like celebrities is that we all have masks too. “Only those who suffer the same can see what the best part of him is,” Delaney writes – about fame. But in truth, the affliction is not knowing who we are behind our screens.
Athitakis is a Phoenix-based writer and author of “The New Midwest.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.