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      Cary Grant On Lsd

      December 1, 2007

      By John Haskell


      Photo by Roe Ethridge

      Cary Grant had the persona of a happy-go-lucky guy, but as a human being he must’ve had conflicts. He said as much when he started taking LSD. This was in the late 1950s, when his acting career had already peaked, his marriages hadn’t worked out, and he wanted to find out who he was. Let’s call it 1959, around the time he made North by Northwest, when the person who called himself Cary Grant was the apotheosis of charm.

      “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant,” he once quipped. “Even I want to be Cary Grant,” and what he meant, I think, is that the person who was Cary Grant was just an act. In this he was the quintessential Brechtian actor. Although he becomes whatever character he’s playing, he knows he’s a fiction, knows his elegance and self-possession are make-believe. He knows he’s only playing a part, and he knows the audience knows, and because he doesn’t pretend otherwise, he plays the part to perfection. That’s his charm.

      But charming people can also be deceitful people, and because Cary Grant was really Archibald Leach you could say he was deceitful. Certainly he had a dual nature, but because we all have that dual nature, we trusted him. We trusted him because he didn’t completely trust himself, and that lack of trust is why he started visiting the doctor, a psychiatrist, and why the doctor began giving him the then-legal hallucinogenic drug. The devil-may-care persona of Cary Grant had become a rut, and first of all it was a rut, and secondly, although he’d left Archibald Leach in his past, the fact was, Archibald Leach was still a part of him. He felt it beneath the mask of Cary Grant, and because he was tired of wearing that mask, because he wanted to let his various disguises fall away and just be whatever he was, he took a glass of water, put the small round pill on his tongue, and swallowed.

      It’s not hard to imagine him in the specially prepared room at the clinic. It was made to seem like a real room, with real furniture and a real rug. He was sitting in a comfortable chair with the psychiatrist sitting in another chair, and he was feeling the effect of the drug, noticing the changes in his body and the changes in perception. He’d walked into the room with one reality and gradually that reality faded away. And the tendency anyone has, when reality is gone, is to retrieve it and restore it, and I give credit to Cary Grant, or to the doctors supervising him. He stayed in this untethered state, bouncing around inside his own head as the chemical, like a kind of poison, began to work.

      He noticed the color of the wall and he noticed the marks the roller left when it painted the wall, the almost topographic texture, like looking down at a landscape from an airplane. He was looking at the paint, not wondering what color it was, or what color he’d prefer to paint it, he was just looking, at the wall and the rug underneath his feet and the socks on his feet and the linoleum squares on the floor. He looked at his hand, at the lines on his palm, and the shape of his fingers. To him it looked like the hand of an animal.

      It’s hard not to think thoughts, especially when someone plants them in your head. And when the psychiatrist began asking him questions about his childhood in England, the thoughts that grew in Cary Grant were images of his mother, specifically an image of her when he was a child. She’s lying on her sofa and he’s smelled the aroma thousands of times, and when she says, “I’m not very good at loving,” Cary Grant didn’t know if he was telling the psychiatrist this, or just thinking it.

      I picture him standing up. Or better yet, he’s sitting there, eyes closed, thinking about what the psychiatrist is saying. When he opens his eyes there’s the doctor, with the horn-rimmed glasses and the serious look, and he recognizes the doctor but he doesn’t recognize himself. He can feel his body and he can feel himself expanding inside the skin of that body, stretching the skin until it finally cracks like a dry shell and who he is underneath his skin is revealed to him.

      This is me, he thinks, and he stands up. Although he’s actually still sitting in the chair, he sees himself standing up. He turns and watches himself take a few steps away from the chair. The doctor is talking to the chair or the person in the chair, and the person in the chair is Cary Grant. The person walking away from the chair is walking away from Cary Grant. He’s not Cary Grant and he’s not Archibald Leach either, that’s the funny thing. He’s no one. He’s left whatever personalities he used to be, and he walks behind the chair to a window. It has a venetian blind and he pulls the cord that pulls up the blind and there’s a section of grass outside and a section of street, and he unlocks the window and raises it. He can see cars passing outside the window, and he can smell the air. It’s cool and warm, and it feels to him like utopia. He’s ready to leave Cary Grant behind. He looks back and the doctor is still talking to the person in the chair, and he likes the doctor, but he can feel a part of himself wanting to protest, wanting to tell the doctor, “I’m not Cary Grant.” He wants to say it but words don’t work, or his mouth doesn’t work. He looks out the window and then he looks back into the room, and the doctor’s a doctor and he’s the patient and he hears the doctor talking and he wants the doctor to talk to him. So he walks back to the chair. But he doesn’t sit. He wants to tell the doctor, “I don’t want to sit,” but like a child who can’t yet speak, he can’t yet speak, and all he can do is stand there. He stands there, a final insignificant protest, until after a while all he can do is sit. And he sits. He watches himself sit down on the dark upholstery. He can feel the old mask forming around him, around his face and his body, and almost helplessly, he fits into the form of what he was. When the doctor says to him, “How are you?” Cary Grant begins to remember, again, the person he’s supposed to be.


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