Peter Bart: A Few Hollywood Characters Break Through The Silence Of The Awards Non-Season

Peter Bart
·4 min read

A note from the twilight zone: Awards season is now underway, except this year there are essentially no screenings or cocktail parties and no celebrities answering questions. Movie stars used to complain about the demands of awards season; today some are missing the attention, and so are their movies.

Given this dilemma, we have been grateful for some random epiphanies this week from the likes of Sacha Baron Cohen, Matthew McConaughey and even the late Cary Grant. They’re all contributing, mindful that there will be no long lines and likely no statuettes.

Baron Cohen has the most urgent reason to avoid invisibility since he has two movies to promote — a sequel to Borat and The Trial of the Chicago 7. Getting the word out has entailed bending his cardinal rule of never speaking in his own voice. During my past onstage sessions with him, he would materialize as Borat or one of his invented characters, never as Sacha. But Sacha himself is a tower of surprises and provocative opinions: “If Facebook had been around in the 1930s, it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads for his ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem,’ ” he told The New York Times.

Both of his new films convey his thesis that “democracy is in peril.” He is cast as a riotous Abbie Hoffman in Chicago 7; in the new Borat he is costumed as Donald Trump, invading a Mike Pence speech.

In contrast to Baron Cohen, McConaughey’s new memoir offers homespun wisdom on “how to navigate the hard stuff” – family fights, career setbacks, indecisive directors and the like. Titling his book Greenlights, the 51-year-old, Texas-born actor often writes about himself in the third person as he guides the reader through his movies ranging from Dallas Buyers Club and Magic Mike to Killer Joe. Unlike most stars who report how they were magically discovered, McConaughey admits he campaigned hard for roles, stalking casting directors and hammering filmmakers for strong stories. Greenlights, he reminds us, don’t descend on actors miraculously.

Surprisingly, a similar manic intensity also is key to the storied life of Cary Grant, “whose impeccably nonchalant façade disguised a personality of nearly perpetual anxiety.” That’s the analysis of Scott Eyman, a skilled celebrity biographer, whose new, 557-page book on the legendary star is titled Cary Grant, A Brilliant Disguise.

Grant was a working-class Brit who, repeatedly kicked out of school, toiled anonymously with an acrobatic troupe before reinventing himself as the epitome of patrician charm and savoir faire. Despite his confused personal life — five marriages and rumors of gay affairs – Grant turned out 73 movies, perfecting the genre of romantic comedy as nimbly as Fred Astaire mastered dance.

Eyman reminds us that Grant was both obsessively frugal and notoriously insecure. Hence, the star felt obligated to re-adjust his mind-set with LSD — periodic encounters which he openly espoused to friends and even reporters (Grant lectured me on its prowess during a lunch at the Polo Lounge where we were supposed to talk about his latest movie).

The bottom line is that Grant, like so many legendary stars, was more comfortable while enacting his movie characters than while playing himself. “I considered him not only the most beautiful man but also the most beautifully dressed man in the world,” said Edith Head, the revered costume designer. Perversely, Grant favored co-starring with Ingrid Bergman over all other actresses “because she was indifferent to her looks and to her clothes and to everything else except her art,” Eyman tells us (they excelled together in Notorious).

As a celebrity biographer, it is Eyman’s unspoken mission to leave readers with a warm and fuzzy feeling about his subjects, not allowing their frailties to color our feeling about their art. We, the audience, won’t benefit from knowing that Humphrey Bogart would occasionally drop an anti-Semitic remark or that William Holden flew into drunken rages at his agents and publicists. Biographers don’t have to reveal the truth about “who stars really are” because the stars themselves don’t have a clue.

That’s one reason why I admire Baron Cohen’s long-term insistence on speaking through his characters. It’s risky playing yourself, especially during the dreaded silence of the awards non-season.

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