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Review: In ‘Becoming Cary Grant,’ the Turmoil Beneath the Suave

One of the more interesting celebrity documentaries of recent years was “Listen to Me Marlon,” Stevan Riley’s eerie 2015 biography of Marlon Brando, which used audiotapes the actor made, as well as a weird holographic head of him, to conjure his life. “Becoming Cary Grant,” Friday night on Showtime, takes a similar approach with another legendary movie star, though without the hologram.

Grant “speaks” through excerpts from an unpublished autobiography (read by Jonathan Pryce) and home movies he shot, which the documentary’s director, Mark Kidel, intercuts with scenes from Grant’s many movies to show that this seemingly unflappable leading man was a bundle of doubts and insecurities.

“All my life I’ve been searching for peace of mind,” Mr. Pryce, reading Grant’s words, says.

Grant, who died in 1986 at 82, was born Archie Leach and grew up in Bristol, England. He had a working-class background that belied his elegant screen persona, something he apparently wrestled with.

“For many years, I have cautiously peered from behind the face of a man known as Cary Grant,” Mr. Pryce recites. “The protection of that facade was both an advantage and a disadvantage. If I couldn’t see out, how could anybody see in?”

Mr. Kidel’s approach is evident right from the start. As a narrator says, “In the late 1950s, at the height of his career and hitting midlife, he faced an existential crisis,” we see the well-known scene from “North by Northwest” in which Grant runs from a low-flying crop duster. It’s a gimmick used throughout the documentary, perhaps too much — the idea that scenes from fictional movies somehow tell the life story of the actor in them stretches only so far. But Mr. Kidel does effectively convey that as Grant’s career progressed and he secured more substantial roles from directors like Alfred Hitchcock, his screen work tapped into his mental turmoil.

Much of that involved his mother, who left the family when he was a boy — or so he grew up believing. When, much later in life, he found out what actually happened to her (which won’t be spoiled here), it was a jolt to him.

Grant also battled depression and had difficulty sustaining relationships — he was married five times. The documentary says that he found some clarity about his personal demons through LSD therapy. It’s too vague on what that therapy consisted of, or how long Grant employed it, but it certainly shows that Grant, so cool and dapper onscreen, was a different man in private.

“During therapy,” Grant wrote, “I passed through seas of horrifying and happy sights, through a montage of intense love and hate, a mosaic of past impressions assembling and reassembling.”

The film, elusive and impressionistic, is at least somewhat successful in capturing that inner tumult.