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‘Becoming Cary Grant’ & ‘Women He’s Undressed’: A Tale Of Two Dueling Docs

Documentaries are supposed to tell the truth. We trust them to fall firmly in the “non-fiction” category. Yet, we also know that there’s two sides to every story — two truths that don’t always reconcile. So what happens when two documentaries argue different truths? How is a viewer supposed to believe either?

This is the puzzle presented by two new riveting profiles of old Hollywood titans. Showtime‘s brand new original documentary Becoming Cary Grant and the Orry-Kelly doc Women He’s Undressed (which is available on Netflix) are both wonderful documentaries. They use a variety of clever techniques to artistically take us into the psyches of their subjects, but they also present us with a possible contradiction. Becoming Cary Grant is a gorgeous film that puts tremendous focus on Grant’s tumultuous relationships with women, but in Women He’s Undressed, it’s alleged that the genius costume designer Orry-Kelly had a heartbreaking gay romance with Grant.

Becoming Cary Grant nimbly addresses the rumors about Grant’s sexuality by deflecting to the gender fluidity of his persona, but in doing so, the film also brushes them off. We get profiles of each of Grant’s marriages and lingering shots of beautiful actresses (taken by Grant himself). The idea is that Grant was so defined by his tragic relationship with his mother that he spent his life trying to trust and open up to women. Kelly doesn’t even get a mention in the doc. But in Women He’s Undressed, Kelly’s relationship with Grant takes up a huge part of the designer’s story. It’s not only suggested that Kelly never got over Grant, but that Grant purposely lived a lie. Grant’s behavior is lambasted. We even get a story about how Grant’s first marriage drove another male lover, Randolph Scott, to attempt suicide.

So what really happened? I couldn’t tell you! I’m not Cary Grant and I’m not Orry-Kelly. I have no way of knowing what really happened between the two. (Though Lou Lumenick detailed the facts as we know them here.) Was he straight? Was he gay? Beyond the rumors, the only smoking gun is perhaps the fact that Grant wound up being one of Kelly’s pallbearers, even though the two hadn’t been connected in years. It’s very possible Cary Grant may have been a closeted bisexual in a time that didn’t accept the label or the lifestyle, but that’s purely my conjecture. That’s kind of what enrages me the most about these two documentaries: I’m forced to guess! These docs are wonderfully made, full of first hand testimonies and never before seen personal accounts, but because they are made to fit one tidy narrative, we’re left guessing.

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And yet, I also like that these films leave us guessing. By offering conflicting accounts of Grant’s life, we actually get a picture of the man that might be closer to truth than what either documentary could give us alone. Women He’s Undressed presents Cary Grant as his spurned lover sees him: handsome, charming, infuriating, cruel, and callow. Becoming Cary Grant tells the actor’s life story using excerpts from his own abandoned memoir. It is a hyper-edited version of an already hyper-edited version of a life. Becoming Cary Grant gives us an idea of how Grant saw himself: lost, sad, confused, and hurt over the revelation that his mother didn’t abandon him on purpose. Both depictions of Grant can be true because they come from a specific point of view.

It’s not that neither film is telling the truth. It’s that both films are just telling part of it. The width of any human life spreads beyond the neat box of a camera’s frame.

Stream Becoming Cary Grant on Showtime

Stream Women He's Undressed on Netflix

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