Cary Grant is standing in an east London foundry. He is balanced on the ball of his right foot, one hand thrust in his jacket pocket, the other clutching the script for To Catch a Thief. He has a dimpled chin, a dickie-bow and a strap around his neck that has winched him to the scaffold overhead. He has been waxed, blasted and is awaiting a final coat that will tan his dun pallor a rich reddy-brown. Cary Grant is almost done.
The plan was to stand him in the centre of Bristol, opposite the Hippodrome theatre where he once worked as a stagehand. But the city council has discovered that there is a cast-iron water-main right under the proposed site, and the unveiling has been bumped back from September to the end of the year. This scuppers a scheme to coincide the unveiling with next month's mammoth Cary Grant retrospective at London's National Film Theatre, and has forced a hasty rescheduling of local festivities. But the council is taking no chances. "They've had these water-mains explode in the past," explains David Long, who has instigated and managed the ongoing Cary Grant Statue Campaign. "And we don't want to send Cary into orbit."
One could argue that Bristol sent Cary into orbit a long time ago. Born lowly Archibald Leach, the West Country boy would remodel himself as one of the world's great movie icons. As Cary Grant - graceful, dashing, debonair - he would be embraced as the epitome of silver-screen sophistication. Those who didn't know the history assumed that Grant had simply been born that way. Those who did held him up as the ultimate American success story, a poor kid from an English backstreet who shed his past to become someone else entirely. Bristol? That was just the place he ran away from.
Today, Grant registers as a flitting, ghostly presence in the city. Recognition has been pricked by the statue campaign, widely covered in recent months by the Evening Post newspaper; but many inhabitants still have only a foggy notion of who he was and what films he appeared in. "He did a lot of comedies, didn't he?" wonders the wiry geezer smoking a roll-up on Broad Quay. "Wasn't he a bit like Charlie Chaplin?"
Inside the Hippodrome, they're more up to speed. "Oh, we're all very proud of him," insists Sally Houston, who manages the box office. "Everyone knows he was from Bristol, and that they're putting up a statue to him." But she's unsure precisely where the statue will stand ("we've got a lot of drainage problems around here"). Nor is she convinced that he ever worked at her theatre. "No, he never had a job here. I don't think so anyway." A quick call through to one of her colleagues. "Oh yes. He did. He worked front of house." Houston directs me down to Millennium Square, the possible alternative site for the Grant statue. It is a flat, glittering expanse of flagstones, glass and steel; the hang-out for a gaggle of teen skateboarders who could not be less interested. "He made black-and-white films," sniffs 14-year-old Tim Metcalf. "Bo. Ring."
Grant did indeed make black-and- white films. He appeared in colour productions, too. He made comedies and thrillers and romances and adventure flicks (though he was always more of a mercurial jester than a brawny action hero). Grant was the first major Hollywood player to escape an exclusive studio contract and tout himself as an independent star for hire; the first to negotiate a 10% profit deal on his pictures. His CV reads like the listings on Turner Classic Movies: Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, An Affair to Remember, Only Angels Have Wings, Charade, Notorious, His Girl Friday, North by Northwest. The American Film Institute recently placed him (behind Humphrey Bogart) as the second greatest "screen legend" ever. In the opinion of the film critic David Thomson, "He's the best and most important actor in the history of cinema." Grant's achievements were always historic. When set against his humble origins, they sound positively ludicrous.
Archibald Alexander Leach was born in 1904, the only child of a protective, fastidious mother and an alcoholic father, who worked as a tailor's presser. His upbringing was harsh and verging on the itinerant. At the age of nine, Leach returned from school to be told that his mother was holidaying in Weston-Super-Mare. In fact, she had been committed by her husband to a nearby mental institution. Grant was not to learn of her whereabouts until his father's death in 1935.
In the meantime, the boy won a scholarship to grammar school but was expelled for stealing. Spare evenings were spent working at the Hippodrome. As soon as he was old enough to forge his father's signature, he signed up with a travelling troupe of acrobatic comedians. He was the same age as those skateboarders in Millennium Square.
Up in the steep Victorian suburbs to the north of town, Archibald Leach has left more obvious traces. His two schools, Bishop Road Primary, Bishopston, and Fairfield Grammar in neighbouring Montpelier, now boast discreet plaques. There is another on the terraced two-up in Horfield where he was born. At the time the Leaches rented it, the Horfield house was in virtual slumland. "The loo would have been at the bottom of the garden," says Hazel Sumner, the building's present owner. "The garage across the road used to be a pigsty." These days, it is eminently respectable: all double-glazing and window boxes and old coves sitting out on their front steps.
A retired mental health worker, Sumner moved into Grant's old house 10 years ago. During that time she has seen few tourists. She recalls a couple of film students, a pair of nosy Americans and an elderly man on crutches on a pilgrimage from Cornwall. "I'd just finished knocking down the wall in the back garden. I asked him, 'Do you want to take a brick away with you?' He wrote to me later and said he had the brick on his mantelpiece." Sumner says that the house's past didn't affect the price when she bought it, and she doubts it would now. "I don't think the name means anything to anyone under 30. People now say, 'Who is he?'"
It's not just the young either. Outside in the spotting rain, a middle-aged woman is lugging her shopping home. "Who?" she says, when I wonder if she's heard of Cary Grant. "Who?" She's looking at me pop-eyed, incredulous, as though I've just asked her the whereabouts of the tooth fairy. "I don't know where he is."
All of which should be depressing yet somehow isn't. It shows that Bristol is a city living in the present and not the past. Modernistic Millennium Square is part of a mammoth new development built over the derelict harbourside district. Montpelier has found a new lease of life as a kind of boho Bristolian Notting Hill. Sad old Horfield has turned brightly middle-class. Life moves on and cultures change. Grant merely moved and changed more than most.
"People ask me what Cary Grant ever did for Bristol," admits statue frontman David Long. "But I don't think that's the issue. The real criterion is what he can do for Bristol now." Long reckons that a public memorial will boost tourism in the city and reclaim dazzling, complex Archie Leach as one of their own. The Cary Grant Statue Campaign has been funded by donations from the people of Bristol and various old friends and relatives abroad. Although the campaign is still £14,000 short of its £60,000 target, the bronze figure is ready to go. It will be unveiled on December 7 in the presence of Grant's widow Barbara Grant-Cohen and his only child, Jennifer, now 35. It will stand as a reminder to the outside world that Grant hailed from Bristol. A reminder, too, for many of the people who live there.
Still, the question is valid. What did Grant ever do for Bristol? On the face of it, very little. He got out of the place as soon as he could, ditched his accent and assumed the stance of a millionaire playboy even before he actually was one. Alighting in the US as part of Bob Pender's acrobatic troupe in 1921, Leach assimilated quickly. He earned a crust in vaudeville or stilt-walking in Coney Island. Later, he ventured across to Hollywood. When Paramount Pictures demanded that he change his name, he offered no objection. Archie just doesn't sound right in America, they told him. It doesn't sound particularly right in Britain either, he replied.
Cary Grant was to prove Archie Leach's greatest production. Perma-tanned in tailored suits, he was the sort of dreamy paragon of poise, wit and glamour that only a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks could come up with. In his book A Class Apart, Grant biographer Graham McCann likens his subject to F Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby, another lowly lad with a surfeit of charm who changed his name and his diction and reinvented himself as a new American aristocrat. "If personality is a series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him," wrote Fitzgerald of his hero, "some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life." Fitzgerald's words would later find an echo in Katharine Hepburn's more loaded description of Grant as "a personality functioning".
Grant was a fiction, but he was a brilliant fiction. He was not real but he looked it. Even away from the camera, he lived the life, with his beach-front homes, glitzy parties and succession of glamorous wives (spouse number two was Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton). The most expert observers could have been forgiven for forgetting his origins. In later years, Grant befriended millionaire businessman Peter Cadbury (of chocolate fame). Cadbury was a native of Bristol himself, albeit from the more posh end of town. For him, however, Grant never rang remotely false. "I never associated him with being a working-class kid, I must say," Cadbury, now 82, tells me. "I don't want to sound snobbish about it, but he never had any sort of Bristol accent. From the first time I met him, he always impressed me as the model gentleman. I thought he was Cary Grant offscreen, in real life. But that's what made him such a good actor." Cadbury doesn't say it, but the implication is plain. Even when he wasn't working, Grant was playing a role.
But perhaps the truth is more tricky than that. After all, Grant was nothing if not complicated. His appeal always seemed more layered than that of a conventional matinee idol. Certain aspects of his life - the rumoured affair with Randolph Scott, the admitted experiments with LSD - never quite squared with the accepted version. The more you pick at that seamless image, the more shaded and ambiguous it becomes. "Cary is a will-o'-the-wisp," fellow Brit David Niven once remarked. "The most truly mysterious friend I have. A spooky Celt really, not an Englishman at all."
Added to this is the fact that Grant never entirely turned his back on Bristol. After getting his mother released from the asylum, the actor installed her in a nearby home and would visit every year until her death in 1973. Slippery and evasive when questioned about his private life, he could be startlingly open about his past. "You'd think that when he changed from Archie Leach into Cary Grant, he'd really want to deny his humble roots," says David Long. "Strangely enough, he never wanted to do that. He was always happy to say where he came from."
From time to time, the ghost of Archie Leach would pop up on screen, too. In Gunga Din, Grant plays a character named Archie (he chose the name himself). In His Girl Friday, he offers a seemingly throwaway remark that would have sailed right over the heads of most audiences: "The last man to say that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat."
The most personal film Grant ever made is one you've probably never heard of. Shot in 1944, None But the Lonely Heart provided the role he claimed was closest to his real self. He plays Ernie Mott, a dirt-poor cockney struggling to provide for his aged mother (Ethel Barrymore) in the slums of London. Grant developed the project himself, hired left-wing playwright Clifford Odets to write and direct, and badgered the set designers into duplicating the cramped Victorian interiors of his youth. Grant had high hopes for the film. The trouble was that the public had grown accustomed to seeing their hero as suavity incarnate. The film bombed, and Grant would later seem almost angry at having been caught out: "People say that audiences want realism. They say it has to be garbage cans and two-bit violence. I don't see why it can't be laughs and the Plaza. That's part of life too." By and large, that's exactly what he gave them.
But have another look at those quintessential Cary Grant movies: those giddying black-and-white screwballs at the start, those Club Class colour escapades near the finish. They're deeper than they look. In almost every one, in almost every scene, you have a lingering sense of Archie Leach playing Cary Grant, of a playful, pratfalling kid who's somehow inveigled his way into high society and has made the viewer a co-conspirator in his deception. In the early years, this sleight of hand secured his reputation as the perfect gentleman for an egalitarian, democratic America. Later, Alfred Hitchcock would tap into this duplicity to explore a darker side to the actor's image - casting him in Suspicion (in which he plays a suspected killer), Notorious (a cold-blooded US agent) and, most famously, as the blank slate Roger O Thornhill (the O stands for nothing) in North by Northwest. "The essence of [Grant's] quality can be put quite simply," writes David Thomson. "He can be attractive and unattractive simultaneously; there is a light and a dark side to him but, whichever is dominant, the other creeps into view. It may be that this is Grant (or Archie Leach) himself transmitted by camera and screen thanks to a rare willingness...to take part in a fantasy without being deceived by it." Pauline Kael put it simpler still: "Cary Grant's romantic elegance is wrapped around the resilient, tough core of a mutt, and Americans dream of thoroughbreds while identifying with mutts. So do moviegoers the world over."
Put it down to the Bristol connection. Instead of a guilty secret, his background was the making of him. Rather than a disowning of Archie Leach, Grant was just Leach's immaculate conception of himself, honed through a bizarre combination of circus training and a rigorous study of the upper classes. He was a mutt impersonating a prince while retaining all his muttish speed and cunning; a mongrel idol that was part Horfield backstreet, part Hollywood Boulevard. "I have spent the greater part of my life fluctuating between Archie Leach and Cary Grant," he would once remark. "Unsure of each, suspecting each." It is this tension that made him so fascinating. It's also what makes him such a devil to get hold of.
Grant died in 1986, having retired from movies two decades before. He departed quietly, with a minimum of fuss. On his wishes, the body was cremated and there was no funeral service. What became of the ashes has never been made public. They are believed to have been scattered in the hills above California, thrown to the winds in the land where he cast off his impoverished past to become the American Dream in a spotless tuxedo.
Back in his London foundry, Cary Grant stands a life-sized 6'2" and weighs a hefty 121kg (you wouldn't want to lift him). He looks fine: fluid and perfectly proportioned; a movie icon preserved in the prime of life. And yet you can't help wondering if a static bronze is the best means of catching Grant. Didn't the man's appeal hinge as much on his acrobat's movement and his oddball delivery (that uniquely dry transatlantic twang) as it did on the way he looked? To root him in one place seems to go against a life lived in constant motion. Turning him into a statue is like trying to paint a fire by looking at a fireplace.
Sculptor Graham Ibbeson admits it was a struggle. "People know him for the way he moved and the way he spoke. But how do you capture that? It was without a doubt the hardest challenge I've ever had in 30 years of figurative sculpture. I was glad when they came and took it away, because I'd still be working on him now. He was driving me potty."
In a way, Ibbeson has a lot in common with Archie Leach. They both worked hard at creating Cary Grant, at conjuring base matter into movie legend. "The thing about Grant was that he made everything look so easy," says Ibbeson. "What people don't realise is that there was a lot of hard graft that went into that. It was the same with the sculpture. The way he stands there, he looks like he doesn't have a care in the world. But he was a pain in the bloody arse to make."
• The Cary Grant season is at the NFT (020-7928 3232) from September 1 to November 7.