Anyone who thinks Hugh Grant is not an accomplished actor is surely
underestimating how difficult it is to do light comedy. It’s harder than
drama, but the secret is making it look effortless, and effortless
performances are rarely appreciated – it’s the showy mannerisms and
thundering speeches that win awards, not comic timing (which you only notice
when it doesn’t work), casual asides and ironic self-deprecation.
You have only to look at Ridley Scott’s A Good Year, in which Russell Crowe (a
fine dramatic actor, and if you don’t agree, it just means you haven’t seen
him in The Insider) makes heavy weather of the sort of Englishman abroad
role Grant can saunter through in his sleep. Or at least, Grant makes us
think he’s sauntering though his rom-coms and light comedies, that he just
rolled out of bed and is simply playing himself, not for any high-toned
thespian motivation, but for the pay cheque. And there’s the trick – he’s
making us think that. But there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Grant’s father was Sandhurst-trained, his mother a teacher at a state-school.
He won scholarships to Latymer and Oxford, where in 1982 he got himself
noticed in Privileged, a glorified student production that was the Riot Club
of its day. After five years of hard graft in rep, revue and supporting
roles on TV, his film career sputtered into life with James Ivory’s
adaptation of EM Forster’s roman à clef Maurice, in which he played the
title character’s posh homosexual love interest.
After that, he was pretty much typecast as posh, though the early performances
were more fun than you may remember: dreaming of stocking-tops and fanged
temptresses for Ken Russell in Lair
of the White Worm (co-starring young Peter Capaldi on bagpipes);
assuming the floppy shirt and consumptive cough of Frederic Chopin in Impromptu
(alongside Julian Sands as Franz Liszt and Mandy Patinkin as Alfred de
Musset – the sort of casting that has us fans of bonkers biopics squealing
with glee); doing a solid job as the least interesting person in the room in
both Roman Polanski’s Bitter
Moon and John Duigan’s Sirens.
It was the massive success of Four
Weddings and Funeral in 1994, frothy as Asti Spumante, that sealed
his stardom, cemented his screen persona, and subsequently triggered rabid
tabloid curiosity about his off-screen relationships with Elizabeth Hurley
and Jemima Khan. The suave upper-class English ditherer whose amiable
diffidence got him in and out of romantic jams was a role he would repeat in
other Richard Curtis-scripted crowd-pleasers like Notting Hill and Love
Actually (in which he played an unfeasibly likeable Prime
Minister who falls for his tea lady), and to which he would add a
caddish twist as the Mr Naughty (to Colin Firth’s Mr Nice) in the Bridget
Jones films, and a more nuanced sliver of desperation for About
Meanwhile, his Hollywood career got off to a dismal start with Chris
Columbus’s cackhanded Nine Months, in which unplanned pregnancy throws him
and Julianne Moore into an unfunny tizzy. Two weeks before its premiere in
1995, Grant was arrested near Sunset Boulevard while being pleasured in his
car by a prostitute called Divine Brown. The fallout did nothing to help the
movie, but Grant disarmed chat-show audiences with his honesty, saying “I
don’t have excuses” and “I did a bad thing”.
Since then, his Hollywood films have been hit and miss: a rare outing into
thriller territory in Extreme Measures as a doctor who stumbles across a
conspiracy (and is upstaged, as most actors are, by Gene Hackman); mixed up
with the New York mafia in Mickey Blue Eyes, which had the misfortune to
coincide with the superior comic mob deconstruction of the first season of
The Sopranos, next to which it looked like a bagatelle; turning up the smarm
as an English toff caricature for Woody Allen in Small Time Crooks; adding a
subtle Essex twang to his almost scary impersonation of a Pop Idol-type TV
presenter in the misfired satire American Dreamz.
Two Weeks Notice (infamous for its lack of apostrophe) was a clunky rom-com
that passed muster thanks to the combined amiability of Grant and his
leading lady, Sandra Bullock. And his expertise in the art of
self-deprecation came into its own in the endearing Music and Lyrics, in
which he played a washed-up pop star whose creative flame is reignited by
Drew Barrymore, though not before we’ve been treated to pelvic thrusts
aplenty in an adorable parody of 1980s boy band videos.
Alas, there was nothing remotely adorable about Did You hear About the
Morgans? from Marc Lawrence (who had also directed Two Weeks Notice and
Music and Lyrics). Grant and his screen wife, Sarah Jessica Parker, exhibit
zero screen chemistry as an estranged New York couple who witness a killing
and end up in witness protection in rural Wyoming, where they behave like
such spoilt brats you can’t wait for the killer to track them down and put
us out of our misery.
But the actor’s voice work as the Pirate Captain in the underappreciated
Aardman animation Pirates!
In an Adventure with Scientists! was a triumph.
It may be going too far to mention him in the same breath as his namesake, the
peerless Cary Grant. But there are similarities. Both have succeeded in
creating a persona that audiences assume is the real them. Both are
brilliant at light comedy. And both have a dark side they let slip every now
If you were in doubt about Hugh Grant’s, watch An Awfully Big Adventure,
adapted from Beryl Bainbridge’s coming-of-age novel by the excellent Charles
Wood and directed by Mike Newell the year after Four Weddings; Grant’s
dissolute theatre director with nicotine-stained fingers is a malicious
manipulator and a long way from Four Weddings’ Charles.
See also the Tykwer/Wachowski film of Cloud Atlas, skilfully adapted from
David Mitchell’s ostensibly unfilmable novel, in which Grant embodies evil
through the ages, no less, with an interesting variety of prosthetic teeth
and, as cannibal-in-chief, heavy tribal warpaint. Not a lot of upper-class
English dithering there.
“Nowadays I pretty much turn everything down anyway, because I just feel
too old, certainly for romantic comedy,” Grant
said last week at the premiere of The Rewrite, another collaboration
with writer-director Marc Lawrence, which turns out to be less a rom-com
than a character study disguised as one.
There is romance, but this story of a screenwriter undergoing a mid-life
crisis is more about growing old gracefully, coping with failure and owning
up to your mistakes, which might not sound as sexy, but is a lot more
interesting to watch – particularly in the hands of an accomplished
character actor who makes everything look so easy, and whose most
extraordinary accomplishment has been hoodwinking us into thinking he
doesn’t even try.
The Rewrite is out now
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