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 very 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 could 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 E.M. 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 Judy Davis as George Sand, 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 bachelor desperation for About a Boy.
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 in which he 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 scathing 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 scraped by thanks almost entirely 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 The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! was a triumph, and he won admirers for his articulate stance against tabloid press intrusion, which led to an appearance on BBC’s Question Time.
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 and again.
If you were in doubt about Hugh Grant’s, watch An Awfully Big Adventure (1995), adapted from Beryl Bainbridge’s coming-of-age novel by the excellent Charles Wood and directed by Mike Newell the year after Four Weddings and a Funeral; Grant’s dissolute theatre director with nicotine-stained fingers is a malicious manipulator a long way from Four Weddings’ amiable ditherer.
See also the Tykwer/Wachowski film of Cloud Atlas (2012), 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, ethnic makeovers 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 at the premiere of The Rewrite (2014), 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 nearly as sexy or ingratiating, but turns out to be 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.
This piece was originally posted on the Telegraph website in October 2014. It has been lightly edited.