Today, Hugh John Mungo Grant turns 60. It is extraordinary to think that this still boyish-looking man has now been in the public eye for nearly four decades, from his debut in the 1982 film Privileged until now. He has long been one of British cinema’s most bankable leading men and has been compared to his semi-namesake Cary more times than he would probably be comfortable with. Yet his career has also resembled a fairground rollercoaster, with vertiginous dips that have only been equalled as low points in his professional life by a tense and hostile relationship with the press, and his joining the Hacked Off board in consequence. Only now is the rollercoaster again at its highest point, with his formerly tempestuous personal life apparently now a settled one of domestic happiness with a wife and five children.
Grant remains a far more interesting and unusual actor than most of his peers, in part because he has refused to play the game. He seemed to arrive at overnight stardom with 1994’s Four Weddings and A Funeral, which won him Best Actor at the BAFTAs and a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a musical or comedy. Only a few knew that the 33-year old actor had in fact been trying to attain success for over a decade and had privately resolved to give up acting altogether if he hadn’t had a hit on a magnificent scale. Which he then had, and that complicated his career considerably.
Born into a military family that has been described as “a colourful Anglo-Scottish tapestry of warriors, empire-builders and aristocracy”, Grant went to public school and New College, Oxford, where he appeared in Privileged, before briefly becoming part of a semi-successful comedy troupe called The Jockeys of Norfolk. The surviving footage of them that exists shows that Grant’s peerless comic timing was already well-established by his mid-twenties, but he soon tired of the life of a jobbing comedian and returned to acting.
His first notable part was as the aristocratic Clive Durham in Merchant-Ivory’s 1987 adaptation of EM Forster’s posthumously released novel about homosexuality, Maurice, for which he and his co-star James Wilby shared the Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival. Grant’s performance as a thoroughly dislikeable character – a closeted Cambridge student who marries an unsuspecting heiress rather than accepting his true self – is a remarkably nuanced and humane account of a character who Forster seemed to have little sympathy for, and indicated that a glittering career as a leading man seemed to await him.
It took a further seven years for it to take off. He appeared in small roles in not-bad films such as Michael Radford’s 1987 White Mischief and the 1990 Liam Neeson boxing drama The Big Man, and had a larger role in Ken Russell’s absurd 1988 Bram Stoker adaptation The Lair of the White Worm, of which he said, accurately, “I’m not sure if it was meant to be horrific or funny”. He was typecast in upper-class Englishman roles, playing Lord Byron in a 1988 Spanish film called Rowing in the Wind and appearing in a small part as the journalist Reginald Cardinal in Merchant-Ivory’s 1993 Remains of the Day. He was always good, and sometimes better, in these films, but none of them seemed to use his considerable comic skills to their full effect. Few would have expected his career to last into his forties, or beyond.
The suspicion that he was playing himself in these foppish roles meant that he was typecast for the next two decades
It was a stroke of luck that he was cast at all in his breakthrough picture, Four Weddings and a Funeral. Richard Curtis, the film’s writer, preferred Alex Jennings for the central role of the commitment-phobic Charles, arguing that Grant was too handsome, and his casting would throw the film’s balance off. Yet the director Mike Newell prevailed, and now it seems impossible to imagine the role without Grant, even if audiences might still wish that Andie MacDowell had never been cast and Basic Instinct’s Jeanne Tripplehorn, who was originally offered the role, had played the part of the elusive Carrie, who Charles pursues across the landscape of weddings and, of course, the funeral. The film holds up remarkably well today, even if Rowan Atkinson’s set-piece doddering as the vicar seems to have been shoehorned in from another, broader picture altogether. The supporting cast are peerless, especially Kristin Scott Thomas as Charles’s best friend Fiona, forever in wearily unrequited love with him, and Newell’s rough-hewn direction avoids the glossiness that the romantic comedies Grant later specialised in were so often drenched in. It was an extraordinarily big hit, chiming with a national mood of optimism and excitement that also saw the rise of Britpop and which would culminate, three years later, with the election of Tony Blair as Prime Minister in a landslide victory.
Yet by then, Grant’s career had hit something of a snag, thanks in part to his having been embarrassingly arrested in flagrante with a prostitute called Divine Brown in Los Angeles in June 1995. He was promoting his first major post-Four Weddings film, a mediocre big-budget comedy called Nine Months, and it seemed impossible that this quintessential Englishman, in a relationship with Elizabeth Hurley no less, would be searching for oral relief from a random sex worker. Grant dutifully played the bumbling Englishman for all he was worth, stuttering apologies on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, but the suspicion in the public eye that he was simply playing himself in these silly-ass foppish roles meant that he was typecast for the next two decades of his career.
For many cinemagoers under the age of 30, Grant’s finest hour was his theatrical villain in Paddington 2
There were, thankfully, exceptions. He was great fun in the 2002 Nick Hornby adaptation About a Boy, and a reunion with Mike Newell in the horribly underrated 1995 Beryl Bainbridge adaptation An Awfully Big Adventure, in which he played a manipulative gay theatre director, showed how versatile he could be. His splendidly sleazy performance, meanwhile, as the ultimate charming bad boy Daniel Cleaver in 2001’s Bridget Jones Diary and its inferior sequel made a whole generation of filmgoers reassess their perception of him as “lovely Hugh”, who needed his hair ruffled. And his continued work with Curtis in Notting Hill and Love Actually showed the difference between his collaborations with a truly talented writer and far lesser talents, even if the roles he played remained two-dimensional and apparently unchallenging. As he moved into his forties, the films became ever weaker; nobody had much interest in seeing American Dreamz or Did You Hear About the Morgans?
By then, Grant seemed to be more interested in other activities than acting. There were high-profile court cases against the News of the World and Associated Newspapers, which he won, and he became involved with Hacked Off, lending his celebrity to their campaign to bring about sanctions on the tabloid press. He had never relished the prurient coverage of his high-profile relationships since Hurley, most notably with Jemima Khan, and seldom gave interviews to the British media. When he did, he was notably unconcerned about perceptions of his career, saying:
I’ve never been tempted to do the part where I cry or get AIDS or save some people from a concentration camp just to get good reviews. I genuinely believe that comedy acting, light comedy acting, is as hard as, if not harder than serious acting, and it genuinely doesn’t bother me that all the prizes and the good reviews automatically by knee-jerk reaction go to the deepest, darkest, most serious performances and parts. It makes me laugh.
Yet a few years ago, something seemed to shift. He had a series of unusual cameo appearances in the 2012 adaptation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, including as a post-apocalyptic cannibal and a hypocritical priest, and although the film was a box office disaster, it seemed to reignite an interest in acting. His final romantic comedy to date, 2014’s The Rewrite, was a sombre, sadder example of the genre, and he had a lively supporting role in Guy Ritchie’s 2015 remake of The Man from UNCLE as the spy chief Alexander Waverley. He would later reunite with Ritchie, to hugely entertaining effect, in his 2019 film The Gentlemen, in which he settled scores against the fourth estate by playing a tabloid journalist, Fletcher; his delivery of the line “wanking into a hanky” remains one for the ages.
Those of us who have never been in doubt of Grant’s peerless abilities remain vindicated
But far greater success had already greeted him. In Stephen Frears’ 2016 film about “the worst singer who ever lived” Florence Foster Jenkins, Grant, as her companion and manager St Clair Bayfield, stole the show from Meryl Streep and became the de facto lead, beautifully underplaying the part of a kind and decent man whose commitment to his talentless wife’s career is only matched by his dedication to his mistress. He also worked with Frears on 2018’s quite brilliant TV miniseries A Very English Scandal in which he played the Liberal MP Jeremy Thorpe. Grant oscillated between suave charm and chilling withdrawal as Thorpe’s relationship with Ben Whishaw’s hapless Norman Scott spiralled ever-further into chaos and attempted murder.
Yet for many cinemagoers under the age of 30, Grant’s finest hour is not Thorpe or Bayfield, or even Four Weddings. It is instead his deeply theatrical villain Phoenix Buchanan in Paddington 2. It is hard to explain to the uninitiated why Grant, in full panto-thespian mode, is so funny, nor why his line delivery is so pitch perfect, but he manages to make a faintly stock character – the comic baddie in a children’s film – so uproariously hilarious that he steals every scene from the rest of the cast, including Paddington himself. (Grant regards it as the best film that he has been involved in.) He later quipped, in relation to his Scandal co-star voicing the titular bear, that “I’ve spent the past year either trying to bugger or kill Ben Whishaw”.
He was nominated for a BAFTA, as he was for Florence Foster Jenkins and A Very English Scandal, and was unlucky not to have won for any of those performances. Yet a sense awaits that he is only just beginning to find the fascinating roles that were not offered to him as a younger actor. Those who had written him off as a twitchy, stuttering “turn” – including, to his discredit, the legendary film critic David Thomson, who dismissed his “itchy mannerisms” – have had to revise their opinions, but those of us who have never been in doubt of his peerless abilities remain vindicated. We can only hope that one day he plays Noel Coward’s alter ego Garry Essendine in Present Laughter, a role that, in its presentation of a vain, egocentric actor fearing obsolescence, may have been written for his public persona. Until then, as he celebrates his birthday, one can only raise a glass to the talented Mr Grant and hope that his new role, in David E Kelley’s The Undoing, continues a quite extraordinary run of form.
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