Like Marlon Brando and Daniel Day-Lewis, Hugh Grant has often seemed rather embarrassed about being an actor, let alone a movie star, however good he is at it. After a string of rom-com blockbusters such as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, playing roles that suited him so perfectly he became casting shorthand (i.e., “get me a Hugh Grant type”) for a sort of diffident yet handsome, witty, and posh Englishman, Grant found himself trapped in the genre and spent the early 2000s appearing in lackluster examples of it.
However, much like a gorgeous actress who only gets to play interesting parts that reveal her acting talent rather than her body once she reaches the Hollywood definition of crone (35), Grant is experiencing a career renaissance now that his boyish good looks have matured and he is able to be the character actor he has always been at heart, along the way getting some of the best reviews of his career.
He has just been nominated for a British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award as Best Supporting Actor for his role as villainous fading actor Phoenix Buchanan in Paddington 2 (itself a critical smash in Britain that opens stateside on Friday), hot on the heels of his nomination in the same category last year for the equally fruitily named St. Clair Bayfield, the title character’s husband-cum-walker in Florence Foster Jenkins.
But like another smooth charmer named Grant, he has never had much Oscar love, for some of the same reasons. (Cary didn’t win an Oscar until he received an honorary statuette in 1970; Hugh Grant has never even been nominated.) For one thing, both made their name in romantic comedy, a genre that doesn’t garner Best Actor nominations, possibly because it appeals largely to women. (Even Tom Hanks didn’t start to win Oscars until he abandoned rom-coms for drama, and, notably, both Grants have fared much better in the Golden Globes’ Comedy or Musical categories.) For another, the Grants make it look too easy, like they’re playing a variation of themselves. Oscar voters want to know the nominee is acting.
Also like Cary, Grant suggests a certain slipperiness, so we’re never quite sure whether he’s a hero or a cad. His best roles play off this ambiguity. St. Clair, for example, is at once both protective and exploitative of his rich companion, while Will Freeman in About a Boy is selfish and immature but a true friend to a young boy who needs one. Meanwhile, Sense and Sensibility’s Edward Ferrars appears first to be one, then turns out to be the other.
Maybe the burden of being a handsome matinee idol is too much to take, but Grant, like both his similarly surnamed forebear and George Clooney, often produces his best comic moments when mocking his on-screen persona, whether in a deliberately cringeworthy solo dance routine in the often unintentionally cringeworthy Love Actually or the woeful attempt at fisticuffs that undermines Daniel Cleaver’s image as a ladies’ man in Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.
This tendency is given full rein with Buchanan, whom Grant plays with relish and plenty of ham. A former leading man (production stills of the young Grant fill the many silver photo frames in his overdecorated house) now reduced to doing dog-food commercials, Buchanan is fixated on producing a one-man theatrical comeback show (“an evening of monologue and song”) and willing to do whatever it takes to finance it, including knocking off the sweet-natured ursine hero whenever he gets in the way.
From his overly plummy diction and wide-brimmed fedoras down to his silk cravats, and through to his bottomless need for adulation, his tendency toward phony self-deprecation, his stratospheric pretensions, and his inability to be anything other than always on (even turning his own wigs into a captive audience for a Shakespearean soliloquy), Buchanan embodies everything about the stereotype of actors that Grant has rebelled against (although he himself has been known to throw the occasional diva hissy fit, most notably prior to a Daily Show appearance).
At the same time, the actor clearly loves Buchanan as a sublime comic creation—to the point of responding to the BAFTA nomination by tweeting in the theatrical legend’s voice (“BAFTA! My darlings! Cravat clutch! Gasp. Most humble thanks. A solitary tear”)—and plays the role with such gusto that virtually all British reviewers declared he made off with the movie under the nose of such practiced scene stealers as Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Imelda Staunton, and Michael Gambon.
It turns out there’s a reason why the role is such a good fit: Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby had Grant in mind for the part from the get-go, even calling the character “Hugh Grant” in the script for the next six months as they wrote it.
Grant’s next project is portraying ’60s British politician Jeremy Thorpe, a rising star whose career collapsed in allegations of a homosexual relationship and murder-for-hire—another role that should perfectly showcase his ability to combine charm, ambivalence, self-absorption, and restless intelligence in one complex package. And now that he’s allowed to play against being the “Hugh Grant type,” maybe he will finally admit he likes acting.