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The Easy Uneasiness of Hugh Grant

No other actor has gotten more mileage out of playing a particularly British brand of discomfort, from ‘Notting Hill’ to ‘Paddington 2’ to Guy Ritchie’s upcoming ‘The Gentlemen’

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Acting is always reacting, but sometimes, it can also be overreacting. While that’s often considered to be the mark of a bad performance, it doesn’t have to be. What if the character happens to be someone who can’t quite handle his reactions, and lets himself be carried away by emotions because he is so unaccustomed to feeling them?

This is the explanation I would give to defend Hugh Grant, and in particular his now-iconic rom-com twitchiness. It is fair to assume no other man alive has blinked as many times as Grant. Watching Notting Hill (1999) dubbed in French in my homeland as a kid, I was deeply perplexed by his behavior: What could possibly cause such ridiculous and obvious unease in an adult man? Shouldn’t lead actors be cool and smooth rather than shy and blubbering?

A few years later, I moved to London, England. At last I understood that Grant’s palpable anxiety was simply an externalization (and perhaps a slight exaggeration) of a typically British kind of discomfort—what happens to stiff upper lip when it is taken out of Oxbridge and thrown into the real world.

This isn’t to say that Hugh Grant, in his 38 years of acting, has played only these types, but it is undeniable—as he has acknowledged—that these bubbly cute guys will probably be his legacy. The reasons why are more interesting and profound than one would assume, however. Mike Newell’s 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral was a gigantic hit, making $246 million at the international box office. It was the first iteration of Grant’s winking, overwhelmed Brit persona and made him a star because no one had ever seen a romantic lead like him before. He plays Charles, a committed bachelor who is a little pathetic yet cute, and does nothing all day but remain polite; he’s nervous but charmingly so, irritating and sweet, fun but kind of sad, too, and selfish but still generous when necessary (he accepts wedding invitations three times in the film, which is no small feat). He also has flamboyant hair, which Grant told GQ was meant to be ugly, but fashion follows its own rules. Charles may be a womanizer, but he is also a romantic, and he falls for the beautiful American Carrie (Andie MacDowell) at first sight. Despite being a romantic, he is very close to his eclectic group of friends. At once a fuck-up and a charming man-child, Charles seems kind of normal because he’s imperfect, but also because, unlike your typical love story protagonist, he is European—an identity less tied to Hollywood and thus less glamorous, but in turn more attractive to international audiences who can’t identify with or hope to interact with (when it comes to visual pleasure, the two are intricately linked) a Cary Grant, a Matthew McConaughey or, blimey, a Tom Cruise. Hugh Grant, as my mom says, is “the proof that the English can be beautiful.” He is a more approachable romantic lead, even if—or perhaps because—he stumbles on his words for 15 minutes when all he really wants to say is “I love you.”

Words are essential to Grant’s acting in an unusual way. Their selection and delivery is always specific, if tedious. His neurotic characters are verbose as a coping mechanism: They channel the emotions they struggle to contain or express properly into their speech. But two things differentiate Grant’s nervous chatter from, say, Woody Allen’s. Firstly, Grant pairs his excited speech with what I’d call interstitial reactions: His eyes get cartoonishly big, his eyebrows shoot up, and his mouth distorts in fear. He seems to acknowledge the presence of an audience and sometimes makes them privy to his inner thoughts. In About a Boy, while his womanizer Will lies to a group of single mothers about having a son of his own, he lets the audience in on his surprise at being believed with brief pauses and quick looks around the room. Grant has told GQ how important entertainment is to him, and his performances never fail to captivate.

Secondly, unlike Allen’s, Grant’s neurosis is articulated with a posh British accent. His rambling is therefore taken in a different context and produces a different effect. His accent and nervousness make Grant seem like a British lord dropped into the disgraceful 20th century who is finding out the world has gotten so much sillier and less distinguished. Unsurprisingly, Grant appeared in many British period dramas playing nervous young men—most interestingly in Ang Lee’s 1995 adaptation Sense and Sensibility. His perfect comic timing, paired with Emma Thompson’s, makes the tender and high-intensity romance between Edward Ferrars and Elinor Dashwood suspenseful and hilarious. Grant’s ease with uneasiness allows him to draw out his characters’ torment to their breaking point, reaching extremes of embarrassment rarely seen in real life. In Notting Hill, Grant’s William is constantly flustered after his real life suddenly turns into a fairy tale when he falls for Anna Scott, a world-famous movie star (Julia Roberts). He is an old, polite soul struggling to live in the material world, selling travel books when everyone wants pulp fiction and dreaming of making Anna happy when the universe wishes to see her degraded. “No one has said ‘whoopsidaisies’ for 50 years and even then it was only little girls with blonde ringlets,’ Anna informs Will when he lets out the word. Despite his flaws—his nebbishness, his lack of courage at times, his clumsiness—Will is a charming idealist living in an often thankless world.

Grant’s innate poshness, however, is also, undeniably, the sign of great wealth. And in romantic comedies, privilege is often presented as the standard, as in Four Weddings, in which all of Will’s friends get married in stunning chapels in London or Somerset, England. Life in Britain seems to guarantee a large house in Islington in London, even if you’re a single mother working as a music therapist, as Toni Collette does in About a Boy. Yet that film does begin to chip away at the assumption money is a prerequisite to happiness, especially for Grant’s protagonists—the deconstruction of his rich-boy persona is a trend in Grant’s work that carried on after About a Boy. Will has inherited the royalties from a hit Christmas song his father wrote, and Grant makes evident the selfish cruelty that can lie beneath cool sufficiency: In his voice-over narration (the film is an adaptation of a Nick Hornby novel), Will is revealed to be a judgmental prick. But when Will finds himself helping Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), a troubled boy who becomes a recurring character in his meaningless daily routine, Grant reverts to his usual performance of discomfort; feeling some kind of altruistic satisfaction is troubling for Will. “Once you open your door to one person, anyone can come in,” Will says. Grant’s character starts from a place of total contentment and has to relearn how to withstand unease in order to understand that wealth (and privilege), while not irrelevant, is insufficient on its own.

Bridget Jones’s Diary sees Grant take aim at privilege in a broader sense. As Bridget’s boss, Grant quietly, charmingly abuses his authority to engage in a romance with her. In Love, Actually, he plays the British prime minister as a man at first too anxious about his image to declare his interest in his secretary. His redemption, of course, is pure wish fulfillment: He forgoes his fears and marries the woman, and the public approves of the union (real-life British politicians and royalty are not currently receiving the same compassionate treatment). Grant can play palatable, self-aware privilege, allowing his audience to indulge in fantasy without compromising their moral values.

In the same GQ interview, Grant jokes that he once received the script for Jerry Maguire by mistake, a part that went to the arguably bigger name, Tom Cruise. But in Love, Actually, Grant has his own Cruise moment; his dance through his ministerial office echoes the wild abandon and ludicrousness of Cruise’s in Risky Business. And while Cruise has distanced himself from such frivolity, Grant has leaned into it, especially in recent years. Creativity is central to many of his roles and allows him to have more fun while confronting privilege. At the end of About a Boy, it is hinted that Will may share his father’s vocation as a musician—or maybe he just likes playing guitar, not for money and just for his own enjoyment. The 2007 underrated romantic comedy Music and Lyrics seems to be set in a similar universe, where authenticity, money, and simple pleasures all clash. Alex (Grant) was once a popular pop musician in the 1980s, but now that he must pen a song for a young starlet, he realizes he can’t string two rhyming words together. The irony of Grant playing a man uncomfortable with lyrical language is already amusing, but it’s the degree of vulnerability he demonstrates that is most effective. He dances and forces himself into tight trousers for his teenage and then middle-aged fans, revealing the ridicule that can come with stardom and popular acclaim; privilege has a price. He finally admits his own limitations and refuses to see his past success as pathetic. Alex then ultimately lets someone in, the talented lyricist Sophie (Drew Barrymore), and regains his integrity and sense of fun.

Grant has been having more fun than ever since the early 2010s. In the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas, he plays six different characters living in different eras, and plenty of them are not wealthy amusing aristocrats. His evil side in the movie is all the more effective because he doesn’t show it often, and while he has demonstrated time and time again he fits perfectly in 18th- or 19th-century England, his natural spontaneity makes every era—in Cloud Atlas’s multidimensional world and elsewhere—more tangible.

Evil can be darkly fun, too, and in Stephen Frears’s Florence Foster Jenkins, Grant enjoys ping-ponging between boundless compassion for his naive wife (Meryl Streep) and boastful treachery. St Clair Bayfield (Grant) is hard to empathize with as he openly cheats on Jenkins (Streep) while she’s sick, but he does support her in her mad pursuit of a career in opera despite her awful singing voice. The fun comes from observing these wealthy people indulging in their desires and finding little satisfaction in return. In Paddington 2, Grant further satirizes the entertainment world by taking on the part of a has-been stage actor hell-bent on stealing a huge sum and putting the titular little bear behind bars. His poshness here is parodic: Grant delights in enunciating each word as annoyingly as possible, leaning into the campiness inherent to exceeding wealth. Once in jail, he organizes a musical dance number that involves all the prisoners but puts him in the spotlight. He maintains his sense of superiority and his flamboyance, even when condemned.

Grant’s very first movie role was—fittingly, in retrospect—in a film shot entirely at Oxford titled Privileged. Since then, his tics, accents, and dancing have dismantled the workings of privilege in every direction, more or less subtly and to both heartbreaking and shocking effect. In Guy Ritchie’s latest film The Gentlemen, his gentlemenhood is a matter of perspective: He adopts a surprising Cockney accent, and his sleazy gossip columnist tries to blackmail a gangster (Matthew McConaughey) only to enrich himself—class differences make everyone ugly. It’s been quite a journey for Grant, and quite a thrill to see the quirky English boy replaced by an older, more varied, and often dancing man who confronts wealth imbalance with bite and theatricality. Whoopsidaisies indeed.

Manuela Lazic is a French writer based in London who primarily covers film.