Hugh Grant has been enjoying, by his recent standards, something of a renaissance.
The British actor’s latest film Florence Foster Jenkins, in which he plays an actor married to the eponymous New York heiress and notoriously terrible opera singer (played by Meryl Streep), opened in limited release with Grant receiving rare critical plaudits.
Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal wrote that the movie marked Grant’s “most spirited, stylish performance” for 14 years. The New Yorker critic Anthony Lane declared “just when admirers of Hugh Grant were asking if the poor guy would ever get a role of any ripeness, he plucks a peach.”
Florence Foster Jenkins is a modest hit too. Last weekend it provided Grant’s biggest box office opening for a film in which he played the leading man for almost a decade, offsetting the fact it flopped in the UK last May.
Far from being eclipsed by Meryl Streep, some are also speculating he could be in line for his first ever Oscar nomination for the movie come early 2017.
How will Hugh react to his new-found momentum? God only knows.
For in contrast to the charming and convivial characters he made his name playing in Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, the 55-year-old’s persona has been defined by unpleasantness and distinct discomfort in recent times.
He has barely acted at all in the last few years, instead devoting his energies to playing golf and campaigning against newspapers that have splashily boosted his stardom over the years..
In contrast to the number of his screen credits lately, tales of Hugh Grant playing a real-life jerk are frequent.
Take the time a year ago he bumped into a British female acquaintance of mine at London restaurant and celebrity haunt The Chiltern Firehouse. The pair had known each other as teenagers but had not met for three decades.
Initially it was just like old times as Hugh pressed her on what she had been up to in the intervening period. She replied she had just written a book which was about to be published. He wanted to hear all about it. Actually, she said, could he help her out by posing with the book for an Instagram pic?
“Fuck off!” Grant said and walked away.
During the extensive publicity tour he has just undergone for Florence Foster Jenkins. Grant was interviewed in New York by Antonia Romeo, the new British Consul-General following a special screening of his new film.
Romeo declared the film “brilliant.” Rather than take the seemingly sincere compliment, Grant acidly replied, “You’re very nice but you’re also paid to be nice.” Romeo admirably persevered, asking a question about why the New York-set film had been shot in Liverpool and London. Grant said: “I think that’s a terrible question in a way because it spoils the whole illusion of the film.”
It’s hard not to think of Grant’s own persona as a spoiled illusion. Following Four Weddings and a Funeral, he was compared with his namesake Cary Grant. Grant was Presidential in Love Actually, caddish in Bridget Jones Diary and endearingly juvenile in About the Boy.
Yet Grant found himself ghettoized in average rom-coms- often directed by his friend Marc Lawrence- which reinforced the sense that he did not take the business of stardom all that seriously.
This is wide of the mark. Grant’s problem is not that he cares but that he cares too much. A well-placed source tells me that Grant was nervous playing the role of St Clair Bayfield in Florence Foster Jenkins.
Although the role of an insecure actor, riven by complications and a passion for golf, would not seem to be too great a stretch for Grant, a source says he took the character to heart.
“Hugh became obsessed about his performance during post-production and spent days in the editing suite worrying about it,” says the source.
“It got so bad that Meryl Streep was flown over to England to persuade him and give reassurance so he could be prised from the editing suite. Stephen Frears [the film’s veteran English director] had never seen anything like it. ”
A few years after his breakthrough role in Four Weddings and a Funeral, Grant starred in and produced a gangster comedy spoof Mickey Blue Eyes together with his then-girlfriend actress Elizabeth Hurley.
Except he did more than that. “Hugh directed my scenes in Mickey Blue Eyes,” an actor in the film told me on condition of anonymity. “When I asked a crew member what was going on, I was told in fact he was directing the film but did not want this to be known as he was sensitive of how it would be perceived if it went public.” (The filmmaker credited with shooting Mickey Blue Eyes was Canadian TV director Kelly Makin.)
Grant was right to be apprehensive- Mickey Blue Eyes fared averagely with critics and audiences and was overshadowed by the release later in the same year (1999) of Notting Hill, the comedy in which he starred with Julia Roberts which remains the biggest hit of his career.
Grant himself has acknowledged his acting insecurities. “I can only vaguely perform in a kind of live comedy tone,” he admitted at a New York junket last year. “I try other tones and it’s a disaster.” He recently told The Howard Stern Show: “I certainly hated actors and, more importantly, they hated me.”
Grant’s torturous deliberations over his career choices are at the heart of his career indolence and insecurity. Chief among his regrets is turning down The King’s Speech which won his Bridget Jones Diary co-star Colin Firth an Oscar.
More recently Grant turned down the third Bridget Jones movie, which would have reunited him with Firth, over script concerns (he got in hot water recently when appearing on US talk show Watch What Happens Live, he was unable to recognize Bridget Jones herself, Renee Zellweger.)
One role Grant did take, having initially turned it down several times, was the part of spy boss Waverly in TV remake The Man From U.N.C.L.E. He finally accepted what he told friends was “stupid money” ($2 million). But Guy Ritchie’s film flopped a year ago and he won’t be getting “stupid money” from that source again.
Instead Grant has been distracted in recent years by his high-profile commitment to Hacked Off, the UK pressure group which campaigns for state-imposed regulation of the press.
His association with Hacked Off has arguably done more lasting damage to Grant’s career than that encounter he had with prostitute Divine Brown on Sunset Boulevard in 1995.
Whether it’s absurdly claiming Hacked Off saved the press from police spying or ungallantly saying, “I fancy Paul [Farrelly] a lot more than Louise Mensch” when the Heat Street Editor and Farrelly were serving as members of the UK Parliament culture, media and sport select committee, Hacked Off has not aided his ongoing quest to be taken seriously.
Grant’s character in Florence Foster Jenkins has a complicated personal life and so does the actor. In five years Grant has fathered four children by two different women and he joked at a recent BAFTA talk, “I seemed to have a child a week!”
To his credit, he has something of a sense of humor about his personal life. (Asked for the names of his children at the New York premiere of Florence Foster Jenkins, he jokingly told reporters, “Oh, I don’t know!”)
But one prominent socialite who encountered his charmlessness was fashion entrepreneur and author Sophia Amoruso. At the premiere party of his film The Rewrite in 2015, she tweeted, “Tonight Hugh Grant nicknamed me ‘Silicon Valley”.”
Was Hugh referring to the crude nickname for breast implants? She certainly thought so, adding in her tweet “FML”, [the acronym meaning ‘F**k My Life] .
Grant has certainly done a good job over the years of saying ‘F**k my Loyalty!” Just ask period drama producers Merchant Ivory who gave him his breakthrough role in 1987 drama Maurice. They later gave him a key part in The Remains of the Day.
Merchant Ivory wanted Hugh Grant to play a small role in 2003 comedy Le Divorce- to no avail. “I asked Hugh to play that figuring that if he didn’t have anything better to do on that particular day, he could come over to London and do it,” James Ivory once told me.
“But he did have something better to do and I don’t know where he was. He had already played an art dealer [in Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks] so maybe it wasn’t very interesting for him.”
Ivory tried without success to have Grant do a Shakespeare film: “I would love to make Twelfth Night with him as Malvolio. I told him that when I saw him and he said, ‘Oh, I’d be terrible and everyone would laugh and no-one would think I’m any good. I couldn’t do it. I’m not good enough.’ ”
But Ivory added: “As far as him not being able to do it, he never gets a word wrong or a foot wrong, at least in my experience with him as an actor. He’s always perfection.”
Sandra Bullock, who starred with Grant in Two Weeks Notice , is another member of the actor’s fan club. “I love Hugh Grant,” she told me late last year. “He did an amazing thing in protecting people [referring to Hacked Off.]. I will defend him to the end. And Hugh looks good on a golf course.”
On the subject of sport, Grant is having a much easier time extending his range with his pastimes than in his career. I hear he has recently joined West London’s exclusive Campden Hill Tennis Club. He had to pass an on-court audition to get in but had no problem doing so.
After all this was tennis and not acting…