As Hugh Grant turns 61, examining how the actor regurgitated the charming Briton prototype, bespectacled and in baggy attire, and became a global sweetheart
Hugh Grant burst into the silver screen as the disarmingly charming Briton with an impeccable sartorial taste in 1994, with director Mike Newell's romantic comedy Four Weddings And A Funeral. Grant had earlier appeared in films like The Remains of the Day (1993) and Maurice (1987), but Four Weddings And A Funeral was the first movie that peddled Grant’s sharp-as-whip romantic hero image. According to Newell, Grant was ill-suited for the part because he gauged that the actor was too conventionally attractive. Nevertheless, the part eventually went to the actor, who was styled in drab attire and glasses to convey the character’s social awkwardness. Even though Grant looked the part, his magnetism shot him to overnight superstardom.
It worked out well for the actor, one could say, since Grant himself admitted to wanting to quit movies right before the offer for Four Weddings And A Funeral. He was a struggling actor, who had featured in bit roles for films steered by globally acclaimed directors like Roman Polanski in Bitter Moon.
Grant went onto take home both the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor under comedy and musical category, as well as the British Academy Film Award. After the success of Four Weddings And A Funeral, the actor heavily banked on bumbling English gent prototype - slightly confused, yet heart-warming and witty. The 90s was the era of the boyish romantic heroes, with the Khan tripartite in India, and Hugh Grant in English films. Grant’s succeeding films Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Two Weeks’ Notice and Music And Lyrics saw the actor play different versions of Charles (from Four Weddings And A Funeral)— remember his signature “whoopsie-daisies” as William in Notting Hill? Likewise, his baggy shirt tucked inside baggy trousers attire also became a Grant movie staple.
What worked in favour of these films, besides Grant’s likeability, was his on-screen pairing with female actors. Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant strolling down the streets of London, sharing easy laughs, made every viewer fantasise about such a chance meet-cute. Grant seemed to look desirable with every female character — be it a Hollywood actress or a self-doubting assistant.
The Bridget Jones’ Diary series was the first time the actor essayed a role with tinges of grey. He played the suave Daniel Cleaver, an employee at a London publishing company. Under him worked the titular Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger), a 32-year-old single woman struggling with body image issues. Daniel Cleaver, in 21st-century slang, was the prototype of a “fuckboi.” He was aware of his physical beauty, and used it to engage with different women — of course without their knowledge. On the other hand, Colin Firth played Mark Darcy, a stoic, awkward British lawyer who’s too proud to confess his feelings towards Bridget. Mark Darcy was obviously a reference to Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice — a role Firth played in the 1995 BBC TV series adapted from the Jane Austen classic. Another actor encumbered with a role for the majority of his early projects.
It was a deliberate move on Grant’s part to stave away from quintessential romantic lead roles. The actor acknowledged the same in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, where he described it be to a relief to not play the “charming leading man.” “I gave it my best shot. And some of those films I did like that are lovely, and I love them for being popular. And I am grateful for them — grateful again. But, it has been a lovely relief now that I am allowed to be twisted, ugly weird, misshapen.”
His resistance against getting typecast began in 2012, with the Wachowski siblings’ ambitious adaptation of David Mitchell's sci-fi novel Cloud Atlas. Grant portrayed six characters in the film, belonging to six different eras. They were hyper-masculine, violent men who raped and killed at will. The actor’s heavy prosthetics made him unrecognisable, which proved to be a curse for his experimental bent of mind. Not only was the movie universally panned, Grant’s leap of faith did not seem to bear much fruit. His next shot at playing an antagonist was in Paddington 2, where he played washed-up actor Phoenix Buchanan who torments Paddington throughout the film.
Only in 2020 did Grant make the complete purported shift to dark, complex roles with the HBO miniseries The Undoing, starring Nicole Kidman as Grace Fraser, a Manhattan-based psychologist. Grant slipped into the role of Grace’s husband and oncologist, Jonathan. The show *spoiler ahead* plays out in a ‘did-he-didn’t-he’ format until you figure out he’s a cold-blooded murderer *spoiler ends*. The show was unanimously hailed as Grant’s second coming, where he subverted the same charming-man template he encashed on in his heyday. Conversely though, it’s almost ironic that Grant had to milk his own successful ventures for an ostensible comeback to the screen.
Hugh Grant, throughout his career, has rejected the star vehicle and celebrity culture. Yet, the actor remains one of the most influential British artists in Hollywood.