KEEPING UP WITH HUGH GRANT

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hugh grant head 2On IMDb.com, a biographical note by Steve Shelokhonov, who has made his mark, such as it is, as the author of IMDb mini-biographies, describes Hugh Grant as an actor known for “playing characters projecting warmth and sincere happiness.” It’s not an important piece of scholarship, but it is widely read, due to its venue, and it is, unfortunately, typical of the kind of entertainment journalism that promotes reductive stereotypes of star reputations.

It’s undated, but couldn’t have been written much after 2003, so it grows out of Grant’s early work. Even so, it is a distortion. It gives enormous weight to his performances of the adorably self-effacing and honorable Edward Ferrars in Ang Lee’s screen adaptation of Sense and Sensibility (1995), and sweet book store owner William Thacker in Notting Hill (1995), and it gives no weight at all to Grant’s somewhat darker early work as the cynical and immature Will Freeman in About a Boy and the debonair, unscrupulous sexual predator Daniel Cleaver in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Today, this characterization of Grant is even more untenable.

Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility

Notting Hill

Notting Hill

About A Boy

About A Boy

Bridget Jones Diary 2

Bridget Jones Diary 2

Shelokhonov and IMDb notwithstanding, Grant has evolved strikingly as an actor. It would not be going too far to say that if he once gave body to long standing Hollywood Anglophile tendencies and general American goofiness about the glamourized warmth and sincerity of a certain kind of British male, à la Cary Grant, Hugh Grant has now become a virtual one-man deconstruction of the old cliché. His latest roles comically, but often pointedly reveal the smooth and opportunistic deceptiveness behind the English veneer, and even plunge down into extremely dark and dangerous depths beneath it. I’m talking about his performances as St. Clair Bayfield in Florence Foster Jenkins (Dir. Stephen Frears, 2016), Phoenix Buchanan in Paddington 2 (Dir. Paul King, 2017), and, his most astonishing turn to date, as Jeremy Thorpe in A Very English Scandal (Dir. Stephen Frears, 2018). While Colin Firth, whom I personally find irresistible as a screen presence, continues to mine the riches of the American longing for Mr. Darcy, Hugh Grant has boldly said good-bye to all that. And that too has its irresistible moments.

THE COMIC SLEAZE OF BRITISH CHARM

In Grant’s most recent films, identity is performance, not sincerity and warmth, and generally of a mean-spirited nature. The exception is his creation of the genteelly manipulative St. Clair Bayfield, a posh failed actor, in Florence Foster Jenkins, whose identity charades are, at least in part, in the service of kindness and real affection for his chronically ill wealthy wife, Florence, whose fantasies about her singing talent, which he enables, are most of what is keeping her alive.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins

Phoenix Buchanan in Paddington 2 is a darker but more light hearted fraud. He is a posh has-been actor reduced to “starring” in dog food commercials for television, who uses his thespian talents to steal a treasure, while making dear, good hearted Paddington Bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) take the blame and the prison sentence for his crime. Of course, this film, being a fairy tale, requires Grant to produce a grand guignol of stage villainy, which he does handily; but he also salts it with the energy of irrepressible theatrical charm, which, after Paddington is set free and he is incarcerated, comically propels him to a new kind of stardom–in a lavish prison-produced musical comedy. (Yes, it is reminiscent of Mel Brooks’ The Producers, 1967).

Paddington 2

Paddington 2

However, Grant’s most remarkable demonstration of his theatrical walk on the wild side is as posh, theatrical politician Jeremy Thorpe, in Amazon’s mini-series A Very English Scandal, a searing indictment of the corrupt class system of mid-20th century Great Britain.

A Very English Scandal

A Very English Scandal

As St. Clair Bayfield, Grant finds layers within his bygone image as a sensitive, cultivated ladies man. What is most impressive about his St. Clair (pronounced Sinclair) is the way it oscillates between sincere affection for his pathetic, very affluent wife and superficial displays of gallantry to protect his meal ticket. The absurdity of the life of Florence Jenkins would so easily have lent itself to burlesque and slapstick, but Grant’s characterization of St. Clair works toe to toe with Streep’s delicate exploration of the emotions of a woman infantilized by the cliches of femininity enforced by upper class society, whose reward for being a “good girl” was to contract syphilis on her wedding night from her boorish first husband.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins

Between the two of them, the film maintains a delicate balance between the human comedy and its deeper currents of poignancy. Grant deserved his Golden Globes nomination and should have received an Oscar nomination, as Streep did. His St. Clair shifts subtly and mysteriously between the theatrical gallantry he perfects as Florence’s non-sexual squire and virtual valet during the day at her palatial apartment, and the sexually earthy, witty demeanor he displays in his own home, where he spends his nights with his mistress. His night and day identities do double duty. They create a complex man and they echo both of his previous movie images–as smooth sexual adventurer and flawless gentlemanly ideal–with the result that masculine identity becomes a conundrum of superficial, constructed appearance and authentic flows of emotion. It is impossible to say which is the real St. Clair. Ultimately, astonishingly, it becomes unnecessary to make the distinction. As a man, he is an enigma, never to be understood. Partnering the always amazing Streep, the evolving Grant destabilizes masculinity without raising any hackles, while expanding the gender spectrum of mass entertainment.

As Phoenix Buchanan in Paddington 2, Grant burlesques his old Daniel Cleaver role. There is a fascinating collision between the openly self-seeking spontaneity of Cleaver and the grimacing parody of charm that the actor creates for the audience in Paddington 2. Gone is the effortlessness that used to characterize Grant’s performances; in P2, each facial expression, each gesture is fiercely mannered and patently artificial. Buchanan is not merely the seductive and two-faced cad familiar to rom-com melodrama that Cleaver is, but a toxic man of many faces. Buchanan lives on the same street as the Brown family, which has adopted Paddington, and accidentally discovers the existence of an expensive antique pop-up book in which the author has left a trail of clues to her hidden treasure chest containing a king’s ransom of jewelry. Buchannan is willing to do anything to grab the gold, and he does, but no simple theft this. It is an attack on the heart of innocence and goodness itself in the form of Paddington, who also wants the book, unselfishly, and is working to save up enough money to buy it for his Aunt Lucy, still living in the Peruvian jungle where she raised him, so that she can visit London in her imagination. The game is afoot as, in this fairy tale, the smooth Englishman’s addiction to disguise is literalized. Buchanan secretly owns many costumes, which he dons to follow the clues and simultaneously incriminate Paddington. Discovering Buchanan’s treachery is made very difficult because the other characters cling to the image they want to have of Buchanan as an icon of charm. And isn’t this a kind of diegetic stand-in for the experience of seeing the old Hugh Grant charm as a shallow illusion?

Paddington 2

Paddington 2

We have seen many such villainous “master of disguise” performances by character actors, but witnessing such a brittle, constricted use of the actor’s instrument by the man who gave us the wide open faces and bodies of Edward Ferrars and William Thacker creates a strange shock of recognition. Suddenly there are secret caverns that open under the cherished romantic image. Did this darkness always lurk behind the beauty of the British romantic hero? There is a funny suggestion that it did when Buchanan puts on a full nun’s habit to find a clue in a cathedral, and a guard there remembers “her” as the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Grant’s performance creates a kind of gender bending that is less about a fluidity between male and female—Buchanan never appears to the audience to be remotely feminine even if his disguise is–and more about what we had been seduced into thinking about beautiful men.

DEPRAVITY IN HIGH PLACES

Grant’s stunning performance as Jeremy Thorpe, however, is about a disappearing line between male and female and it is also a full throttle exposé of a hollow, pernicious “gentleman,” and the unjust culture that made him. Here, our cultural memory of Grant’s youth and beauty and his evolved performance pack an even more powerful punch. The mini-series, based on John Preston’s book about Jeremy Thorpe, A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment, 2016, pits Grant’s movieland aura against the historical reality of a seemingly charming but icily pragmatic politician. Thorpe, the leader of the Liberal Party in the 1970’s, was on track to become Prime Minister of England, but his ambitions were derailed by an infamous trial instigated by the accusations by Norman Josiffe–also known as Norman Scott–(Ben Whishaw), that Thorpe had hired a man to kill him to hide their lengthy, covert homosexual affair. Neither I nor the mini-series suggest in any way that Thorpe’s depravity is the result of his sexuality. On the contrary, Thorpe’s unapologetic willingness to humiliate, intimidate, and sacrifice Norman to his lust for prestige and power is depicted as the outgrowth of a desperately hypocritical, viciously class bound, homophobic culture.

A Very English Scandal

A Very English Scandal

Ironically, A Very English Scandal is, in many ways, Florence Foster Jenkins seen through a glass darkly. There are small superficial similarities between the performative pretensions of Jeremy Thorpe and those of St. Claire. St. Claire calls Florence “bunny,” and Thorpe uses the same pet name for Norman. Since the term of endearment was a key word in incriminating letters written by the historical Thorpe, it is impossible that this is anything but a nice coincidence. Thorpe’s linguistic mannerisms, however, may not be. They are similar to St. Claire’s, particularly his playful affectation of pronouncing “very, very” as “veddy, veddy,” and may well be Grant’s invention, and may well signal that he understood the ironic echoes of St. Claire in Thorpe. It is also ironic that Ben Whishaw plays both Paddington Bear to Grant’s predatory Phoenix Buchannan, and Norman Josiffe/Scott to the predatory Thorpe.

Much more crucially, despite the serious under and over tones of both films, there is a comic spirit of absurdity that surges through both of them. The shrieks that Florence emits when she opens her mouth to sing, her manic passion for potato salad, and her impenetrable naiveté about her life in the face of all evidence is impossible to witness without laughing out loud at the same time that her plight touches us. Similarly, the comic timing of Thorpe’s homosexual seduction of Norman and his Monty Python-like effortless reversal into homicidal mode when he runs out of ways to silence his male lover leave us chuckling at the sheer calculation of the former and easy bloodlust of the latter.

But what is most striking and impressive is the way Grant is able to achieve the comedic simplicity of the darkness of Phoenix Buchanan, as well as the intriguing, tragi-comic liminality of both Thorpe and St. Clair. Grant plays Thorpe, as he did St. Claire, in a way that forbids precise distinctions between pretense and reality. And in the case of A Very English Scandal, even more provocatively, he depicts a man for whom there is also no clear line either between lust and love or heterosexuality and homosexuality. Our early discovery of how Thorpe seduced Norman depicts an unemotional sexual conquest, a notch on the bedpost. But from then on, many lines become blurred. Grant brilliantly plays his moments with Norman in ways that capture the lack of emotional definition in a man who has spent his entire life pretending. Similarly, initially there is no question whatever that his search for a wife is a part of his acquisition of the proper accessories for a man who would be Prime Minister. But again, things don’t end as they began. Grant eventually dazzles us and surprises his character with a genuine engagement in domestic love for a sheltered, willowy, blonde, English rose he selected for her appropriateness for a political campaign.

And he stuns us with his creation of a born politician whose eventual homicidal coldness toward Norman is not just founded on his desire to protect his public reputation. Grant tantalizingly marbles that aspect of Thorpe with a surprisingly authentic loyalty and affection for, and gallantry toward his wife. After her death, his partnership with his second wife is an even more mysteriously genuinely heterosexual union. She is a short, stocky, worldly Jewish woman, who escaped from Hitler as a child, anything but the ideal photo-op—and, nevertheless, a true partner for Thorpe in every respect. This is to say that the dimensions of Grant’s performance as Thorpe cannot be appreciated until the end of the series when the layers of the character and his genesis as a product of public schools, Oxford, and a rigidly structured society reach full bloom.

In the final episode, the manifold liminality of love and life we have witnessed are reduced to platitudes by the judge presiding over the Thorpe-Scott/Josiffe case, when, garbed in his wig and ancient ceremonial robes, he attempts to perform an exorcism of all troubling complexity. Bringing down the hammer of patriarchal England, he fabricates a charge to the jury that all but explicitly demands that the jury acquit Thorpe, who is after all, only a flawed gentleman, while Scott/Josiffe is characterized as a highly hysterical “pervert.”

hugh granthead 1The historical jury did acquit. The judgement of history does not. Even comedians of the period mocked the hypocrisy and legal casuistry of the the judge, as does this series, which laughingly tears away the veil of privilege from a miscarriage of justice in which Thorpe was never held accountable for attempting to murder an inconveniently male lover. Similarly, one can but smirk at anyone who insists on “knowing” Hugh Grant as an actor who plays characters that project “warmth and sincere happiness.”

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