Funny guys

What does it take to be a leading man in a romantic comedy? Everything and nothing, says David Benedict. So why do we find it so hard to take actors like Hugh Grant seriously? And why are we so down on a genre that created classics like 'Charade'?
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Running into an old university chum at the beginning of 1994, a distinctly unfamous Hugh Grant observed that after seven years as an actor doing too much trash, he'd made enough money to buy a small flat. Yes, there had been Merchant/ Ivory's Maurice but there was also Polanski's torrid misfire Bitter Moon. He had two more movies to go after which he was going to quit. The second of those was Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Almost a decade later, after the follow-ups Notting Hill and Bridget Jones's Diary, Love Actually is waiting in the wings for its pre-Christmas release. You can already hear the moans. Not from explicit sex scenes - this is a Richard Curtis film - but from the terminally disgruntled complaining-in-advance that top-toff Grant is on repeat. Not another romantic comedy? Yes, actually. It's a romantic comedy but not precisely a repeat. It does feature Grant falling helplessly in love - he's the Prime Minister, Martine McCutcheon is his tea-lady - but in this, his directorial debut, Curtis has constructed a daisy-chain of love stories giving us nine romantic comedies for the price of one.

Such heart-on-sleeve behaviour isn't just unashamed, it's positively brazen. And why not? No one runs around telling the Broccolis off for making yet another shamelessly entertaining Bond movie. And it's easy to forget that in the impossibly cynical Nineties, Curtis's scripts were a shock to the system. He rendered wholly unfashionable optimism into box-office gold and used a serious command of dramatic structure to give "feelgood" a good name and corral audiences back to the cinema of romance.

All of which was good news for the owners of the multiplexes and Curtis and Grant's bank balances. But what of their critical reputation? In serious cineastes' world rankings, romantic comedy and its little sister the "chick flick" is second only to the musical in The Genre Beneath Contempt. And when the format boasts offerings as derisory and derivative as Kate and Leopold or the grisly How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, who can blame them? Yet it's just a genre made up of hits and misses like, say, the thriller or the western, neither of which suffer similar critical slings and arrows. The reason why the rom-com - and the work of Curtis and Grant in particular - is so castigated is because they commit the twin crimes of being commercially acute and appealing strongly to women.

Big error. Little has changed since 1960 when Norman Mailer opined that the male movie star ideal was a man who "could fight well, kill well (if always with honour), love well and love many, be cool, be daring, be dashing, be wild, be wily, be resourceful, be a brave gun." That Hemingwayesque job spec is great for Humphrey Bogart or Al Pacino but ignores greats like Cary Grant, James Stewart and, yes, Hugh Grant. It does, however, present a fairly close fit to the romantic prototype, Clark Gable.

The man now best remembered for verbally swiping Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind with the (mis-stressed) line, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn", was already a Thirties name smouldering opposite the likes of Jean Harlow in MGM movies. Gable was tough, bullish even. He famously had big ears, but Ava Gardner was not alone in suggesting that he had little between them. But when Gable was cast opposite the right woman he emanated almost ungovernable quantities of sex appeal, a view made plain fact in 1934 when he was forced to make a little movie in just four weeks at low-rent Columbia with an equally unimpressed Claudette Colbert. Even its director, Frank Capra, wasn't wild about it by the time it opened, but It Happened One Night, a runaway heiress movie, was an unprecedented runaway success. On Oscar night it cleaned up, bagging the top five awards - Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor and Actress - a coup only ever equalled by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Together, Gable and Colbert unwittingly invented screwball, the comedy format winningly summed up in 1937 by lyricist Lorenz Hart, "The lovely loving and the hateful hates/ The conversations with the flying plates/ I wish I were in love again." This most sophisticated of romantic film formats fashioned the sex war into seriously good comedy with matched equals spatting and sparring for supremacy: women, like Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck or Rosalind Russell, were never sharper, sexier, stronger.

And the men? They broke the mould. On came Cary Grant and James Stewart whose masculinity came not from boorish bravado but from enviable grace, elegance and wit and the two of them paired up in 1940 as rivals for Hepburn's affection in the sublime The Philadelphia Story.

Hollywood casting director Don Phillips said of Matthew McConnaughey, "Let's face it, Matthew's got those three things that make a star: you got to be smart, you got to have talent, and the girls have got to want to fuck you." True enough (although brains are lower on the list than you might imagine), but there's another crucial quality. You have to know that without even trying you have what it takes to seduce the audience. It's called confidence and Cary Grant simply brims with it. You never see a scrap of tension in his acting. It looks as if all he bothers to do is learn the lines and turn up on set. But that almost unparalleled ease is the direct result of his training as an acrobat - he's so physically relaxed that you can never read which way he'll jump and that gives him a surprising degree of danger and ambivalence. Almost 25 years later, in Charade, he was still capitalising on that quality, this time with the other Hepburn, Audrey. Is he protecting her or preying upon her? She just stares lovingly at this outrageously debonair 58-year-old and says, "You know what's wrong with you? Nothing." The audience simply agrees.

Back at The Philadelphia Story, Cary Grant's ease is contrasted with James Stewart's winning lack of guile. In his later work, Stewart atrophied into a parody of himself with that over-deliberate, drawn-out drawl. Here, and a year earlier in Ernst Lubitsch's exquisitely calibrated romantic masterpiece of mistaken identity, The Shop Around The Corner (poorly remade as You've Got Mail), Stewart is the awkwardly lanky fellow who thinks he's in control of his emotions but finds himself in over his head. His innocent sincerity is matchless.

Killed off by the misfortunes of war, the moneyed world of screwball disappeared, replaced in cinema-goers affections by the more realistic darkness of Forties film noir. Romantic comedy only resurfaced as a major genre in 1959. The Fifties consumerist boom plus the puritan ethic reignited by the McCarthy years ushered in a stream of (no) sex comedies that were more about the horn of plenty than being horny. They began with Pillow Talk, they generally starred America's top female box-office star Doris Day, and her romantic male leads were Rod Taylor, James Garner and, most memorably, Rock Hudson. And if you want to see how good Rock was, watch the flirtatiousness and dazzling comic flair of Pillow Talk and then try this year's execrable rehash, Down With Love, which dreams of being tongue-in-chic but replaces wit with innuendo, charm with smarm, a script with a plot summary and Rock Hudson with poor Ewan McGregor who is reduced to winking and hamming and, like the audience, praying that it will all be over soon.

Most male leads these days mistake looking handsome, smiling, shrugging and relying on plot twists for playing romantic comedy. Wrong. Both Cary and Hugh Grant know that pecs, cheekbones and good teeth won't lead a movie. The trick is to do a whole lot more but make it look like you're doing nothing.

Unfortunately, they're so good at it that they're routinely criticised for just standing around being too pretty by half. Which, ironically, is precisely what most men expect of female leads. Leading actresses are almost exclusively praised in terms of their appearance. Men who put themselves in that position are sneered at. Hugh Grant is told off for having floppy hair. As soon as he went to the barbers and came out looking tousled and less obviously good-looking for About a Boy, everyone sat up and said, "Look! He's acting." In fact, he was merely playing closer to an idealised, acceptable male vision of masculinity. No matter how narcissistic straight men may be in private, they get very nervous about watching beautiful versions of themselves in public. Men approve of a man as handsome as Sean Connery (whose acting range is far narrower than Grant's), not only because his genre means they're not confronted by their own gaze (as action pictures tend not to rely so much on close-up), but also because Connery is busy getting on with being action man, not reaction-shot man.

Hollywood so prizes physical perfection that the fastest route to an Oscar is to play unattractive, diseased, or gay: Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Geoffrey Rush in Shine, William Hurt in Kiss of the Spiderwoman. (Tick all three boxes and it's a dead cert: Tom Hanks in Philadelphia.) Given that, it's bizarre that romantic comedy, which so nakedly relies on the physical attributes of its stars, should be the one form that few take seriously.

Not, one suspects, that Hugh Grant is tortured or miserable about it. There he is in Love Actually, with his pin-sharp timing, his physical clowning, above all his breezily confident willingness to appear foolish, throwing caution to the wind and dancing around Number 10 Downing Street to an old Pointer Sisters number and not worrying about it. Like Frank Sinatra, that other champion of skilled relaxation, he knows that, "The problem now of course is/ To simply hold your horses/ To rush would be a crime/ 'Cause nice and easy does it every time."

'Love Actually' is out on 21 Nov