Hugh Grant: Hugh & cry

He finds acting dull and isn't keen on being photographed with his girlfriend. So how does that explain the v. spiteful headlines that have plagued one of the few genuine Hollywood stars that we can call our own?
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When Hugh Grant took umbrage at the intrusion by showbusiness hacks and paparazzi during the premiere party for Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, even he cannot have predicted the opprobrium that was heaped upon him in the tabloids the morning after. Few movie stars have been subjected to such a spiteful response following his refusal to pose with his girlfriend Jemima Khan and his admission that he finds acting in films boring.

It was at Grant's insistence that the Marie Curie Cancer Care charity received the benefits of the Bridget Jones premiere as he lost his own mother two years ago to cancer, and the evening was a great deal more than usually important to him. In addition, as those who attended the premiere and the party had paid handsomely for their tickets, he ensured that there was no roped-off VIP area, no separation between the stars and the public. Grant is a movie star who doesn't behave like one: there are no entourages, no bodyguards, no Winnebago moments. Yet he still comes under attack for being an overpaid, overprivileged, undertalented pain in the derrière. No wonder he wants to retire.

"Who is he hurting to deserve this kind of attack?" asks Colin Firth, his co-star.

"He is that rare thing - a true film star who doesn't take himself too seriously," says Emma Thompson. "I've made four films with him and I would be very upset if he gave up."

He has certainly made a prat of himself in the past - the Divine Brown incident being the prime example - and he has always managed to talk his way back into popularity. Yet there is an underlying sensation expressed by those who dismiss him as a one-trick pony that he has somehow cheated his way to stardom, that he is little more than a foppish airhead who got lucky.

Luck came in the shape of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Richard Curtis's small British comedy that made the fortunes of nearly all who sailed in her, including Working Title Films, the estate of W H Auden and Grant himself. But it created a character blueprint that has been hard to eradicate.

"It wasn't my writing that made Hugh into 'Hugh'," says Curtis, who reminds me that they had auditioned a large number of actors for the role. "It was a strange, lucky partnership."

Since then, Grant has become the only young British male movie star worthy of international recognition. He cracked Hollywood and endeared himself to international audiences with a particular persona that is more David Niven than Cary Grant; he possesses a charm that is actually heightened on the screen. The Hugh Grant role is one that deviates very little from the floppy-haired, self-effacingly witty, stammering, oh-so-English chap who is just the right side of sensitive.

"His skills and qualities are in short supply," says Stacey Snider, chairman of Universal Pictures, no less. "He brings so much intelligence to his preparation. On top of that, who can deliver a frigging line like him?" Sandra Bullock, his co-star in Two Weeks Notice, agrees. "Everything that happens to Hugh appears to be an accident that he is experiencing for the first time," she says. "The ability to be so natural, and to allow yourself that humiliation, is a rare talent."

To cite the Hugh Grant blueprint - that he always plays the same stereotype - as an example of his limitations as an actor is folly. This is a persona that has been thrust upon him. Once audiences have identified a movie star with a particular screen persona, it is brutally difficult to persuade them of alternative aspects. In fact, close study reveals a wealth of tiny nuances within each one that shade and alter the basic formula for each film.

"Acting is not always about trying to find an entirely different character to perform," explains Colin Firth. "What you are getting in Hugh is the nuances within a character and different aspects of it. Very, very few people have his lightness of touch and his relaxed irony on screen."

The pivotal role in Grant's career was Will in About a Boy when - inhabiting a character that was probably closest to himself - he managed to shade his HG persona several degrees darker. Will was not a lovely, funny, endearing man. He was a serial shagger, a selfish layabout aimlessly living a life of hedonism and moral irresponsibility.

When recollecting Grant's roles, few cite his work in Maurice, The Remains of the Day, Bitter Moon, Small Time Crooks or his turn as the sleazy theatrical manager in An Awfully Big Adventure, none of which fits the blueprint of the Hugh Grant role.

The off-screen HG is almost as well "known". Hugh the fun-hungry party animal is not the first movie star to be caught with his pants down and will assuredly not be the last.

The $64,000 question is whether Grant harbours higher aspirations or simply wants to lie back and enjoy the fruits of his labours. Buried beneath the most recent revelations that he wants to give up acting are hints that he would like to write screenplays and engage in the more creative process of film-making.

"I think he is very self-critical indeed, and I suspect it is therefore not easy for him to change profession," says Richard Curtis. "But I think he might be in the mood now to try some other things."

Grant is nothing if not adventurous, even in his personal life. His admitted predilection for pornography, for sexual gossip, for partying and serial flirtation is the indicator of a Peter Pan-like adolescent in a man's body. While he evidently takes his work very seriously, he is still a fun guy to be with when filming ends.

He also displays traits of a closet exhibition-ist: he likes sex and likes people to know he likes sex. It is almost as if he were fighting the traditional image of the uptight, anal Englishman; as if, by teasing the public and toying with the Hugh Grant image he will retain a vestigial sense of mystery.

It is by no means unusual for movie actors to create the carapace of a persona to protect themselves and to project an idealised version of their own character on to the public. Thus the upper-class fop that evolved in Oxford is as inaccurate a picture of Grant's background as Guy Ritchie's interest in working-class thuggery. Similarly, the rumours of bisexuality occa-sioned by his membership of the Piers Gaveston Society at Oxford, whose dominant sexual preference was gay. These are gestures towards the embryonic figure - half Lord Byron, half Oscar Wilde - that Grant fondly imagined himself evolving into.

There remains an unadulter-ated, almost childish glee in Grant's reaction to the world. Witty, sharp and intelligent, he is the perfect chat-show host and retains a twinkling roguishness that has yet to reach its sell-by date. Until very recently he could still be observed at parties collecting telephone numbers from breathless females with the single-minded fervour of a philatelist acquiring stamps.

But there is a late-flowering maturity in evidence. His pronouncements that he may retire from acting and do something more grown up, plus his relationship with Jemima Khan, suggest he is at last putting away childish things. It would be a pity if he abandoned the screen as there are signs that he would improve as an actor, dig deeper into the shadows of his own personality to produce even better work. While we can expect his Hamlet no time soon, he would be sublimely cast in Restoration comedy.

"I particularly think he's specifically acting older well," observes Richard Curtis. "He's not hanging on to his youth. He is deliberately showing the cracks." The ideal moment for him to consider the role of James Bond. Seriously.