I always try and find a reason not to do a job because acting scares me so much,” Hugh Grant once said. Unfortunately for him, acting won’t let him go so easily.
In the Nineties, with films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, Grant pioneered the role of charming, bumbling Englishman – a trope that many an old-Etonian has tried and failed to nail so effortlessly since. In subsequent years, Grant developed something of an ambivalent relationship to movie stardom. The running joke – which he encouraged, perhaps more through self-doubt than anything else – was that he could only ever play one character: himself.
And yet, after three decades in the industry, he continues to surprise – from his role as the supercilious Phoenix Buchanan in Paddington 2 to his first proper foray into prestige TV alongside Ben Whishaw in A Very English Scandal.
To mark Grant’s 60th birthday, which he celebrates (or not) on 9 September, here are his 10 greatest films.
10. Remains of the Day (1993)
Grant scarcely got a look in when reviews first came out for this brooding adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel – blink and you’ll miss his role as the godson of James Fox’s Earl of Darlington. But he is still terrific in the part, and holds his own alongside the creme de la creme of acting: Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins.
9. Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)
As St Clair Bayfield, Grant is equal parts loving husband and unfaithful enabler to Meryl Streep’s deluded amateur singer. It is a role that demands multitudes of him, and he rises to the challenge admirably – without attempting to overshadow Streep as she goes for Oscars glory (she got a well-deserved nomination in the end).
8. Maurice (1987)
The 27-year-old Grant had given up on acting, and was writing and producing radio commercials, when he was cast in this elegant, affecting gay love story set in Edwardian England. Following two Cambridge University students whose romance sours when it clashes with the suppressive attitudes of the time, this Merchant Ivory drama marked out Grant as a future star.
7. Music and Lyrics (2007)
Grant and Drew Barrymore didn’t get on like a house of fire on the set of this film – “Drew, I think, did hate me a bit,” said Grant – but their unexpected onscreen chemistry belies that. A former Eighties pop star (Grant) recruits the woman who waters his plants (Barrymore) to write lyrics as he tries to pen a hit for a teen pop sensation. The best thing about this underrated gem is that the song they come up with is actually, properly, good.
6. Sense and Sensibility (1995)
“I saw the part of a hesitant, in-love Englishman, and said, ‘I don’t think I should do that again’,” Grant recently recalled of his role as Edward Ferrars in the Ang Lee film, adroitly adapted from Jane Austen’s novel by Emma Thompson. “And they said, ‘No, we know you can do that differently.’ And then I did it exactly the same.” It’s true, but he’s irresistible in it anyway.
5. Love Actually (2003)
Grant plays a prime minister of indeterminate political persuasion in Richard Curtis’s ensemble Christmas movie. True, the film has been thoroughly torn apart over the years for its problematic gender dynamics, and true, Emma Thompson’s performance eclipses everyone’s, Grant’s included – but it has moments of sheer brilliance, and for Grant’s Downing Street dancing scene alone, he deserves praise.
4. About A Boy (2002)
Grant claims that he did “an accent” in this adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel of the same name, but it sounds about three doors down from his usual RP. Still, as Will, an entitled 30-something playboy whose isolated routine is interrupted by a dorky 12-year-old boy (Nicholas Hoult) and his suicidal mother, Grant manages to convey genuine emotional nuance. There is a darker edge to this film than Grant’s other famous romcoms, and, refreshingly, the “rom” part takes a backseat in favour of less-trodden themes.
3. Paddington 2 (2017)
Kudos to Grant for gamely curdling that foppish charm into something as ludicrously villainous as this. You might argue that it’s not much of a stretch for the actor to play a washed-up, narcissistic actor chasing former glory (and a stuffed bear), but his Phoenix Buchanan is truly a performance to behold. There’s singing; there’s dancing; there’s Grant masquerading as an elderly nun. What more could you ask for?
2. Notting Hill (1999)
Proof that happiness isn’t happiness without a violin-playing goat, this Richard Curtis romcom has an ingeniously simple plot: an ordinary man falls in love with an impossibly famous Hollywood star (Julia Roberts, at the time just that). As the “used to be handsome, now kind of squishy around the edges” Charles, a London divorcee working in a travel bookshop, Grant is at his most assuredly charming. He’s surrounded by an impeccable ensemble cast – including Gina McKee, Emma Chambers and Hugh Bonneville, playing friends who genuinely seem to like each other – but it’s his chemistry with Roberts that makes this film so enduring.
1. Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
Richard Curtis was vehemently against casting Grant in what would turn out to be his star-making role. “He’d written it in his own image,” Grant told GQ, “and he didn’t think it should be someone who might get the girl.” Curtis had his arm twisted – and thank goodness he did. As Charles – a young man utterly unaware of how attractive he is, who falls in love with an unavailable American woman (Andie Macdowell) at his friend’s wedding – he so nailed Curtis’s convoluted, stuttering syntax that he ended up replicating it in many of his subsequent roles. It is, in the words of Curtis, “a romantic film about love and friendship that swims in a sea of jokes”. It’s also a masterpiece, and Grant is at least partly to thank for that.
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