‘Nobody likes a narcissist’: How did America fall in love with James Corden?

The recent appearance of James Corden in the trailer for ‘Cinderella’ had many on social media groaning in unison. Kevin E G Perry investigates how a former Lesbian Vampire Killer became a fixture of Hollywood musicals

Monday 16 August 2021 06:32
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<p>Crossing the Atlantic: James Corden as the host of the late-night US talk show ‘The Late Late Show’</p>

Crossing the Atlantic: James Corden as the host of the late-night US talk show ‘The Late Late Show’

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In the opening act of Ryan Murphy’s cloying 2020 movie-musical The Prom, Broadway stars Barry Glickman (James Corden) and Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) are confronted with humbling news. Their Eleanor Roosevelt musical has been given a swift kicking by the critics. “It’s not the show, it’s you two. You’re just not likeable,” says publicist Sheldon Saperstein (Kevin Chamberlin), delivering a brutal showbiz truth. “Nobody likes a narcissist.”

James Corden’s bank manager would beg to differ. It was reported this week that the Late Late Show host has been offered £7m to extend his run on the chat show to 2024 – and that’s on top of the two big-budget movies he’ll star in this year: a sequel to 2018’s Peter Rabbit and a new adaptation of Cinderella. To his credit, Corden has never been coy about his own narcissistic tendencies. In his autobiography, published a decade ago when he was 32 and knowingly titled May I Have Your Attention, Please?, Corden explained that it was while misbehaving at a christening at the tender age of four that he first learned an important lesson about his own psyche. “If people are looking at me, and only me,” he wrote, “it feels amazing.”

Part of him may well have been delighted, then, by the response on social media to the first trailer for Cinderella. Despite only making a fleeting appearance amid a starry cast, he was undoubtedly the one people were looking at. “How come James cordon [sic] is in everything?” grumbled one Twitter user, in a post that’s been liked almost seven thousand times. “What does he do? I don’t get it.”

In the case of Cinderella, there’s actually a pretty simple explanation: it’s his movie. The new version was reportedly “conceived and developed from an original idea by James Corden”, although the French author Charles Perrault, who wrote Cinderella in the 17th century, might query how we’re defining “original idea”. As well as producing the film, Corden is also credited as one of the writers of the updated story. In that light, his decision to merely cast himself as one of the three mice/footmen looks downright un-narcissistic. Cinderella fans unhappy at the prospect of his presence can at least thank their fairy godmothers he didn’t write himself in a leading role as Buttons.

Corden’s rise to the status of shot-calling Hollywood producer may well come as a surprise to those in Britain who were quite happy to see the back of him when he left home soil to take over hosting The Late Late Show from Craig Ferguson in 2015. At the time, the stand-up comedian Stewart Lee summed up the mood of many with the memorably cutting line: “Britain’s loss is America’s loss also.”

By that point in his career, Corden was suffering from what might generously be described as “over exposure”. He had been acting professionally since 1996, with early roles including a part as a bookish student in Channel 4’s Teachers and a Tango advert, but his breakthrough came with a key role in ITV drama Fat Friends, which ran from 2000 to 2005, and a winning turn in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. Corden originated the role of Timms in May 2004 when Bennett’s play debuted at the Royal National Theatre, and he was among the original cast members who returned for the 2006 film adaptation. It remains one of his best and most charming screen performances, although you would never have guessed from coverage at the time that Corden would be the cast member who’d one day have his face plastered all over billboards across Los Angeles. The New York Times review grants Corden just a two-word mention, and those words are “overweight” and “clownish”.

‘Clownish’: Corden (left) and Dominic Cooper in the film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s ‘The History Boys’

It was the success of BBC sitcom Gavin & Stacey, which Corden wrote with his Fat Friends co-star Ruth Jones, that proved both his making and his initial undoing. The show, a sweet-natured, heart-warming comedy about ordinary families, went from 500,000 viewers at the start to drawing audiences of 10 million by the time it finished its run. It made Corden a household name across Britain and was a hit with both critics and awards shows, but the success quickly went to his head. He admitted as much in his autobiography, reflecting on the night in 2008 when he won a TV Bafta for Best Comedy Performance, while Gavin & Stacey picked up the Audience Award. Accepting the second award, Corden used his time at the podium to complain that Gavin & Stacey hadn’t also been nominated for Best Sitcom. “Instead of applause, I was met with silence, shock and disbelief,” he wrote in 2011. “Now, of course, I can see why and how it must have looked – ungracious, ungrateful and brattish. Rather than using my speech to thank everyone who’d helped on the show, I’d ruined the moment and belittled myself in the process.”

It would have been one thing if Corden’s displays of cocksure arrogance had been limited to glitzy awards nights, but before long that same attitude was showing up in his work too. Given carte blanche by the BBC to develop a new sketch show, he delivered Horne & Corden, a collaboration with Gavin & Stacey co-star Mathew Horne, which was universally panned (the New Statesman captured the general mood: “The result is excruciating – as funny and as puerile as a sixth-form revue”). The pair followed that up with the equally critic-repellent horror-comedy Lesbian Vampire Killers. By March 2009, in an article headlined “James Corden: The backlash begins”, this paper was moved to ask: “After a cocky turn at the Baftas and a panning for his latest sketch show, is the tide turning on the bright new star of comedy?”

That piece concludes by acknowledging that Corden had got the message. “Promise once this film (Lesbian Vampire Killers) is out of the way we will really just go away,” Corden is quoted as saying. “We can go for a bit and hopefully resurface later.” Not only was Corden true to his word, but stepping away from TV at that moment turned out to be the smartest move of his career. In 2011, he returned to the stage in Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors and produced a superlative performance that saw him locate some nuance beneath his usual bombast. When the play went to Broadway, Corden took home the Tony Award for Best Actor. That led to him being cast in Rob Marshall’s 2014 movie of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into The Woods, which put him in front of all the right Hollywood executives just as CBS were launching their hunt for a new host for The Late Late Show.

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A grim fairytale: Emily Blunt and James Corden in Disney’s ‘Into the Woods’

Despite his success on Broadway, when Corden took up that high-profile TV gig he was still an unknown quantity for most American viewers. In an excitable 2015 preview for the show in the US edition of GQ, Corden was bizarrely pitched as a “British actor and comedy writer (let’s say, John Oliver crossbred with Chris Farley)”. (Maybe let’s not?)

What Corden needed was a bright idea with which to win over uncertain Americans. He had just the thing. Back in 2011 Corden had filmed a skit for Comic Relief that featured him, in character as Gavin & Stacey’s Smithy, driving around London singing along to Wham’s “I’m Your Man” with George Michael. Corden’s instinct told him the format had legs, and he’s been proved right many times over. On 26 March 2015, Corden’s third night of the Late Late Show, Mariah Carey joined him for the first ever Carpool Karaoke and a phenomenon was born. Corden has since given lifts to a roll call of music’s biggest names, including Madonna, Stevie Wonder and Elton John. The Paul McCartney edition won an Emmy for Best Variety Special. The most popular clip, featuring Adele belting out her bangers, has now been watched over 240 million times on YouTube.

Rolling in the Jeep: Corden welcomes Adele onto Carpool Karaoke for the segment’s most-watched video ever

Needless to say, Corden is no longer an unknown quantity in America. Alison Willmore, a film critic at Vulture, tells me that for most viewers in the States Corden is first and foremost “the Carpool Karaoke guy”. “Because of the way talk shows work now, it’s all about the bits they put online,” she points out. “Carpool Karaoke is absolutely what he’s best known for, and it’s something that’s ‘his’. Each of the various late night hosts have their signature bits, with varying degrees of success in terms of how much people actually like them, but people obviously like Carpool Karaoke. It’s an easy concept that clearly showcases the things that he’s good at.”

Enjoying the odd Carpool Karaoke was not, however, enough to prepare Willmore for Corden’s appearance as Bustopher Jones in 2019’s Cats. It’s doubtful anything could have done. In her review for Vulture, she wrote that there is “something magical about the simple fact that this movie exists, in all its obscene, absurd wonder, its terrible filmmaking choices and bursts of jaw-dropping talent”. Her review was at the more charitable end of the spectrum. Cats holds an aggregated Rotten Tomatoes score of 19 per cent, lower even than Lesbian Vampire Killers (28 per cent). While it would be unfair to foist much of the blame for Cats onto Corden, Willmore points out that it was hardly an advertisement for his musical talents: “For the people who did see Cats, I don’t know that they were like: ‘You know, the person out of this cast who I’d like to see do another musical is James Corden.’”

Kitty litter: Corden and Rebel Wilson attend the 2020 Academy Awards dressed as their ‘Cats’ characters

Which brings us back to Cinderella. The film arrives on Amazon Prime on 3 September, and Willmore reassures me that American audiences will be just as bemused by Corden’s presence as their British counterparts. It’s not that he’s reached the same level of over-exposure as he faced a decade ago – more that many viewers still just expect him to be the Carpool Karaoke guy. “The Cinderella musical is already such an oddity for people,” says Willmore. “It has an extremely all-over-the-place cast. Corden adds to the ‘what-the-f***-ness’ of it. I don’t know if people feel like he’s overexposed so much as just feeling like… what is he doing there?”

Whether you’re a fan of Corden or not, the answer to the perennial question of what it is he actually does seems to always be the same: more than you think.

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