SOMETIMES YOU DON'T KNOW ANYTHING is wrong with you until someone else points it out. Rehab professionals have a word for such a forced perception of a personal foible: intervention. My own came about last year, in a forward row of a movie theater as I watched a film called About a Boy, vaguely aware that my enjoyment was somehow more enthusiastic than that of the other 11 people in the audience. At one point, as Will (Hugh Grant) admits that deep down he truly is as superficial as he appears to be on the surface, I turned to my wife to share my amusement. She was sitting crossways in her chair, staring at the side of my head as if she did not know who it belonged to.
“This is so funny,” I said.
“Stop braying,” she replied. “You're embarrassing me.”
I attempted to muffle my laughter, but with only limited success. I hadn't so thoroughly enjoyed an outing to the theater in years. I had become enchanted with About a Boy's star, the effervescent toff Hugh Grant. Even I have to ask: What is my problem?
For anyone who has missed such cinematic cream puffs as Nine Months, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Mickey Blue Eyes, Hugh Grant is a romantic-comedy actor whose trademark quirks — snooty British accent, blushing on cue, perfectly controlled hint of a stutter, wide-eyed innocence interspersed with disarming, rapid-fire blinking — narrowly skirt self-satisfaction and arrive at a fetching sort of haughty diffidence. The actor tends to be affably apologetic on the surface, but self-assured under all that, then apologetic again for harboring that inner assurance. Hugh is the leading man who pauses during sex to say he is sorry for causing the bedsprings to squeak. Some people — those, presumably, who go for a twinkling, blue-eyed mop-top with clean features and a soft, friendly smile — find him attractive.
Now, it's understandable that women might succumb to the crafty simpering of a Hugh Grant, but how did this stammering fop seduce a guy like me, a real guy who has read Hustler magazine and attends prizefights, a guy who wouldn't be caught dead at three-quarters of the movies Hugh has made (unless, of course, I was attending as a guest of Salma Hayek)?
My susceptibility to the allure of an abjectly self-deprecatory man with floppy hair mystified me. Not that I had any desire to “get better.” There seemed to be no reason to rid myself of my Grant infatuation. I simply wanted to unravel the wiring behind an innocent affection. In the pursuit of that understanding, I watched nine Hugh Grant movies over the space of a three-day weekend . . .
Following the experiment, I concluded that my affection for Hugh Grant stems mostly from identification. And not just at a superficial level. Like any healthy narcissist, I need to think of myself as being good-looking. Every time I put in a Hugh Grant video or DVD, I imagine that I might pass as his lesser-gifted but still quite presentable cousin. The real beauty of Hugh Grant's acting is that it seems not to exist. He appears to be playing people who are only slightly idealized versions of his real self, people who really aren't all that much more likable than someone like me.
It helps, identification-wise, that Mr. Grant's signature characters are often “wowsers,” creations distinguished by a pronounced fluttering of downy eyelashes in the face of conflict, be it the mildest disagreement or the forced ingestion of Tom Arnold's tongue (Nine Months). The typical Grant “silly bugger” lacks outward confidence, but has the nerve and decency to remain gracious while suffering absurd or insurmountable adversity.
IN 1995, SILVER-SCREEN GALLANT Hugh Grant waltzed through five star turns within the space of 12 months (among them Restoration, Sense and Sensibility and the seldom-seen but amply titled The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain), but his most significant accomplishment was reviewed in the newspapers of June 27, 1995. In the tragicomic breakthrough performance of a lifetime, Mr. Grant was arrested by Los Angeles police while amorously engaged with alleged prostitute Divine Brown. (And please note: Hugh's steady girlfriend at the time had a face valued at $4.5 million annually by Estée Lauder.) Finally, legions of date-movie hostages had an answer for the single woman's eternal lament “Why can't more of you guys be like Hugh Grant?”
“I'm terribly sorry, my dear, but as it so happens, we are.”