A reluctant leading man

Times Staff Writer

"EVERYONE wants to be Cary Grant," Cary Grant is supposed to have said. "Even I want to be Cary Grant." But who wants to be Hugh Grant? Not him. He finds this "Hugh Grant creation" that has supplanted him in the world bewildering. And he's not crazy about the pressure, the tabloid hostility, the "stalky" fans or the possibility he'll drag the whole business out too long and end up a parody of himself, either.

For nearly as long as he's been a movie star, Grant has expressed his ambivalence about being a movie star. And every time he expresses this ambivalence in an interview, he's either lambasted by a slew of reporters or his existential gropings are reduced to sound bites, or both. In the infinite loop that is the 24-hour news cycle, this sort of thing can go on forever, and often it does. As a result, Grant has come to be seen as the Michael Jordan of acting -- the guy who can't retire for retiring -- even though to read his interviews is to come away with the impression that he's not trying to hand in his resignation so much as he is trying to work something out.

Maybe it's a coincidence that in his new movie, "Music and Lyrics," Grant plays a guy who used to be famous but isn't anymore. Or maybe, as the latest in self-help mysticism has it, we attract what we project. In any case, he tackles the role with unabashed glee. Grant may be determined not to take the David Lee Roth approach to stardom (hanging on well beyond the point when it is seemly), but he also understands that fleeting as fame may be, the distorting prism is forever.

In the movie, he plays Alex Fletcher, a faded 1980s pop star turned trivia question who is loosely modeled on the half of Wham! that was not George Michael. Whereas "the other guy from Wham!" (who has a name you would still not use instead of "the other guy from Wham!" even if you could remember what it was) followed a failed attempt at a solo career with a failed attempt at an acting career, then married a former member of Bananarama, moved to Cornwall and had kids; the fictional Alex has gone from superstar to joke to professional has-been.

Having spent the '80s doing repetitive hip thrusts in hilarious-in-hindsight music videos, Alex now suffers the dysplastic consequences while performing at state fairs and amusement parks for the middle-aged women who used to be his teenage fans. Still, he is reasonably happy, until his livelihood is threatened by all the up-and-coming young wash-ups from the '90s now bubbling up through the system. Even in the has-been business, youth and novelty trump experience.

"Music and Lyrics," which is not much more than a ritual materialistic fantasy, doesn't exactly delve deeply into the subject of post-celebrity. But like so many entertainment products, it automatically riffs off the culture that produced it. The idea that Grant "reinvented" himself in "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "About a Boy" and feels dread at the thought of becoming a parody of himself, reinvented or not, are two of the tropes most commonly associated with the actor, and both are echoed in the movie echoes. Despite having played all manner of roles before his break-out "Four Weddings and a Funeral," including a campy lordling in Ken Russell's "The Lair of the White Worm" and a great white worm of a straying husband in Roman Polanski's nutsy "Bitter Moon," he could never escape the stammering twit image bestowed by Richard Curtis in "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Notting Hill."

Alex is given the chance to redeem himself and recover his long-lost dignity by writing a song for a reigning pop tart -- career reinvention being the most redemptive and dignified thing an entertainment industry professional can imagine. His chance at love and success as a songwriter arrives in the form of a professional plant waterer (Drew Barrymore) who also happens to be a latent virtuoso lyricist. (It could happen!) Barrymore is just authentic enough to pull off a character this flagrantly bogus. Grant, on the other hand, plays a walking self-parody with the insight and aplomb of a man who's been preparing for the role for years. As a guy who can claim that he never intended to be a movie star and make it sound perfectly plausible, Grant is anticipating a time when he'll no longer have to deal with the alienation of being Hugh Grant, but with the discomfort of having been Hugh Grant instead.

For this, as well as for an underrated comic talent (why is comic talent so perpetually underrated? And why is buffoonery so often mistaken for comic talent?), we should cut Hugh Grant some serious slack. Here, after all, is a star whose psychic distance from his own media-made persona has always been so utter and complete that he was able to emerge from the other great oral sex scandal of the '90s as if the incident had happened to somebody else. Which, in a sense, it did. It happened to the Hugh Grant compelled (and possibly contractually bound) by forces outside his control to go on "The Tonight Show" and explain himself to Jay Leno, not the Hugh Grant who still believed his life was his own enough to pull over for Divine Brown.

Had the scandal happened later in his career, well after he was established and he had started fantasizing about a move to his own private Cornwall, it's nice to imagine that Grant would have turned the obligatory talk show confession around and said what he was really thinking. (Doth it really please the Lord so much when talk show hosts force celebrities to repent and publicly atone for our sins?) It might have spared having to watch future Britneys and Freys subjected to the righteous wrath of Oprah and Matt Lauer.

The ability to communicate his bewilderment at the absurdity all around him without speaking has always been the source of his appeal, after all. The tension between the impulse to say what he was thinking and the feeling that he'd better not used to render Hugh Grant as taut and charged as an electrical wire.

The features that once came to natural repose in an expression of mildly amused disgust have shifted lately to mildly disgusted amusement. This, it seems clear, is a sign of maturity. Unfortunately, the demand for maturity in American comedy is low.

Stuck in the same types of roles he was playing 15 years ago, which require him to be encased in ever more elaborate scenarios to "explain" his age, it's no wonder Grant dreams of a time when he will dedicate himself to golf and minding his own business.

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