Middle age rather suits Hugh Grant, who turns 58 on September 9. The Oxford grad has outgrown most of his romantic comedy ticks from his early years – flopsy-mopsy hair, fluttery eyelashes and charming stutter – and has matured into an exceptional and versatile actor. Not that he has lost his sense of humor. Anyone who chuckled over his villainous turn in this year’s “Paddington 2” as a pompous, cravat-wrapped actor who frames his cuddly ursine co-star for a crime he didn’t commit can testify to that Then there was his finely tuned scoundrel turn in this summer’s BBC miniseries, “A Very English Scandal,“ in which his Parliament member Jeremy Thorpe plots the botched murder of his male lover.
Grant began his acting career in the ‘80s as secondary player in both British period pieces — some good (“Maurice”) and others faintly ridiculous (“The Lair of the White Moon”) – and Hollywood comedies (the gangster farce “Mickey Blue Eyes”). But any hopes that he would be a dapper Cary Grant type evaporated as it became clear that Grant possessed the soul of a character actor, at his best when he feels ill at ease or acts the cad. Meanwhile, Oscar has steadfastly refused to give him the time of day, despite making valuable contributions to such Best Picture nominees as “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” The Remains of the Day” and “ Sense and Sensibility” plus his strong work in “About a Boy.” Let’s overlook the lack of trophies on his shelf and toast his career and birthday with a photo gallery tour of his 15 greatest films, ranked from worst to best.
15. CLOUD ATLAS (2012)
This nearly three-hour metaphysical mish-mash is not lacking in ambition as it casts much of its ensemble players in multiple roles in different time periods and various locales around the world. You haven’t really seen Grant on the big screen until you witness his interpretation of a freaky war-painted cannibal warrior. Among his other six roles? A Pacific island missionary, a shady businessman and the Asian manager of a futuristic fast-food joint. Too bad the Cockney gangster role went to Tom Hanks.
14. IMPROMPTU (1991)
A diverting cultural trifle set in 19th-century Paris with an intriguing cast is tabloid fodder from a different era as boho artists gather on a rich patron’s estate. Female author George Sand (Judy Davis) stomps about in trousers while smoking thin cigars, and takes charge when two of her admirers decide to engage in a duel. She falls for sickly Polish composer Frederic Chopin (Grant, too frail and pale to make much of an impression save for well-timed coughs), primarily for his music. Meanwhile, Bernadette Peters as bitchy Marie d’Louglt, the jealous paramour of Franz Liszt (Julien Sands), wants to upgrade to a better composer.
13. SIRENS (1994)
Based on a true story from the 1930s, an English Anglican minister (Grant) and his wife (Tara Fitzgerald) are sent to Australia to convince artist Norman Lindsay (Sam Neill) to not display his painting, “The Crucified Venus,” in an upcoming exhibit. There is a coven of uninhibited female models as well as a male flitting about, igniting the libidos of their visitors. Soon the couple is drawn into the libertine world about them, as the nymph-like creatures beckon. While his character acts suave and knowing, Grant is never more comical than when he is embarrassed – and he has plenty to redden his cheeks in this Dionysian setting.
12. TWO WEEKS NOTICE (2002)
Sandra Bullock’s Harvard-educated lawyer who supports liberal causes arranges to meet with Grant’s wealthy playboy real-estate developer to convince him to save a local community center. Impressed by her credentials, he picks her as his Chief Counsel but uses her as a round-the-clock life coach. She quits her job after five years but becomes concerned when he recruits her replacement (Alicia Witt) based on her looks. Both stars skirt by on their well-established comic personas in not-an-entirely unpleasant way.
11. MUSIC AND LYRICS (2007)
In this contrived yet agreeably cute music-industry rom-com. Grant is a refugee from a Wham!-like boy band (the music video parody that opens the film is perfection) who is struggling to write a song with the title “Way Back Into Love” for a female teen idol. Turns out, his plant waterer (Drew Barrymore) has a knack for lyrics and soon they are making beautiful music together. Grant’s caddishness and Barrymore’s kookiness actually complement each other in a way that donning mismatched socks can be charming.
10. MAURICE (1987)
Grant made an impression in this sensitive yet romantic adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel about male Cambridge students that is considered a landmark in its depiction of gay characters. His upper-class Clive, who is worried about his reputation, and James Wilby’s Maurice share a mutual attraction but avoid actual sex when such relationships were against the law in England. They break up when Clive’s mother forces him to take a wife. A distraught Maurice moves on and meets a more willing partner in Rupert Graves. As “The Washington Post” noted, “The young men of the cast look like models for a ‘GQ’ fashion spread, with Hugh Grant, as Clive, the most recklessly attractive of them all.”
9. THE REMAINS OF THE DAY (1993)
The story told in flashback to ‘30s England, as it reflects upon the pre-war relationship between two dedicated servants, Emma Thompson’s warm-hearted housekeeper and Anthony Hopkins’ repressed butler who work for a Nazi-sympathizing aristocrat. A more-than-friendly connection grows between them but is never acted upon. Grant is the lord of the manor’s journalist godson who informs Stevens about his master’s questionable political leanings. But Stevens, ever loyal, maintains his stance of not having an opinion. Grant, on the brink of stardom, would opine that “Remains” is the best picture that he has ever made.
8. LOVE ACTUALLY (2003)
This might be the artificially sweetened “Citizen Kane” among Grant’s many odes to the power of love, an ensemble monster of a valentine to the post-9/11 era – even if that love-struck kid somehow sneaks by upgraded airport security to kiss his grade-school sweetie goodbye with no consequences. Actually, the actor’s scenes are among my favorites (although not as wonderful those with Bill Nighy’s louche rock star) as his prime minister, smitten with his tea-service girl, shakes his booty to the Pointer Sisters’ “Jump,” or gives a verbal slap to the face to Billy Bob Thornton’s smugly predatory U.S. president.
7. NOTTING HILL (1999)
Grant’s William: “I live in Notting Hill. You live in Beverly Hills. Everyone in the world knows who you are, my mother has trouble remembering my name.” Julia Roberts’ Anna Scott: “I’m also just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.” Those lines basically sum up this finely wrought rom-com confection slathered with meta-frosting, given that Roberts plays a big American movie star who comes to London make a film and falls for Grant’s self-effacing bookshop owner. Having been a participant in film junkets, I appreciated Grant’s attempt to pass himself off as a reporter from “Horse and Hound.”
6. PADDINGTON 2 (2018)
The polite Peruvian bear (spoken by Ben Whishaw) with a weakness for marmalade is back, only to be found guilty of robbing an antiques shop, a crime he did not commit. The poor fellow ends up being sentenced to 20 years in prison with the worst sort of criminal element. His foe that is as craven as he is cuddly? Grant’s washed-up, narcissistic actor Phoenix Buchanan, who snatched an old pop-up book for his own gain. The actor has a ball mocking his chosen profession while disguising himself as a homeless man, a bishop and a nun. Grant brings out the best in his stuffed co-star while the bear knocks the glamorous stuffing out him.
5. SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (1995)
In this Oscar-winning adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, a widow with three daughters is left without means when her inheritance goes to a son by another woman. Sensible Elinor (Emma Thompson), the eldest, connects with her half-brother’s relation, the very pleasant Edward (Grant, with hair at its most tousled and manner at its most courtly). When they at long last haltingly declare their love, the stock in tissues probably went through the roof. As Edward confesses: “ I-I’ve come here with no expectations, only to profess, now that I am at liberty to do so, that my heart is, and always will be, yours.”
4. BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY (2001)
Londoner Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger), a 30-something self-described singleton who has a crush on her womanizing boss, Daniel Cleaver (Grant), works as a publicist for a book publisher. However, her parents keep trying to set her up with a friend’s son (Colin Firth) whom she has known since childhood. She decides to flirt with Daniel and one thing leads to another, which leads to Grant’s infamous improvised line when he sees her large old-fashioned panties: “Hello, mummy!” His success at being a cad led the actor to get similar bad-boy roles, including “Music and Lyrics,” “Florence Foster Jenkins” and “Paddington 2.“ Unfortunately, he also got the inferior 2004 “Bridget” rather desperate-for-laughs sequel,“The Edge of Reason.”
3. FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS (2016)
Meryl Streep is the main attraction as a real-life rich dowager who can afford to pay her way into being an operatic diva even if she has rarely hit a note that was on key. But Grant as her common-law husband St. Clair Bayfield, a down-on-his luck Shakespearian actor who treats her like a queen while making time with a much younger mistress. You can’t help but initially doubt his motives. But he truly earns his keep, as it becomes clear that there is a deep and sincere connection between the pair as he tenderly calls her “bunny rabbit” and she flutters in her devoted protector’s presence like a giddy schoolgirl. Grant basically came out of semi-retirement to co-star with Streep and we are all very lucky he did.
2. FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL (1994)
This was the romantic comedy that created the awkward dreamboat template for Grant’s next decade or lover-boy film roles, as his committed bachelor, Charles, pursues Andie MacDowell’s Carrie, an American, by attending the title’s five social occasions with his friends. After the final event, he finally gets the nerve to pour his heart out, by quoting a teen idol’s hit song this way: “I really feel, ehh, in short, to recap it slightly in a clearer version, eh, the words of David Cassidy in fact, eh, while he was still with the Partridge Family, eh, ‘I think I love you.’” The fact that the first words Grant says on screen is “F—, f—” after he awakes late for the first nuptials also gets me every time.
1. ABOUT A BOY (2002)
I remember being over the moon for this film and then watching it wither away at summer box office despite great reviews – blame “Spider-Man” and “The Attack of the Clones.” But, since then, it has developed a following, especially at Christmas time since Grant’s wealthy do-nothing basically dates pretty girls and lives off the royalties of his late father’s yuletide ditty, “Santa’s Super Sleigh.” And, much like the Grinch, he connects to Nicolas Hoult’s fatherless misfit while attending a single parents group, but soon finds himself growing up, too. The actor himself matured for this atypical role, losing his floppy locks, acquiring a lean physique, spitting out his lines stutter-free and acid-washing his bumbling persona. In fact, Grant’s relationship to Hoult might be the healthiest and most satisfying he has had in a film.