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Misleading Men: Oh, That British Charm

Hugh Grant’s most exciting performance to date was his attempt to save his career after 1995’s oral sex scandal

Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.

Hugh Grant has been a movie star for more than 20 years — the center of beloved films like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Love Actually. People will go to films specifically because he’s in them. And he’s still attracting theatergoers with his British charms, co-starring in this month’s Florence Foster Jenkins. And yet it’s quite likely that he’s never been more famous than for something he did outside of his movies—paying a sex worker for oral sex. It’s a strange thing: You consistently make well-liked films throughout your career, but one juicy scandal will top them all — even if it’s something from long ago that now might not cause people to bat an eye. Actually, that’s what made his so juicy — it was something meaningless. But it forever changed how we thought of him.

Grant grew up in London, and even as a kid he was a bit of a dreamboat, although he already knew how to be self-deprecating about it. “I wasn’t happy as a teenager at all, especially with my hair,” he said to the BBC in 2003. “When I went on French exchanges, all the locals would call me ‘Mademoiselle,’ and I never completely got over that.” He acted, doing theater and starting comedy troupes, but in general he’s always viewed his profession with some dubiousness. “I was always aware, right from the start, that the sort of attention you get as an actor is not real,” he said earlier this month. “It’s false, it’s artificial — fake cheese out of a tube.”

By the mid-1980s, he was appearing on plenty of televisions, graduating to film roles in Merchant-Ivory dramas (Maurice and The Remains of the Day) and Roman Polanski thrillers (Bitter Moon). But it was 1994’s Four Weddings and a Funeral that made American viewers take notice. He played Charles: a sweet, nervous bloke smitten with Andie MacDowell’s Carrie. Endearing and stammering, Grant became known as the quintessential Non-Threatening Nice Guy. And the movie, which got a surprise Best Picture nomination, went a long way to cementing his bumbling, self-effacing appeal.

It seemed that the path was immediately set for him to jump to Hollywood and become the studios’ go-to rom-com star. Handsome, droll, that British accent — he had it all. He next appeared in the Chris Columbus we’re-having-a-baby comedy Nine Months. But just as he was getting ready to promote it…

image via The Smoking Gun

…this happened.

On the morning of June 27, 1995, Grant was arrested right off Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles for receiving oral sex from a sex worker. He had become famous for playing the good guy — and who had been dating beautiful Elizabeth Hurley — and the incident suggested another side to him. His publicists quickly attempted to limit the damage. “Last night, I did something completely insane,” he said through a statement. “I have hurt people I love and embarrassed people I work with. For both things I am more sorry than I can ever possibly say.”

On Monday, July 10, the actor appeared on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno to promote Nine Months, which would open two days later. It’s entirely possible there are many human beings who have never seen a Hugh Grant movie but watched him that night with Leno. Even if you had seen a Grant movie, you weren’t tuning in to hear about a romantic comedy co-starring Julianne Moore — you wanted to hear about that blowjob.

Leno understood that, coyly commenting before he brought on Grant, “You may have read or heard about my guest in the past few weeks,” later adding sarcastically, “All [this] press, everybody is here to find out about this movie!” And when he called Grant to the stage, his band cheekily played Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” as the actor walked over to meet Leno.

Grant got a hero’s welcome from the audience, but the guy looked mortified. And then Leno leaned in to ask something they had clearly rehearsed:

“What the hell were you thinking?”

Grant winced and struggled through the interview, taking Leno’s good-natured ribbing in stride. In the process, he inadvertently helped perfect a strategy of how to deal with celebrity scandal: Go out on national television, be a good sport, take your lumps, apologize and move on. It was a tactic Grant would follow on other programs, including Live With Regis and Kathie Lee and Larry King Live. It’s forgotten that Grant went on Late Show, too, with Letterman introducing him by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, our first guest stars in the movie hit Nine Months…” — and then a well-timed pause followed by a deadpan “…and I think we all know the rest.” The audience roared affectionately, even when the band played “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which seemed in that moment to be a pretty crude reference to his oral-sex arrest.

Hollywood insiders and entertainment journalists went back and forth on whether the scandal would ruin Grant’s career. It wasn’t the sex that was so worrying professionally — it was the despoiling of his squeaky clean, everyman image. As it turned out, Grant’s career didn’t suffer from the fallout. But it did suggest a split in the person he played onscreen and the other guy we now knew existed underneath.

Grant recently looked back on the incident, telling CBS Sunday Morning, “It was entirely to be expected that there would be a huge hullabaloo about that, particularly given this rather absurd persona that I had been given about who I was [in] Four Weddings. People thought I was this nice character I played in that film. So I suppose the contrast between that person and this seedy behavior was juicy stuff.”

But a few years later, he would have his biggest hit with Notting Hill, playing a Four Weddings-like ordinary guy opposite luminous-movie-star-playing-luminous-movie-star Julia Roberts. And in Love Actually, he was the British Prime Minister (but still kind of an everyman) who falls hard for a pretty staff member (Martine McCutcheon).

But none of those roles are as interesting as the times where he’s shown another aspect of his personality. In that same CBS Sunday Morning interview, Grant referred to “this nice character” from Four Weddings almost dismissively — as if he understood that Charles wasn’t even that compelling of a character. It was in keeping with a response he gave to Salon last year when asked if he was a rom-com fan. “Not particularly,” he said. “I have no idea why I ended up making so many romantic comedies. That was never a genre that I was naturally drawn to as a cinema-goer.” Which probably explains why he pops when playing somebody like the jerky editor in Bridget Jones’s Diary or the overgrown cad in About a Boy. There’s a snottiness in these performances — as well as a certain liberated spirit — that suggests that he felt free to no longer just be Charles. Even in the feel-good Florence Foster Jenkins, his supportive, protective husband is undercut by the fact that he has a mistress on the side.

Hugh Grant proves that Hollywood has a short memory. If he hadn’t been caught, would he still have eventually shifted away from stammering-and-charming roles? While promoting Bridget Jones’s Diary, he said of the arrogant character he played in the film, “I’m sick to death of Mr. Nice Guy, I’ve done way too much of it recently. And I think it has made the rest of the world start to vomit slightly as well. So, Bridget Jones was a really blessed relief.” He added, rather cheekily, “Most actors really love [acting], that’s what they want to do… And because I rather hate acting, my eyes are seeing something different. I’m looking for reasons not to do it!”

Why, then, did Grant choose this profession? “I didn’t. I fell into it,” Grant says. “And I keep meaning to fall out of it. I can’t say I’m not committed and passionate when I do it, but I think it was a kind of wrong turn.”

See his recent work in films like Cloud Atlas and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and you might notice a guy who doesn’t take his craft too seriously. Not that he’s not still a compelling presence — it’s just that part of his (and our) amusement comes from the knowledge that he doesn’t crave this gig.

Over the last few years, he’s been more focused on being a spokesman for Hacked Off, a lobbying group challenging the British press’s ability to hound victims of terrorist attacks and other tragedies. In interviews, he sounds happier talking about Hacked Off than he ever did his acting process.

Still, his cultural legacy seems assured. In our listicle era, we’re already busy ranking Grant’s greatest performances. And it wouldn’t be snarky to suggest that his truest, most revealing work might have been 21 years ago during that promotional tour for Nine Months.