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Grant takes place in the sun

America will be having a Hugh Grant festival this spring. The boyish British actor with the apologetic shrug is the star of three films being released almost simultaneously: "Sirens," "Four Weddings And A Funeral" and "Bitter Moon." All three are well-suited to his strengths as a likeable, diffident, chap who backs into situations apologetically, but usually prevails.

The stock for British actors has never been higher in America. Anthony Hopkins, Liam Neeson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Ralph Fiennes and Emma Thompson are Oscar nominees; David Thewlis won the year-end critics' awards for "Naked;" and Jeremy Irons, Kenneth Branagh, Ben Kingsley, Helena Bonham-Carter, Charles Dance, Joely and Natasha Richardson, Julian Sands, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, and Edward and James Fox are on various A-lists.

It's too soon to say whether Grant will also become a Hollywood household name, but he is well-positioned. His career right now resembles Michael Caine's in the mid-1960s, when back-to-back hits ("Alfie" and "The Ipcress File") established him as the hot young British import of the moment. Caine never looked back, and has been Hollywood's favorite British actor for 30 years, in good films and bad (his current film, Steven Seagal's "On Deadly Ground," got some of the worst reviews of the century, but is undeniably a hit).

Grant is not a newcomer. Since drifting into acting while an English student at Oxford, he's made nearly a dozen films, including "Maurice" (1987), "Lair Of The White Worm" and "White Mischief" (both 1988) and "Impromptu" (1991). But his self-effacing style has so far kept him away from roles that make a strong impression. He is very good, but in a low-key way, and his acting makes me think of a magician who directs your attention away from the trick, or a shy person who draws attention to others at a party. This skill is invaluable; "Sirens" and "Bitter Moon" would not work without it. But it doesn't leave you with a strong impression of Grant.

Seeing him in three movies within a week or two, in three actually very different roles, I was better able to appreciate what he does. Like the late Denholm Elliott, he is an ideal catalyst--a subversive who controls a scene from within.

The entries in the current Hugh Grant festival are all concerned in one way or another with sex, and with the Grant character's reluctance to commit himself to it wholeheartedly:

* "Sirens," set in the 1930s on the estate of a notorious Australian painter, stars Grant as an Anglican clergyman who has been assigned by the bishop of Sydney to ask the artist (Sam Neill) to stop working in a blasphemous vein. Once Grant and his wife become guests on the farm, an insidious process of seduction takes place, in which the artist, his wife and his very friendly models try to convince the couple to loosen up a little. Since one of the models is played by Sports Illustrated centerfold Elle MacPherson, and since there is a lot of nudity, the film is being sold on its erotic content. Actually, it's more about liberation, about growing comfortable with your physical body.

Hugh Grant's role is crucial: He plays a shy man who turns red at the slightest suggestive behavior, yet he has a warm heart and simply needs to overcome his instinctive reticence. The movie was directed by John Duigan, whose "Flirting" (1992) was about a similar character in his early teens.

* "Four Weddings and a Funeral" is an elaborate comedy about a group of British friends who are invited to a series of weddings over a fairly short span of time. At the first wedding, Grant, a well-liked but somewhat inept bachelor, falls in love at first sight with a beautiful American woman (Andie MacDowell). She likes him, too, and their flirtation develops into a courtship--greatly complicated by the fact she is engaged to marry a wealthy, powerful Scotsman. The third marriage is, in fact, hers. And the fourth--ah, that one's not so easy to figure out.

Like Branagh's "Peter's Friends" (1972), the movie is enriched by our sense that these people have known each other since they were much younger; that the marriages are occasions for intrigues that will continue all of their lives. What makes Grant essential to the film is that we like his character so much. We identify with his inability to act at the crucial moment, and we share the poignancy of his love for a woman who (like Katharine Ross in "The Graduate") is getting married for reasons as wrong as they seem inescapable.

* "Bitter Moon" is a weird and twisted psychodrama, especially compared to the sweetness of the other films. Directed by Roman Polanski, it tells the story of two couples who meet on an ocean cruise. Grant is once again a diffident, easily-embarrassed pigeon, who is set up by Peter Coyote, as the husband of the most sensuous woman on the ship (played by Polanski's own wife, Emmanuelle Seigner). Coyote, a heavy drinker who is in a wheelchair, corners Grant and insists on telling him the entire story of his relationship with his wife.

It is a tale of depravity and obsession, filled with kinky sadomasochistic experiments, all carefully documented by Polanski in flashbacks. This is a story the reticent Grant does not want to hear. Yet he is fascinated, and at the same time Seigner seems unmistakably to be seducing him. Or it is possible that both Coyote and Seigner are simply acting out a bizarre scenario of their own--that Grant and his wife are the targets of their latest game?

Talking about "Bitter Moon" during a recent visit to Chicago, Grant said he thought it was all "a question of how much of the joke you get. If you get it, it's a masterpiece."

And if you don't?

"I think it's more of a European film, in a way. American audiences may find it very strange. He's brought a combination of tightly-written and well-organized American script and his kind of weird Polish vision. It's a very interesting combination."

How does it feel to have these three films coming out all at once? Will it give you a breakthrough ino the American market?

"Well, I don't know. At the Sundance festival, two of the films were there, "Sirens" and "Four Weddings," and they got good responses, and people were being almost obscenely nice to me. For years when I came to Los Angeles they were...polite. I don't really know whether to take it with a pinch of salt or not. I suppose deep down I would be dishonest if I said I wasn't a bit excited. It's nuts, really. In Hollywood, the prime factor, from my brief experience of it, doesn't seem to be actual talent, but heat. And so it if you have a little bit of heat in the bank, you have to spend it very quickly. I suppose if I am ever going to do an American-type film, it ought to be relatively soon."

It's sort of a Catch-22, isn't it? I said. Where you can't get the films until you have the attention--and you can't get the attention except by making two or three good films all at once.

"The next move is very hard. If you are in a supposedly good position, you've got to try and strike while the iron's hot. I must have read about 20 or 30 scripts in the last few weeks and there's nothing that makes me salivate. That's very tough."

It's strange that most of the money in the movie industry is concentrated in the United States, major studios, and yet British actors are extremely successful in American films. And they get many of the awards. Is that because you're better actors?

"I personally don't think that's the case. I think it's a case of the grass always being greener on the other side. In England, when we give out our awards, we favor the Robert DeNiros, Sean Penns and John Malkovichs of the world, rather than our own. It's the lure of the exotic." Is there a type of role that seems to have Hugh Grant written on it?

"Such as..."

Man tempted by sensual fantasy, but would almost rather just be left alone?

"Well...'Bitter Moon' and 'Sirens' do rather have similar themes, although of course the stories are quite different. 'Sirens' is a more free-wheeling picture. It's like, this is free-and-easy Australia, mate, and if you want to take your clothes off, take them off! And, rather like in 'Bitter Moon,' we get sucked into this world, and passion is stirred, particularly my wife's, and it's a serious film about our pre-Christian selves, our real sexual selves, our libido and stuff like that, but it's also a comedy on another level."

The women are the sirens.

"Yeah, they beckon us. But it's got a touch of that whole mystical streak that Australian films sometimes have. I don't know where it comes from; maybe it has to do with their aboriginal heritage or something. You remember, was it 'Picnic at Hanging Rock?' Films like that."

Films where civilization goes to a place that cares nothing about civilization.

"Exactly."

"Four Weddings and a Funeral" is just the opposite kind of story, I said, in which civilization seems to win out over deeper impulses. When I was watching it, it struck me that within a certain class in England, everyone knows each other and they're all related, by marriage, by family, or by having gone to the same schools. It seems like a much smaller country in that way. The characters in the film could look around and probably tell you more or less who everyone else was.

"You're right up to a point. What's actually been left out of the film is a scene explaining the central group of friends. We all knew each other from university."

I kind of assumed that.

"It's not so much a class thing, actually. In fact, we were trying very hard in the film not to make it seem all sort of upper-middleclass. The first wedding is supposed to be actually rather simply humble--and with Gareth, the gay man, we make the point that he comes from a council home on the east end of London."

Yet they've all stayed in touch.

"Which is nice but also claustrophobic."

Grant said that as an English lit student at Oxford, he appeared in a student film, was spotted by an agent, and was eventually cast in "Maurice," a Merchant-Ivory film where he played an upper-class Oxford student who believes he is homosexual but tries to deny it. Then he made the still-notorious "Lair of the White Worm" for Ken Russell, the bad boy of British cinema, who based it on a story by Bram Stoker about a prehistoric dragon-worm still living under the lands of a British lord. Russell has made a career, I said, out of being wilfully outrageous.

"Yeah, but I like him for that. He's like Polanski. I'd rather work with those who are geniuses and have a real voice of their own, hit or miss, than with someone who is good and steady and gets it in on time and on budget. "

What I liked about that film was its audacity and the courage it had to go all the way.

"I don't really know what Ken was up to. I think was a kind of gesture of defiance, of contempt for the film establishment. I feel sorry for him in a way because no one wants enfants terribles anymore. Polanski's slightly in the same boat but not quite."

If, I said, one or two of these three films becomes a box office success, and Americans at last know exactly who Hugh Grant is, do you think there's a danger that you'll be carried along by success into films you really shouldn't be making.

"I think I'm old enough now to be relatively wise about it. The only other time people were being vaguely nice to me was after 'Maurice' came out, and then I did make all the wrong choices. I was over-excited that people were offering me all this money, lovely foreign locations and glamorous actresses. Quite daft, isn't it?"

What were your wrong choices?

"You probably wouldn't have seen very many of them, if any. I made a lot of European films. A couple of French ones, a Spanish film. I made some very small budget English ones before the vogue for small-budget English films hit America. A film with Anthony Hopkins called 'The Dawning.' A film with Liam Neeson called 'The Big Man.' Tons of stuff, really, but a lot of it I was taking just through over-excitement, just thinking, 'Ah, money, money!' and 'It's a film! My God!' I never used to get films, I used to be do only theatre. I've learned now that you have to be very careful, build your whole career on rock and not on sand."

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