This week, Paramount bows “Florence Foster Jenkins,” the true story of a very nice woman who happened to be a very bad singer. Many will talk about the fact that it’s likely to land star Meryl Streep her 20th Oscar nomination, which is staggering. But perhaps even more surprising is that her co-star in the film, Hugh Grant, has never even been nominated.
Maybe it’s not that shocking, considering Grant doesn’t usually make movies that compete in the Oscar race; with the exception of “Sense and Sensibility” in 1995, his work tends to be more populist than “prestige.” But “Florence Foster Jenkins,” directed by Stephen Frears, is the perfect combination of both. It’s a big crowd-pleaser, a period piece, and a true story. It also helps that the central characters are artists – something the Academy loves. The film itself is the first entry of the year that has a strong shot of going all the way in the major categories, including picture, director and screenplay. Her co-stars stand a good chance of recognition as well: In addition to Grant, Simon Helberg turns in a charming performance as Jenkins’ beloved pianist.
Not every actor can hold their own against Streep. In fact, it’s hard to remember a male co-star who really stood out in recent years. That could be due to the fact that Streep doesn’t generally take roles that feature a major love interest for her character. The last actor to really spring to mind was the great Stanley Tucci, with whom she shared wonderful chemistry in “Julie & Julia.” (Tucci deserved an Oscar nom for that performance, but instead earned one for another film that year, “The Lovely Bones.”)
Grant’s turn as St. Clair Bayfield, an unmemorable actor who gave up his dreams of fame to marry Jenkins, is in the same vein. He not only holds his own against the Greatest Actress in the World™, he steals scenes. Though Bayfield has a mistress (in real life they eventually married), there is no doubt he adores Jenkins, who he dotes on. Though Jenkins cannot sing, he encourages her hobby, making sure her performances are only for good friends and bribed critics. It’s a complex relationship, which Grant acknowledges. “It was, in many ways, a marriage of convenience,” he says. “She gets a suave, aristocratic Englishman as her consort, and he gets money and a position. What I liked about the film is it talked about how a relationship can be completely self-serving and ultimately develop into real love.”
It’s a tricky balance, to make viewers invest in the love story and not play Bayfield as a cad. But the two have an easy rapport, and it’s a charming departure to see an adult relationship between two longtime married people on screen, and Streep and Grant feel natural together, presenting a love that is unconventional, but deep and true.
Which is not to say Grant wasn’t intimidated working alongside Streep, who he had never met before taking the role. “Nineteen bloody Oscar nominations is intimidating,” Grant says. “My philosophy is to learn my lines and try not to bump into the furniture.”
Perhaps fueled by that intimidation, Grant says, “I went to all kinds of lengths in this film to try and be somewhere in the same orbit.” That included reading Bayfield’s letters and diaries, which he says was an enormous help. “I realized this was a man desperate; he was nothing without her,” he says. “That’s a huge part of why he protects that world so ferociously.”
Grant has turned in Oscar-worthy performances before, most notably in 2002’s “About a Boy,” in which he admits he played a character not far from himself at the time. “It was a little bit my life,” he admits. “I was about 40 then and single and a bit spoiled.”
But those who dole out awards tend to steer clear of the comedy genre, especially the often reviled romantic comedy field, where Grant has made such an impression.
Which is unfortunate. Two years ago, when Matthew McConaughey was days away from winning the Oscar, he reflected on his most difficult roles. And it wasn’t the haunted lawman of “True Detective” or the HIV-positive cowboy of “Dallas Buyers Club” that he cited, but a string of hit romantic comedies like “How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days” and “The Wedding Planner.”
“It is a hard challenge to make it work, to tell a story you’ve seen time and time again that you know what the ending is going to be,” McConaughey said at the time. “You have to stay light, you have to keep it moving. You drop anchor in one of those movies, and the whole thing sinks.”
Grant agrees. “I never meant to be in romantic comedies, it’s just what ended up happening,” he says. “But they are tricky, in a post-1960s sexual revolution way. It was easier when you couldn’t have sex scenes, everything crackled very nicely. They’re not easy.”
Grant had done more serious films like “Bitter Moon” and “Maurice,” when his breakthrough came in the 1994 rom-com “Four Weddings and Funeral.” It was at a time when he was considering leaving the business. Of course, retiring/leaving is something Grant refers to often, so it’s hard to know how serious he was. “It’s a familiar pattern,” he admits.
At the time, Grant thought he had squandered any goodwill he’d earned. “After ‘Maurice,’ which was a good film and won prizes and was well regarded, I then accepted every piece of crap that came my way,” he recalls. “I was just so excited to be offered anything.”
According to him, right before “Four Weddings,” things had dried up. “At that stage, I wasn’t really getting any work at all. To my great surprise, this script came through the letterbox from my agent. I rang him up and said, ‘There must be a surprise, you gave me a good script.’”
His sweet, bumbling performance turned him into an international star overnight, quickly dubbed the next Cary Grant – a curious comparison given that Cary Grant usually remained suavely unflappable in a way that made him less relatable than Hugh Grant. Countless offers came his way, and he confesses, “It was just really nice. There’s no beating about the bush. After years of struggling around, it was a trip.”
Asked if he ever worried about being typecast he responds, “I encouraged it, really, in a shameful way. I think there was some part of me that thought, ‘People love this stuff! So I’ll do a bit more of that.’ That was a very bad mistake. If I was advising me now, I would say don’t do that.”
Though Grant is harder on himself than his critics, he admits he took part in some great films. This includes two other collaborations with “Four Weddings” writer Richard Curtis: “Notting Hill” and “Love Actually.” But he did dabble in dramas, such as the 1996 thriller “Extreme Measures,” which he also produced. “I thought I’d show people I’m not just a one-trick pony. As it turns out, I was,” he jokes. Since then, he’s done solid work in movies like “Cloud Atlas,” but it’s the rom-coms that proved most profitable.
It’s wrong to dismiss his work in those films, but it’s easy. Even Frears did it recently in an interview with the Independent. He said of Grant, “I’ve always thought that he was clever. I don’t know why he makes the films that he makes – not that I’ve seen them.” Frears might have been joking, but the fact remains that the genre – and the actors who excel at it – don’t get the credit they deserve.
So could “Florence Foster Jenkins” change the tide for Grant? It’s hard to say; the film might be too fun and come out too early in the season to stick with voters. But if it does well, and it should, Grant will be hard to forget. It doesn’t hurt that he’s endlessly charming in appearances and interviews, making people remember why they fell in love with him in the first place. And, like his best performances, he makes it look effortless.