The undisputed media star of this year’s Academy Awards season—coming to a conclusion with the ceremony on Sunday, February 24—is the Swaziland-born veteran actor Richard E. Grant.
Those of us deeply embedded in the cult of his first feature film, Withnail and I, are especially enjoying the various articles about Grant’s enthusiasm, and his deft social media presence. Through his 32-year career in cinema, Grant has shone in supporting parts and leads, in indies and Hollywood prestige pictures, as comfortable in blockbusters as in quirky British fare.
Though Can You Ever Forgive Me? only played for a few weeks in the fall and didn’t reopen in cinemas locally with the Oscar nominations—for Best Actress, Melissa McCarthy, Best Supporting Actor, Grant, and Best Adapted Screenplay, Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty—it will be available this week on iTunes.
The film is an examination of forgery and loneliness, not necessarily in that order, with McCarthy as Lee Israel, a down-on-her-luck writer in early-90s New York City who finds a sideline, then mainline, as a forger of literary letters. Grant plays her friend and sometime partner-in-crime, Jack Hock. It’s a delightful, moving performance. One can’t help but see the shadow of Withnail here, though Jack isn’t anywhere near as pathologically selfish as Grant’s debut feature character.
For those who don’t know, Withnail and I is an independent comedy drama written and directed by Bruce Robinson. Robinson started as an actor and a quite successful one, but eventually turned to screenwriting, penning the script for The Killing Fields and earning an Oscar nod.
The unnamed character “I” (or Marwood, as he was called in the script), played by Paul McGann, is Robinson’s proxy, and the story is based on his years in the 1960s as a struggling actor in London. The two friends, concerned about their health and needing to break the cycle of drinking and drugs, pay a visit to Withnail’s flamboyantly gay Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths). From him they’re able to secure the keys to a ramshackle cottage in the Lake District. They take off in a banged-up Jaguar out of decaying London, but soon start to feel as though they’ve gone on holiday by mistake.
Grant is absolutely hilarious. His Withnail is cowardly, egocentric and absolutely charming. You kind of hate him and you kind of want to be him, or at least as witty as him. But you feel for McGann’s character, who is at the mercy of Withnail’s whims.
It’s a script crammed with classic bits of dialogue. When Withnail returns from a failed audition for a cigar commercial, he says, “a gang of cheroot vendors thought a haircut beyond my ability.” Even the throw-away lines are brilliant. It is the kind of movie that improves with multiple viewings, with a kind of grit common in the work of Mike Leigh or Stephen Frears… but generally a lot funnier.
I can’t think of a film that’s as melancholy as this, but also so incredibly humorous. It’s a film that must’ve been stitched together budget-wise with spare string and bubblegum, but the script and key performances, by Grant, McGann, Ralph Brown, and the late, great Griffiths, are all wonderful. I saw it at age 16 in London at a Baker Street cinema, and I’ve seen it a dozen times since. It simply never ages.
I’ve even got the Ralph Steadman poster up on my wall.
How To Get Ahead in Advertising, also starring Grant, another comedy from Robinson’s fervid imagination, but an even blacker one. A satire on marketing, it’s the story of Denis Bagley, an ad man trying to come up with a campaign for pimple cream, who then develops a terrible, talking boil on his neck. It’s utterly unhinged. An little bit of trivia: Grant’s co-star in this film, Rachel Ward, is directing a feature now called Palm Beach, and Grant will star.
Thanks to these performances, Hollywood took notice. Grant’s next role was in a low-budget fantasy called Warlock, with Julian Sands as a 17th Century warlock, and Grant as a witch-hunter looking to stop him from reassembling the Grand Grimoire, a very evil book.
The warlock finds a way to travel through time to present-day Los Angeles, with Grant’s Redferne hot on his heels. There they run into Lori Singer’s Kassandra-with-a-K, and Redferne and Kassandra chase the warlock across the countryside toward Boston. The effects haven’t aged too well, but the movie is actually a lot of fun, with the script mining the fish-out-of-water humour between’s Grant’s man-out-of-time and Singer’s California girl as they travel together, like a weird take on Midnight Run.
Warlock doesn’t take itself too seriously, given dialogue like the following—Redferne revealing his plan of “thwarting a vile beast of a man who shall not rest until God himself is thrown down, and all of creation becomes Satan’s black hell-besmeared farting hole!”
From here on, Grant becomes a frequent and reliable ensemble and supporting player for the world’s best filmmakers.
He’s worked with Bob Rafelson (Mountains of the Moon), Robert Altman (The Player, Prêt-a-Porter, and Gosford Park), Jane Campion (The Portrait Of A Lady), Martin Scorcese (The Age Of Innocence), and Pablo Larrain (Jackie). These are all notable films—and most of them are terrific—with Grant’s performance in each making them better for his presence. Of his supporting work in large casts, I’d direct the curious toward two in particular:
He is Hugo in Henry & June, Philip Kaufman’s look at the intersecting lives of Anaïs Nin (Maria De Medeiros), Henry Miller (Fred Ward), and Miller’s wife, June (Uma Thurman), in the early 1930s in Paris. It’s a film deeply concerned with sensuality, and Grant has one of the toughest roles, playing Nin’s repressed husband. On first impression Hugo seems so dull in comparison to the explosive sexuality in the three leads, but eventually experiences an awakening of his own.
Also check out Dr Jack Seward in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Francis Ford Coppola’s gothic drama. The starry cast—including Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves, Billy Campbell, Sadie Frost, and Tom Waits—doesn’t leave Grant a lot of room to shine, but he still makes an impression with his character’s nobility and courage in the face of the undead horror.
In the midst of his first brush with Hollywood, Grant starred in one famously disastrous action picture, and another much-adored cult comedy.
The turkey was Hudson Hawk from 1991, a Bruce Willis vehicle that failed to soar at the box office. It actually has plenty of entertainment value as any film with a cast including Willis in his prime, Danny Aiello, Andie MacDowell, James Coburn, David Caruso, Frank Stallone, and in a killer double-act, Grant and Sandra Bernhard as the villainous Mayflower siblings, who blackmail Willis’ ex-con cat burglar to steal a Da Vinci. Grant has never gone bigger than this, and it’s a delight whenever he and Bernhard are on screen together. Willis is at his most self-satisfied, which doesn’t do the movie any favours.
Grant wrote a wildly entertaining book about his first few years in Hollywood, entitled With Nails, saving his juiciest revelations about working on the set of Hudson Hawk. It’s essential reading for anyone interested in a balcony view look at Tinseltown from an outsider’s perspective.
The cult comedy was LA Story, written by and starring Steve Martin. Though it’s a cliche to say a film is a love-letter to something, this is a picture that absolutely adores Los Angeles, while also being very clear-eyed about its flakey contradictions. Martin is Harris K. Telemacher, a weatherman before they called them meteorologists, who’s mired in an awful relationship with Trudi (Marilu Henner). Then along comes English journalist Sara (Victoria Tennant), and to the soothing sounds of Enya, Harris and Sara fall in love. Grant is Roland, Sara’s ex-husband, who she may want to get back together with. Grant underplays Roland, making him an altogether likeable fellow, if slightly piteous. Rounding out the cast is Sarah Jessica Parker as the delightful SanDeE*, who enjoys colonic irrigation and spinning on the beach, and keep your eyes open for a wonderful Patrick Stewart cameo. The film is at once surreal, riotous, and surprisingly heartwarming for a romantic comedy that also features a sentient digital highway sign.
I have to admit, a browse of Grant’s IMDB profile reveals much more of his work in the past two decades or so unseen than seen by me, which has a lot to do with his having done so many films in the UK—Grant has referred to “the inert corpse of my American career”—while his European films never opened in North America, or else are barely available.
His 1995 romantic drama Jack & Sarah is available to be seen on YouTube, but others are harder to track down. like the George Orwell adaptation Keep The Aspidistras Flying aka A Merry War, also starring Helena Bonham Carter. Grant is one of the few reasons to watch the Spice Girls’ movie Spice World—though he credits it for having landed a gig on Lena Dunham’s Girls, as she is a fan of the movie—while his work in films such as Monsieur N. and Bright Young Things is very much still on my list to see.
In 2005, Grant wrote and directed Wah-Wah, an autobiographical tale of life at the end of the British colonial era in Swaziland, starring Gabriel Byrne, Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson, and Nicholas Hoult. Grant directs with a light touch despite a fairly bleak tale of alcoholism and family strife—this is far from the comedy it might look like on the surface.
It’s also an affecting coming-of-age tale, and you can feel the actor slip easily into the role of filmmaker when the material is so close to his heart, even casting his daughter, Olivia, in a supporting role. It’s available now on Amazon Prime.
Dom Hemingway maybe was a bit of a stretch for Jude Law, a charming performer playing someone so free of charm, a violent and unpleasant ex-con. I had some issues with the film, but Grant shines as Hemingway’s wonderfully droll buddy Dickie Black, a role with some real style and swagger.
I have a feeling we’ll be seeing a lot more of Grant in Hollywood in the coming years, his role in Can You Ever Forgive Me? having reminded those directors and casting agents of his broad talent. He’s got a part in the upcoming Star Wars film, and you know he’s sure to be a First Order baddie of some sort. If this is the stage of his career where we see him more often as the villain, the kind of part Mark Strong has been playing for a decade, that works, too. He deftly filled that part in Logan, as Dr Rice, the malevolent scientist who experiments on young mutants.
I want to wish all the best for Richard E. Grant at the Academy Awards on Sunday, and the career kick that will likely come from it. Grant says he’s not writing a speech because he’s sure Mahershala Ali will win for his role in Green Book. I’m sure he’ll have a blast either way.