Awake in the Dark


Two for the Road These are the best of times and the worst of times for Hugh Grant. On the plus side, he appears in his first Hollywood-made star vehicle, and it's a hit. Nine Months, tailored to his easy-going charm, is his first major film since Four Weddings and a Funeral - a movie that despite its two-year-old status is still a topic of occasional conversation.

I'm sure that if it were possible, Grant would junk Nine Months for a time machine ride back to a year or so ago. There had been no embarrassing arrests and he was riding high on the success of not just Four Weddings, but Bitter Moon and Sirens.

But things work out the way they do, and Grant must take the good with the bad. On balance, and disposing of his personal problems for a moment (or forever, if you like), times are quite, quite good.

If Grant is becoming one of the most appealing leading men in today's movies, it is surely because the talent pool is so bereft of young men like him. It's a terrific thing, this courtly, vulnerable, sweet-tempered and self-effacing number that he does. A handsomer gent you'll not find, and you'll also not find a single one of his films in which he flaunts or seems conscious of those good looks. And his characters are just such, well, decent chaps - polite to a fault, slow to anger, generous, and (most important) effortlessly open to communication with females. No wonder the Leno and Letterman audiences have given him the wildest cheers since Tom Hanks.

Also contributing to his enormous appeal is his subtle reminder of a gentler time, a black-and-white era of suave leading men who made being debonair almost an end in itself. Debonair - there's a word that has disappeared from the vocabulary. But you know what I mean. David Niven. Leslie Howard. Cary Grant. Ronald Coleman. Gene Kelly.

Movies don't have much use for those types today. Contemporary heartthrobs tend to be the latest James Dean knock-off: pretty, brooding types like Brad Pitt, Luke Perry, and (a few years ago) Ray Liotta. Tom Hanks, an enormously gifted comedy actor who possesses the sensitivity required of a romantic lead, comes closest. At the other end are the action heroes - Schwarzenegger, Willis, Stallone - who may be strong and good-looking but who look ridiculous in dinner jackets and would never be mistaken for romantic poets or intellectuals, however unpretentious. There's no denying that much of Grant's appeal is traced to that unfailing gentlemanly behavior, which, good or bad, is poorly represented in contemporary movies.

The success of Four Weddings and Sirens was something of an unforeseen fluke; Nine Months is the first film made expressly to exploit the actor's popularity. It does so, effectively, by putting him through the same sort of routine required by Four Weddings. You know - a lot of smiling, cheerful conversation and self-deprecating humor.

As I watched the appallingly lazy, pandering Nine Months, I couldn't help feeling that no matter how effectively his charm seasons this bland film, the time has come to move on. Time to challenge technique and emotions, time to let us see the actor inside the movie star, the resourceful player in Maurice and Impromptu. Time, in other words, to do something other than stand there and be Hugh Grant.

We know he is up to it. He can surely hold his own with the likes of Niven and Cary Grant, one of whom - Niven - truly was a gifted and versatile performer.

Finally, Grant must be applauded for handling his arrest with the same gentlemanly aplomb as might be expected of one of his characters. He refused to pass the blame off on police and the press, honorably admitted he had done a "bad thing," apologized to girlfriend and family. Very decent of you, old man.

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I'll have to admit that when I saw Alicia Silverstone in The Crush, my jailbait-o-meter went to the peg. That was the initial reaction. Later it became apparent that this 15-year-old had the right stuff - an ability to carry a film on her first time out in a lead.

She's back in Amy Heckerling's Clueless, and while she's now an old pro of 18 she still possesses the face of a child. She is also still very watchable, and in a sense that has little to do with sex appeal. She doesn't wear particularly sexy clothes or strike any come-hither poses, and still... Is this star quality?

Too early to tell if she's this year's Jennifer Jason Leigh, or this year's Phoebe Cates - two actresses from Heckerling's Fast Times at Ridgemont High who have scribed emphatically different career arcs. But it will be interesting to watch. n

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