The Big Break: Hugh Grant Made Film Debut in Privileged 40 Years Ago

40 years ago, Hugh Grant made his film debut in 1982’s “Privileged,” a little-seen effort about undergraduates at Oxford (where Grant studied English lit), which was funded by the Oxford University Film Foundation. In its July 14, 1982, review, Variety said the film — which also marked the bows of Imogen Stubbs, James Wilby and composer Rachel Portman — would have “limited interest” for most audiences but that the actor, billed as Hughie Grant, gives a convincing performance as an “aristocratic dropout.”

For the next five years, Grant did sketch comedy, played the classics onstage and worked in TV; his first mention in Variety was for the 1985 miniseries “Jenny’s War,” playing the RAF pilot son of Dyan Cannon.

He boosted his profile with the 1987 Merchant-Ivory film “Maurice,” adapted from E.M. Forster. The film also featuring his “Privileged” costar Wilby and the two shared the best-actor prize at the Venice Film Festival.

Grant seemed fated for a career in period films, such as “White Mischief,” “The Lair of the White Worm,” “Impromptu” (as Chopin), “Remains of the Day” and “Sense and Sensibility.”

A turning point came in 1994 with the hit “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” Variety described Grant’s persona as “a charming bumbler with natural elegance, wit and good looks but who suffers from self-doubts.” That set the tone for his subsequent romantic comedies, including “Notting Hill” (1999), “Two Weeks’ Notice,” cult fave “Love, Actually,” and “Music and Lyrics” (which gave him a chance to sing and dance hilariously in neo-‘80s style). He had one of his best roles in the serio-comic “About a Boy” (2002). He also played charming cads in “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” “An Awfully Big Adventure” and “American Dreamz,” among others.

Throughout his success, Grant fostered the off-screen image of a grumpy and self-deprecatory misfit, saying film acting is “a miserable experience” and “I’m a nasty piece of work.” He became a favorite of British tabloids with quotes like “I don’t particularly like babies,” even though he has fathered five children.

However, he showed his serious side in key battles such as Brexit and in helping expose the corruption in the tabloid News of the World, which hacked celebrity phones, including Grant’s. In 2012, a year after NOTW ceased publication, he was given a “substantial sum” in damages; he donated it to Hacked Off, devoted to promoting responsible reporting. His Twitter name is @HackedOffHugh and a decade later, he’s still working for ethics in journalism and frequently tweets on political issues.

In the 21st century, Grant gained new fans with a series of interesting choices. That includes the Wachowskis’ “Cloud Atlas”; a subtle and warm turn as Meryl Streep’s supportive husband in “Florence Foster Jenkins” (2016); and Variety said he offered a “shriekingly funny self-parody” in “Paddington 2” (2017) as a master-of-disguise criminal.

Returning to TV, he continued to stretch himself, in the fact-based “A Very English Scandal” (2018) and as a murder suspect in “The Undoing” (2020) with Nicole Kidman. Among upcoming projects is Guy Ritchie’s “Operation Fortune,” where he plays a billionaire arms dealer targeted by Jason Statham.

Breakthrough: Film “Privileged” 1982

First mention in Variety: “Jenny’s War” review, 1985

Bigscreen turning point: “Four Weddings and a Funeral” (1994)

Accomplishments: One BAFTA win (four noms), BAFTA/LA Brittania Award (2003), one Golden Globe (of six noms), Honorary Cesar Award, four SAG noms, two Emmy noms; according to boxofficemojo, his films have earned $3 billion.

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