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Hugh Grant: A Made Guy

He had a hit in “Notting Hill,” with the help of a certain pretty woman. But will Grant’s new film, “Mickey Blue Eyes,” be an offer we can’t refuse?

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The cynics in Hollywood are already lying in wait for Hugh Grant. Talk to any hard-nosed agent about his recent, improbable comeback — before Notting Hill he hadn’t made a movie in three years — and you can still sense a shade of doubt mixed in with the wonder. The rap goes something like this: After disappearing from the screen for a dangerously long period of time, Grant hit the romantic jackpot once again in this summer’s megahit date movie Notting Hill. Not only is it his biggest film, it’s also the first British film ever to top $100 million at the U.S. box office. But how much was Hugh Grant responsible for Notting Hill‘s success? After all, the movie did star Julia Roberts, only the most bankable actress known to mankind. And perhaps he’s a sure bet at the box office only if his movie rings all those Four Weddings and a Funeral bells. His next film will be the real test of his draw.

Well, Mr. Grant, that moment of truth has arrived. On Aug. 20, his all-important follow-up to Notting Hill, the movie that could cement his return to Hollywood, debuts. Titled Mickey Blue Eyes, the film is a fish-out-of-water story mixed with a romantic comedy. It stars Grant as a British auctioneer in New York, Jeanne Tripplehorn as his schoolteacher fiancee, and the inimitable James Caan as her father, who gets Grant’s character caught up in the family business, which just happens to be the Mob.

Put a stiff, proper, and very English Grant in the midst of the Mafia and laugh as the cultures clash. As you can imagine, it’s not the mobsters who end up running scared. ”Hugh’s a little inept at trying to be a member of the family,” says Mickey‘s director, Kelly Makin. ”He’s trying to not break his own fingers.”

Grant, 38, isn’t on the line simply as an actor. Mickey Blue Eyes is the second film that he and his shagadelic girlfriend, Elizabeth Hurley, have produced through their company, Simian Films, which has an ongoing deal with Castle Rock. (Extreme Measures, Simian’s first effort and the last movie Grant starred in before Notting Hill, pulled in a dismal $17 million in 1996.) In addition to producing Mickey, Grant also did quite a bit of rewriting, up until the last days of filming. There were also persistent rumors, and a report in Daily Variety, that Grant took a hand at directing reshoots after clashing with Makin, an assertion that both he and Makin firmly deny.

”It was a pretty big undertaking for him. He really felt a lot of pressure. So I’d try to lighten him up sometimes,” says Caan, whose idea of soothing Grant was to playfully taunt him with a rather humbling nickname during the shooting of the film. ”I used to call him Whippy,” continues Caan. ”He worries about things. That’s why I called him that. It’s short for whippet. You know, those little whippet dogs that get nervous and you gotta put a sweater on them when they’re cold.”

Whippy. Now, there’s a nickname that could haunt you if the movie doesn’t do well. Quiet. Can you hear the sound of butterflies flapping in Grant’s stomach right now?

Of course, we’re only teasing—up to a point. Grant’s career doesn’t hang in the balance because of one movie. It’s just that for some reason, we, like Caan, like most of America, get particular enjoyment out of seeing Grant squirm. Whether he’s putting up with the humiliating treatment he receives from Andie MacDowell and Julia Roberts in two of his most famous films or offering up apologies on The Tonight Show for that sordid little 1995 affair involving Divine Brown, the game has always seemed to entail watching him wiggle through it all with his affable mix of wit, charm, humility, and sincerity.

Funny, though, the Grant who’s sitting inside a chic hotel room in New York’s SoHo doesn’t appear to be wriggling. In fact, he doesn’t seem like his famously fumbling persona at all, let alone a whippet. Confidently and coolly, he’s dealing with faxes regarding the final details of the movie’s soundtrack. He’s even focusing on looking over the German, Spanish, and French versions of the film in preparation for its release abroad.

“Elizabeth is the first to say I’m the most un-bumbling person you ever met in your life. I’m capable of being quite slick myself,” he says, adding, “There are always those adjectives that make you bristle. Bumbling is one of them. Anything with an umbling. If you said humbling, I would have minded.”

Grant can take the kidding in stride right now. That’s because Mickey Blue Eyes has a chance of proving the cynics wrong. In Hollywood, the film has picked up good, if not loud, buzz. According to Castle Rock, which is releasing the film through Warner Bros., test audiences love it, particularly a somewhat out-of-character striptease in which Grant gets down to his boxers. “People on the crew were going ‘We haven’t seen Hugh like this before,'” says Makin. The scene got into the final cut only after it won laughs in early screenings.

Even some members of the typically hard-bitten British press are admitting a fondness for the film. “We dared to screen it for the British press, and their reaction has been unbelievably good,” Grant says. “They love to be mean, especially about me and Elizabeth. Their whole lifeblood has been slagging me off for years, and they said it’s a funny film.” On top of that, the film’s budget—in the mid-$30 millions—makes it a low risk given Grant’s international appeal (overseas, Four Weddings made nearly quadruple what it did in North America).

Though Castle Rock (which is owned by EW’s parent company, Time Warner) had a finished cut of Mickey Blue Eyes in the can last spring, the company decided to delay it until after Notting Hill‘s release. As even Grant admits, “we thought, Well, Notting Hill has Julia Roberts in it, so let’s put that out first.” With that film a major success—it’s grossed $112 million domestically, more than twice the take of Four Weddings—Castle Rock is counting on the audience to carry over, while Grant is feeling happy that he’s once again being respected for his work, especially after a couple of years of enduring countless jokes with his name as the punchline. “I am touched,” he says, sounding a bit more moved than even he’s letting on, “particularly in that respect.”

The scandal itself now seems to be receding as an issue. Not only is it four years past, it’s also been hugely overshadowed. After all, his full whatever happened in a BMW near Sunset Boulevard, not in the White House. Today, a clearly relieved Grant is even comfortable enough to joke a bit about his mishap and subsequent arrest. “You know, you go into airports and people run up to you, those guys who collect autographs,” says Grant, running his hand through his floppy hair and not realizing he’s left a piece of it sticking straight up. “And some of them have my mug shot, and I don’t think it strikes them as odd to come up and ask me to sign it.” So does he? “No, I say, ‘If you don’t mind, I think maybe I’ll skip that one.'”

Clearly, Grant is enjoying the start of a comeback. But what exactly is he coming back from? While the obvious answer would be the scandal, it’s not necessarily the right one. Grant’s handling of the situation is still seen as a model for how a public figure should extricate himself from a public mess. And contrary to what you’d imagine, Grant didn’t get a cold shoulder from Hollywood after it hit the front pages. “I probably got more scripts,” he says. “I certainly remember being offered 101 Dalmatians two days after,” he says. Adds Castle Rock president Martin Shafer, “As they say in The Godfather [Part II], ‘It had nothing to do with business.'”

If anything, it was a couple of disappointing films that caused his star to sink. In 1995, when the scandal broke, Fox was just weeks away from the release of Nine Months, Grant’s big entry into Hollywood filmmaking. The studio breathed a sigh of relief when the film did decent business ($70 million), but nobody thought the movie was very good. And to go from that into 1996’s lackluster Extreme Measures, in which he played a doctor who discovers a cover-up in a hospital…bad choice. “I always thought it was a fascinating script, but with the wisdom of hindsight, I realize it was only a 40 percent good marketing idea to try and put me in a medical thriller,” rues Grant. Measures also gave him his first taste of the possible downside to working as both actor and producer—seeing the audience’s response cards after test screenings. “They’d write across them, ‘It sucks,'” he recalls.

Perhaps more detrimentally, Grant segued from making poor choices in material to making no choices. For three years after Measures, he turned down almost everything his agents sent him. “I was in no hurry to be on that celebrity roundabout anymore,” he says. “It felt relaxing gradually moving out of the public eye. Suddenly, there weren’t paparazzi hiding out in the bushes. They eventually give up on you and move on to Kate Winslet or Posh Spice.”

Mostly, however, he claims he simply didn’t find anything he liked. “I only wanted to make films that I felt really grabbed me. Unfortunately, that rules out quite a lot, and you end up not working,” he says. “My agents and everyone were just going mad. Hollywood people used to take me aside at dinner parties and say, ‘It’s all very well being picky, but you can’t do this. You are shooting yourself in the foot.'” Grant did come close to making one film, however, in which he would have played, of all things, a sexaholic. Whether that would have been a ballsy or foolhardy move given his public image is now moot. The project ended up fizzling. “The only thing that’s ultimately damaging is that towards the end of the third year, if you don’t make any films, you’re clearly not hot,” he continues. “It makes it harder when you come back, since the digestive system of showbiz media is very, very fast. After Nine Months, I was somewhere high up in the stomach, and by the time I came back I was somewhere in the lower colon and in danger of, I’m sure, nudging the rectum. It was an unwise career strategy.”

Like many Brits, Grant professes to disdain ambition. For years, he’s talked about chucking it all and going back to finish a “bad novel” he started years ago. “I always get sidetracked acting in these films,” he says with well-practiced casualness. But don’t be fooled. “He’s not what he appears to be on screen. He’s not just this cute little boppy Englishman. He has a very serious side,” says costar Tripplehorn.

In fact, Grant seems to oscillate between not taking things very seriously at all and obsessively worrying night and day about every detail. While making Mickey Blue Eyes, his perfectionist side came to the fore. Even before production, he subjected the script to countless rewrites. Initially, Grant’s English auctioneer character had been a neurotic Jewish lawyer. “It was funny, but it wasn’t something I could play,” says Grant. Three new screenwriters came in to both tailor it for Grant and improve the story. (Two script doctors, Adam Scheinman and Robert Kuhn, and not the author of the original story, Marc Lawrence, ultimately received writing credit.)

Even so, Grant and Hurley still weren’t satisfied. “We were ready to take a leap and say, ‘It’s good enough,'” says Castle Rock’s Shafer. “They said, ‘We think we need another pass.'” The development lasted a year and a half. “He hadn’t starred in a film for a few years. I think that alone made it important for him,” says Makin.

Throughout the shoot, Grant constantly polished lines and refined characters. For instance, he turned one so-so dramatic scene into a model of hilarious counterpoint by introducing a toy stuffed gorilla that speaks recorded lines like “I have an opposable thumb.” “He’d send me a fax in the middle of the night. It would be four pages of script with two words changed. I’d say, ‘You can do that in the morning, don’t you think?'” remembers Caan. “I really plagued Jimmy Caan. Plagued him,” admits Grant, who had written and performed sketch comedy in his 20s in a troupe called the Jockeys of Norfolk. (Incidentally, they frequently appeared on the same bill as a duo called Mullarkey & Myers, as in Mike Myers.)

Grant and Makin both pooh-pooh stories that they locked horns during the shoot. “You read all this stuff about how I fired him and recut the movie and all that stuff and it’s simply not the case,” says Grant. “He’s the director of the film, always was and always will be.”

“I wasn’t available for the reshoot because [my wife] was having a baby,” says Makin, whose credits include the TV show The Kids in the Hall and the troupe’s movie Brain Candy. “It was very basic stuff and they followed my notes. Like all producers, Hugh certainly had his say.”

The reshoots, according to Carl Gottlieb, the DGA-sanctioned director who supervised in Makin’s absence, lasted just four days. “There wasn’t a whole lot of it,” says Gottlieb. “There were one or two page-and-a-half scenes that weren’t in the original script that were added to clarify something.”

On the set, being lead actor, producer, and writer, let alone alleged director, was enough of a burden on Grant. “It’s f—ing exhausting and stressful,” said Grant one afternoon in March 1998 as he took a short break in his trailer.

The film was then in its last two weeks of production, and in an effort to stay on schedule, everyone had been putting in loathsome hours. While Grant helped himself to a snack, Hurley busied herself about the trailer complaining about a crucial location that fell through at the last moment. “This hideous man backed out of the deal,” she said. She seemed intensely focused; Grant, meanwhile, appeared merely tortured. “I was talking to her recently about how I can’t take stress,” he says later in New York. “And she goes, ‘I love stress.’ And that’s basically the difference between us. We just had a day, the first in maybe two years, where we actually didn’t have any engagements, either social or business. And she was totally freaked. I nearly had to put her on quaaludes.”

True to form, Grant is once again feeling ambivalent about what’s next. On the one hand, he’s just jumped into a new Woody Allen movie, in which he’ll star opposite Tracey Ullman and Jon Lovitz. And his agents are pushing him to capitalize on his career’s momentum and start another big picture. But he’s also considering taking the next six months off to write a script of his own. “There’s that two-second pause before [your agents] say, ‘That sounds great,’ while they calculate how much money you’ll not be making for them,” he says. But as he reckons it, his journey back from the bowels of stardom has now comfortably landed him somewhere inside the mouth. “I’ve been regurgitated,” he says. And as usual, he manages to make it sound utterly charming.