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How Hugh Grant Wants To Make You Rethink Tabloid Culture

British actor Hugh Grant attends a fringe meeting during the Conservative Party Conference at Manchester Central on October 4, 2011.
Jeff J. Mitchell
Getty Images
British actor Hugh Grant attends a fringe meeting during the Conservative Party Conference at Manchester Central on October 4, 2011.

From a pop culture perspective, Hugh Grant's testimony yesterday about ethics in journalism is a fascinating step for a guy who's already had a pretty interesting trajectory.

We traced the Grant history back in 2009, but here's a refresher: For mainstream American audiences, he popped up in 1994's Four Weddings And A Funeral, playing the adorable, flopsy-haired Charles, who had a halting manner but a giant heart of gold and could barely bring himself to speak to pretty women he didn't know. After that very good performance, he did good guys in dull movies like Nine Months, with Julianne Moore, which may be one of the bigger wastes of acting talent you'll ever see.

Of course, in the summer of 1995, a couple of weeks before the release of Nine Months, he was arrested in public with a prostitute, which made the publicity for the film a tiny bit awkward and led to the very famous Jay Leno interview that opened with the question, "What the hell were you thinking?"

After that, things slowed down until about the time he made the Julia Roberts romcom Notting Hill, which is conventional but has considerable charm — and in which he's still doing the sweet, stammering dreamboat.

But the really important moment came in 2001, when he quite fabulously played the unapologetic cad in Bridget Jones's Diary who lost the girl to Colin Firth. It became clear at that point that at least a dash of the guy you hate yourself for liking was very flattering to him. After that, it's been mostly jerks or partial jerks — in the witty About A Boy, in the silly Two Weeks Notice with Sandra Bullock, and in Music And Lyrics with Drew Barrymore. For a guy who started out being cast over and over as a sentimental bumbler, he turned out to be a really great lovable jackass.

[Note: This does not always work. See the Sarah Jessica Parker stinker Did You Hear About The Morgans? Or, actually, do not see it.]

Now, as All Things Considered reports, he's become the primary celebrity activist in Britain's phone hacking scandal. He testified yesterday about a break-in at his apartment, about a story he doesn't believe could have been sourced other than through listening to his voicemail, and when confronted with the theory that it's fair game to investigate a celebrity trading on his good name, he made the rather blunt and observant comment, "I wasn't aware I traded on my good name. I mean, I've never had a good name, and it's made absolutely no difference at all."

Associated Newspapers, which owns the Daily Mail and The Mail On Sunday, the papers Grant accused yesterday, denies Grant's allegations, which they call "mendacious smears driven by his hatred of the media."

Grant stepped into all of this quite a while ago, getting a lot of attention back in April for publishing a transcript of a conversation he secretly taped with a former journalist talking about phone hacking.

Whatever does or doesn't eventually come to light about what happened to Hugh Grant specifically, he makes an intriguing spokesperson for celebrities who feel assaulted by the tabloid press. He doesn't make nearly as potentially emotional a witness as the family of Milly Dowler, a murdered girl whose phone was hacked and some of her voicemails deleted by an investigator for Rupert Murdoch's News Of The World, leading her parents to believe she might be alive.

At the same time, he represents more of the day-to-day business of celebrity gossip that doesn't have the same breathtaking consequences as Dowler's situation.

And he does it as a guy who came clean about being caught with a prostitute. In that case, he seems to have taken his medicine. It's easy to say, "Well, if you don't want attention, don't play the celebrity game," but if it's true that someone representing a segment of the press was behind breaking into his apartment, that would be a little different, no? And as important as it is to separate actors and roles, the fact that his persona has presented him at times as both a likable guy and a bit of a heel may make it easier for him not to seem pious when he makes this argument — he's not claiming these intrusions are unfair because he's lived an exemplary life.

While a cute movie star may hope to make an effective spokesperson for more regulation or for prosecution of wrongdoers, perhaps what makes Hugh Grant's participation most relevant is that his likability and articulation of the intrusions that he says he's suffered puts the question not only to legislators and investigators, but also to the public. Whatever responsibility lies with paparazzi engaging in these acts, and whatever responsibility lies with those who are in charge of regulating or prosecuting them, listening to a guy like Hugh Grant explain the experience of coming home to a vandalized apartment may be most effective, if his testimony is widely accepted, as a challenge to the marketplace.

Right now, as a guy who's seen both the ups and the downs of publicity and celebrity, Grant is presenting the case that there are consequences to an insatiable appetite for private details about people. Published reports quote testimony from him that was funny and good-natured, but also forceful and sometimes pained.

If indeed reporting has become as intrusive as he claims it has, then it's for one segment of his audience to decide whether they want to outlaw it or punish it. But it's for another segment of his audience to decide whether they want to purchase the product of it. Many would say they aren't paying for the Milly Dowler story — they just want the fun stuff. The celebrity stuff. But what Hugh Grant seems to be saying that while some intrusions cause more damage than others, it's all of a piece, and once there's a competitive market for intrusion, those lines become hard to draw.

And whether he's right or whether he's wrong, his becoming an advocate for fair treatment of celebrities by the press is not exactly what one might have expected back in the "What the hell were you thinking?" days.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.