If an honest history about classical music on the big screen were to be written, the laurels for greatest performance would go to an actor many would consider undeserving of the honor. In fact, most wouldn’t even think of him at all. I’m talking, of course, about none other than that loveable master of self-effacing charm, bumbling bonhomie, and buoyantly melancholic repartee, Hugh Grant.
This year marks the silver anniversary—now nearly passed, astonishingly!, without comment or commemoration—of his definitive turn as Frederic Chopin in James Lapine’s 1991 comedy Impromptu. The film is set at a house party in the French countryside at which the infamous novelist George Sand (Judy Davis) tries to seduce the great Polish pianist while navigating through a flotilla of her former lovers, including none other than Franz Liszt (Julian Sands).
In his early thirties when he appeared in Impromptu, Grant gave us a pale and haughty genius, seemingly self-assured yet painfully fragile beneath the façade, and not just because of his hacking ill health. As the rigid yet passionate composer-pianist, Grant has never been funnier or truer. He makes Cornel Wilde’s portrayal of Chopin in the 1945 A Song to Remember look like an eager, impetuous skateboarder in frock coat and high-riding breeches.
Ever the self-deprecator, Grant often claims in interviews not to be acting on screen but simply to be playing some version of himself; when forced to resort to theatrical subterfuge he is increasingly beset by panic attacks. His Chopin was back then, four years before his breakout in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and still today, a long way from his home pitch of the cute English schoolboy grown up into sex symbol.
Grant’s musical role might have unsettled him in 1991, too, for the brilliance of his Impromptu is to be gauged by the difficulty one has in determining whether he’s deliciously overacting with his stilted faux-Polish accent or whether he’s damping down the coals to a low smolder.
The answer is that he’s doing both. An austere Grant is a hilarious Grant, as when informs the cross-dressing Sand, who has broken into his bedroom: “Rumor has it that you are a woman and so I must ask you to leave my private chambers.” Or there is the poise of his outrage at an irreverent, hastily arranged farce put on in the chateau’s theater. Chopin provides scene-setting music from the piano, but indignantly stands up from the keyboard as things degenerate on stage, proclaiming with that goofy accent: “I want no further part in this production.” And what of the morose hilarity he squeezes from his stony response to an invitation to join in a game of croquet: “I do not really like the sun.”
When the Hugh Grant retrospectives begin to be scheduled at future international film festivals and cinematic institutes, Impromptu will make a winning double-bill with this year’s Florence Forest Jenkins directed by Stephen Frears. The movie is about a New York society hostess, who in the 1940s accumulated a cult following for her excruciatingly bad singing, and for whom it was apparently unclear whether she realized her fans found her performances ridiculous, or whether she plunged ahead for comic effect, abetted by the belief that any form of adulation, even one based on humiliation, was worth basking in.
Such was the extent of her popularity, and perhaps also the delusional faith in her own abilities, that she booked Carnegie Hall in October of 1944, quickly selling the place out. Up till then, she had controlled the make-up of her audiences at private concerts in her apartment and an annual soirée at the Ritz-Carlton, while also planting the loopily benign reviews (many of which may have been written by her or her loyal coterie). But with her appearance at New York City’s most celebrated venue for classical music open to the general public she could no longer manage the press. The notices were scathing, and she died as the result of a heart attack a month later.
In the lead role, Meryl Streep is a talented singer in her own right with vocal turns in Mamma Mia! and last year’s return-of-the-rock-‘n-roller flick, Ricki and the Flash directed by Jonathan Demme. In Stephen Frear’s movie Streep has to sing badly in nine of Jenkins’s numbers, including the likes of Queen’s of the Night coloratura aria from Mozart’s “Magic Flute.” What is remarkable is how good Streep is at being bad: she seems not only to have learned the original as best she could, but then has mastered Jenkins’s versions—or at least virtuosically traces the lineaments of her appalling, intensely captivating style. It’s true that imitating someone such as Joan Sutherland, would be a lot harder, indeed impossible: that level of technical achievement cannot be faked. But Jenkins’s sound was unique, exceedingly personal, and Streep’s ability to capture the mix of laughably off-key notes and dire coloratura screeches, with pristine moments of naïve beauty is in itself an impressive feat.
Grant plays the dotty doyenne’s younger husband and manager, St.Clair Bayfield. He’s charged with making sure that her bubble is not punctured. He does this not only because she funds his lifestyle (including setting him up in his own apartment which he stocks with much younger mistress), but also because he actually, truly, really loves her.
Twenty-five years on from his Chopin tour-de-force, Grant is a fair piece jowlier and more jaded, rinklier and more rheumy-eyed. Back then he was a perfect fit for the thin Pole, just as now he so naturally inhabits the part of the paunchy British ex-pat. Bayfield is a failed actor, who, like his future wife, sometimes had to have the negative reviews hidden from him. In Florence Grant plays not the artist but the fixer and faker: all is compromise and ambiguity, instead the Romantic’s absolute art.
Forcing oneself to believe the fiction of one’s life is a metaphor for acting, and there is no more expert practitioner than Grant with his self-professed self-doubts. Within the world of this film, and in accordance with his own image as the non-acting actor, Grant enthralls with his determination not to let uncertainty, and with it despair, overtake him. The task is all-the-more heroic because we see the shadows occasionally pass across his face, as when he watches from the wings as Jenkins makes her fateful Carnegie Hall entrance.
His world, like his wife’s supposed ascent to self-diagnosed high Fs, is always on the verge of collapse. In suavely striding down the parquet precipice of Jenkins’s sumptuous midtown apartment and the other crags of high society with doom yawning to either side, Grant shows us that art hovers between illusion and reality.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com.)