It’s accurate to say that we don’t live in the most literate of times (no, #BookTok doesn’t count). Any expectation on someone to know what can reasonably be viewed as an “esoteric” reference outside of 2004, when Reese Witherspoon starred in the Mira Nair-directed adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, isn’t exactly realistic. But to a quintessential British/literary snob like Hugh Grant, it ostensibly is. Indeed, Grant is part of that unique, ever-dwindling sect of “erudite,” hoity-toity Brits who have bifurcated off from the other stereotype of Britishness: drunk, daft bastards with the “working-class” tendency to never pick up any book whatsoever.
Whatever “class” Grant subscribes to, he was both cruel and decidedly chauvinistic in his treatment of Ashley Graham, the “plus size” model tasked with interviewing the surly actor on the red carpet before the Oscars ceremony this year. Grant, of course, could have easily walked on by without engaging at all… instead of standing there for a few minutes… not really engaging. In truth, it might have been another British curse that landed him in that position: the obligation to be “polite.” Apropos of Britishness, the sole defense of Grant’s “manner” has been that it’s just “a British thing”—being a bit of a cunt, that is. And it’s not as though this is any kind of new “revelation” about Grant (or the “breed of Brit” he represents). After all, it was Robert Downey Jr. who once said of the rom-com darling (after co-starring with him in Restoration), “I kinda think he’s a jerk… My personal experience with him is I think he’s this kind of self-important, kind of, like, boring flash-in-the-pan asshole Brit.” For once, someone got as blunt as Grant.
A bluntness that perhaps allows Grant to be able to determine (occasionally) when he’s not well-liked by a co-star, having remarked of working with Drew Barrymore, “Drew I think did hate me a bit… She was very L.A. and I was an old grumpy Londoner. The funny thing is, although it was fractionally tense on the set of that film, I think the chemistry is rather good between us. Sometimes tension makes a good crackle.” There was no such crackle generated from the tension between him and Ashley Graham, so much as a thunderous thud. Perhaps she was “very L.A.” as well, in that Grant found her to be inherently superficial for deigning to participate in the event at all, despite willingly doing the same himself. The “viable” reason for showing up, of course, was to present the award for Best Production Design with former co-star Andie MacDowell. It was during his little presenter speech that he at least had the decency to refer to himself as a “scrotum” when he said, “We’re actually here to do two things. First is to raise awareness about the vital importance of using a good moisturizer. Andie has been wearing one every day for the last twenty-nine years, I’ve never used one in my life.” He then points to her and says, “Still stunning” before then motioning back to himself and declaring, “Basically a scrotum.” He has that part right on a more figurative level for sure.
Of course, Grant is clearly someone who grapples with his own superficiality being at war with his pseudo-intellectualism. But, usually, no matter who you are, that war is always won by the “frivolous.” Something Los Angeles has come to embody to Grant (and so many others) over the years—most overtly when he decided to pick up a prostitute in Hollywood (perhaps he should have been the one to star in Pretty Woman AND Notting Hill with Julia Roberts). That simultaneously sheepish yet annoyed look on Grant’s face immortalized in his mugshot after paying Divine Brown for services rendered is something akin to what was seen in his expression while talking to Graham. Save for the moment where he stared at her in disbelief over not getting his Vanity Fair reference, like she was the stupid git in this exchange. Something about it all harkened back to the years when Britney Spears was also made to look generally vapid by the men she was forced to interact with on TV. There is, needless to say, a longstanding tradition of men going out of their way to make women feel “lesser than” for their so-called lack of intellectual prowess. That, undoubtedly, all they have an “aptitude” for is giggling mindlessly and painting their faces.
From the moment Graham tried to kill Grant with kindness in her approach, he was off-put. She began by noting, “You are a veteran of the Oscars.” Grant’s reaction is similar to Trump’s oft-memed scoffing eye roll before Graham continued, “And you’ve been here a few times. What’s your favorite thing about coming to the Oscars?” Grant bumbled, “Uhhhhh” then paused for several more eternal seconds before saying, “Well, um…it’s fascinating. It’s, um, the whole of humanity is here. It’s Vanity Fair.” With the literary reference going right over her head like a lead weight, she chimed in (foolishly thinking she had stumbled upon some kind of common ground with Grant to grasp at), “Oh it’s all about Vanity Fair. Yes, that’s where we let loose and have a little bit of fun.” Because, that’s right, she assumed he was talking about the beloved Oscar after-party thrown by the magazine of the same name.
While he stares at her as though he genuinely can’t believe how unlearned she is, Graham carries on, “What are you most excited to see tonight?” But it’s too late, he’s shut down entirely, writing her off as a proverbial dumb bitch for making an innocent mistake that was especially understandable within the context of this event. Yet it seems to confirm something for Grant: he has no idea why he keeps participating in this vacuity juggernaut. Persisting in trying to get more than essentially one-word answers out of him, Graham goes for the classic, “What are you wearing tonight then?” Giving nothing back yet again, Grant replies, “Just my suit.” She tries one more time to level with him by inquiring about how it was to act in Glass Onion, but that query is met with an even worse fate than all the rest when Grant rebuffs, “Well, I’m barely in it. I’m in it for about three seconds.” Graham, as though to say, “Throw me a fuckin’ bone here, asshole,” reminds, “Yeah, but still, you showed up and you had fun, right?” Grant remains ever-resistant to admitting that he enjoys the “superficial” industry of which he’s a part of by responding, “Uhhh, almost.”
Graham, finally surrendering to the impossibility of making this interview a success, concludes, “Okay, alright. Well, thank you so much. It was nice to talk to you.” “Yeah,” he says with condescension as he rolls his eyes and looks around for someone he can give the mic back to. For Graham had lost all credibility with Grant when she couldn’t correctly process his Thackeray allusion (funnily enough, the name of Grant’s character in Notting Hill is William Thacker…maybe a selling point for him to take on the role because it seemed like a “clever nod” to the author).
Regardless of Grant’s (or anyone else’s) opinion of Graham’s literacy, chalking it all up to “sarcasm” or “British dryness” simply isn’t a tenable excuse for making someone who’s just trying to do their job feel like shit. There’s being “smart,” “well-read,” etc. and there’s being a total asshole who thinks they’re better than most because they’ve read some novels that the large majority wouldn’t bother with. Thackeray, incidentally, was also the type of cunt who excluded people from being “in on the joke” by expecting them to understand his references automatically. If not, they obviously weren’t “worthy” of him or his work (maybe it is a British thing). Which is why he anticipated that readers would comprehend on their own that Vanity Fair was a place taken from John Bunyan’s 1678 Christian allegory, Pilgrim’s Process. In it, the town called Vanity holds a never-ending fair, serving as a manifestation of humanity’s grotesque attachment to the temporal and material. Thackeray repurposed the religious overtones of Vanity Fair within that context in such a way so that his novel has evolved into its own allegory—a “showcase for celebrity, wealth and power,” as it is said in Kirsty Milne’s At Vanity Fair: From Bunyan to Thackeray.
But whatever incarnation of “Vanity Fair” it is (Bunyan’s or Thackeray’s), Grant is just as guilty of conceit as Graham for appearing at the event. Yet he still had the gall to believe himself somehow superior to her, by virtue of his “intellect” alone. Ironically enough, it was in Vanity Fair that Thackeray wrote both, “Never lose a chance of saying a kind word” and “[It is] argue(d) that because a woman is handsome, therefore she is a fool.” Both sentiments applying quite sharply to this brief blip in pop culture-meets-literary history.